Iconic Cars Of The Past

Some of the most beautiful machines ever built

No. 4 - Jaguar XK120

Jaguar XK120 image

The Jaguar XK120, one of the most gorgeous cars ever produced, was not even meant to be mass-produced at first. When the first display car was unveiled at the 1948 London Motor Show the intention was merely to showcase the new six cylinder XK engine; a hardy, reliable power plant with twin overhead camshafts and an aluminium cylinder head. Whilst the engine did indeed attract a lot of attention, the car itself caused a sensation, and Jaguar chairman William Lyons decided to put it into production. Matinee idol Clark Gable was reputed to be the first to buy one, followed quickly by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall!

Where did the name comes from? The first production cars had wooden frames and aluminium body panels, over a steel chassis; when the windscreen was removed a top speed of 120 mph was possible. Hence the designation 120. A prototype with a small purpose made windscreen later achieved just over 132 mph on a Belgian motorway. Whether conventional cars with steel body work (which added about a hundredweight) could achieve the same results was questioned, but the fact was that on the racetrack, whether speed or endurance was a deciding factor, the Jaguar was pretty much without parallel. Such racing legends as Phil Hill and Stirling Moss had their first successes in this car and race tuned models proved capable of averaging over 100 mile an hour for a whole week.

Building this car was a huge gamble for Jaguar. World War II had just ended and Britain was clouded by austerity. Raw materials, including steel were in extremely short supply; perhaps one of the reasons why the first XK120s had aluminium (which was previously being used for aircraft production) bodies. Financial success could only come through export, and the majority of the 12,000 models that were finally produced were left hand drive variants, which were exported to the United States, and very few found their way onto the home market. The fact that petrol quality in Britain at the time was so poor that the engine had to be de-tuned to run on it didn't help at all.

However, for a vehicle which was only expected to sell in the low hundreds, these sales figures represented a huge success for a British built car that sold for around half the cost of a Ferrari with a similar specification. Furthermore the bullet-proof engine gained Jaguar a reputation for quality which it enjoyed for decades.


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