History of the 1951 - 1954 Jaguar XK120
The Jaguar XK120 was a sports-tourer built between 1949 and 1954. It is a front-engine, rear wheel drive car that was available in roadster (‘Open Two-Seater’ or OTS), fixed-head coupe (FHC), and later as a drop-head coupe (DHC). It was unveiled at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Showin London to immediate critical acclaim. A total of 7,631 roadsters were built, 2,678 FHC and 1,769 DHC.
The Jaguar XK 120 began life as an experimental coupe – the “100” – built in 1938 with the same long hood and sloping tail. But after WW2 it was modernised with the familiar oval grille and faired-in headlights. Sir William Lyons initially intended the XK120 to be a low-volume, aluminium-bodied sports car, but when the first 243 alloy cars quickly sold, he instructed that production was to continue, although using steel bodies. The initial roadster was followed by a fixed-head coupe in 1951 and a drop head coupe in 1953.
The “120” in the XK 120 OTS (Open Two Seater) was to signify the car’s top speed, but all were faster than that. Factory driver Ron Sutton was timed at 141.51 mph in a car with the windshield removed, on a public road in Jabekke, Belgium. The standard XK120 could do 0-60 mph in 9 seconds, very fast for the day and the SE version boasted 180 bhp, giving a top speed of 132 mph.
The Jaguar XK120 was also a successful racing car. It was campaigned hard in Alpine rallies by Ian Appleyard, and later by John Pearson who raced one until 1970, complete with plastic body and a 290 bhp motor. Jaguar sent three stock XK 120s to compete at the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours, but they were plagued by brake fade, overheating and other mechanical troubles. However, the experience led directly to the development of the space-frame C-Type, which would win Le Mans in 1951 and 1953.
Jaguar did consider making a smaller engine version for the home market, with a 2-litre four-cylinder engine, with a BMW/Bristol system of pushrods, to be called the XK100. But it was deemed an unworthy successor to the SS 100, and the sole example was scrapped.
Aluminium-bodied XK 120 roadsters cost many times more than steel-bodied car, a testament to their rarity. All were exported, so any in the UK have found their way back from overseas. However there were a handful of pre-production press cars, which were supposed to have been destroyed and it possible that one or two bodies were saved.
The XK 120 is the quintessential design, and subsequent XK 140 and XK 150 designs were compromised, with bigger bumpers and higher cowls and eventually a one-piece windshield. However they were fitted with better brakes (the XK 150 got discs), rack-and-pinion steering and superior cooling systems, so it’s a trade-off. As always, insist on detailed provenance, and check very carefully for rust and botched repairs. Thankfully, the cars were always prized and good original examples can still be found.
Similar Jaguars include the later XK140 and XK150 cars, and the Jaguar E-Type. Other roadsters from the same period include the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe and 300SL roadster, the Alfa Romeo 1900 CSS and the Ferrari 250 Europa GT.