“We claimed 120mph (for the XK120), a speed unheard of for a production car in those days” - William Heynes, Chief Engineer, Jaguar Cars.
Created to go (well) beyond the ordinary. We are talking about the Jaguar XK120, which is still the spyder par excellence for many Gentlemen Drivers, perfect balance between elegant lines and engine power. A luxury sports car that declares its uniqueness right from its name, due to the record which simply allowed it to change history: 120 as 120 mph (equivalent to 193 km/h), the miles per hour that in the post-war period crowned it the fastest production car in the world.
Conceived and constructed in but a few months, the XK120 debuted at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show where the stunning-looking roadster caused a sensation, the resulting demand for what was then the world's fastest production car taking Jaguar by surprise. With orders rolling in apace, Jaguar had no choice but to think again about the XK120's method of construction; the task for Jaguar boss William Lyons was then to reinvent one of the most beautiful shapes ever to grace a motor car.
The body had been conceived as a coachbuilt, aluminium panelled structure for the simple reason that Jaguar expected to sell no more than 200 XK120s in the first year! In conjunction with the Pressed Steel Fisher Company a new all-steel panelled body was developed, which retained the fabulous looks of the coachbuilt original while differing in minor external details. Beneath the skin the steel car was entirely different and it would take some 20 months of development before manufacture could begin.
The XK120's heart was, of course, the fabulous XK engine, which had been developed during the war and was intended for Jaguar's forthcoming Mark VII saloon. A 3.4-litre 'six' embodying the best of modern design, it boasted twin overhead camshafts running in an aluminium-alloy cylinder head, seven main bearings and a maximum output of 160bhp.
It went into a chassis that was essentially a shortened version of the simultaneously announced Mark V saloon's, featuring William Heynes' torsion bar independent front suspension. Jaguar lost no time in demonstrating that the XK120's claimed top speed was no idle boast. In May 1949, on the Jabbeke to Aeltre autoroute, an example with its hood and side screens in place recorded a speed of 126mph and 132mph with the hood and windscreen detached and an under-tray fitted.
The XK120 set new standards of comfort, roadholding and performance for British sports cars and, in keeping with the Jaguar tradition, there was nothing to touch it at the price. Coupé and drophead coupé versions followed, and for customers who found the standard car too slow, there was the Special Equipment (SE) package which boosted power to 180bhp. With either engine and regardless of the type of bodywork, the XK120 was a genuine 120mph car capable of sustained high-speed cruising.
The XK120 was produced until 1954 and would prove to be the most popular of the XK series, with 12,078 examples built, of which only 1,175 were right-hand drive roadsters.
Out of production but not out of market, the XK120 went definitely out of catalog only in 1961, leaving room for a more than worthy stylish heir: our beloved E-Type. Icon by icon, for a style that never fades.
Words and pictures © Bonhams