Collectible Classic: 1949-1954 Jaguar XK120

Matt Tierney

"Nothing on the road was more dramatic," design editor Robert Cumberford wrote of the Jaguar XK120 in his 2004 book Auto Legends: Classics of Style and Design. A young Cumberford, having ridden Los Angeles public transportation for two hours just to catch a glimpse of an XK120 at a dealership, was graciously allowed to sit in actor Clark Gable's brand-new Jaguar by the man himself. "Imagine the impression that made on a boy too young to drive -- but realize that the car itself was even more impressive."

The XK120 is just as awe-inspiring sixty-some years later. We'd admired Lee Jacobsen's 1953 roadster, pictured here, from the other side of the rope at car shows for a few years before finally looking past the Jag's gorgeous lines and noticing that his car is actually in kind of rough shape.

"This is my Home Depot car," Jacobsen says matter-of-factly. The handlebar-mustached, sixty-four-year-old Detroiter sometimes uses his XK120 to run errands on sunny winter days or to go on parts runs for some of his other vintage cars, which include several MGs and Packards as well as his first car, a Triumph TR3B. The owner of Jacobsen Industries, an automotive supplier that his father founded in 1946, Lee restored many of those cars. "I do all the work myself -- for the fun of it, not to save money," he says. "My favorite part is the painting." The crown jewel is an exquisite, immense 1938 MG SA Tickford convertible that he finished recently.

So why not restore this Jaguar, which he roused from a thirty-year garaged hibernation in the mid-1990s? "Some cars deserve to be preserved as they are. On this one, the British racing green paint is cracked and polished through in spots but looks decent. I like to call it patina."

Such authentic, original patina is indeed becoming ever more popular both at car shows and on auction blocks. But patina isn't quite so charming, it turns out, when it gets in your eyes. That's what happened when small fragments of the dry-rotted seatback leather became airborne while we drove the car at about 55 mph. ("The interior's days are certainly numbered," Jacobsen admits.)

Jacobsen claims that the car -- if not the upholstery -- is stable at 110 mph. That's no surprise. After all, the numerals in the XK120's name referred to its promised (and astronomical, for the late 1940s) top speed in miles per hour. The car's smooth lines and brand-new, high-tech engine gave Jaguar the confidence to so boldly name the car before it had been fully tested. In the weeks leading up to the 1948 London motor show, the moniker seemed harmless because Jaguar had built a single XK120 roadster to serve merely as a BMW 328-inspired display case for the new XK engine that was destined for the concern's hugely important upcoming Mark VII sedan. Jaguar boss and founder William Lyons designed the XK120 -- without a sketch pad -- in just two weeks, working closely with a panel beater who shaped the aluminum and attached it to a shortened Mark V chassis. The show car's curvaceous skin drew so much attention that Lyons had little choice but to put the XK120 into production.

There was little worry, though, that the Jag would fall short of its heady velocity claim. The 3442-cc in-line six-cylinder had a robust seven-bearing crankshaft and an iron block beneath an aluminum cylinder head, chain-driven overhead camshafts, and a beautiful intake manifold designed by induction wizard Harry Weslake. Its 160 hp made it the most powerful production engine available in Europe upon its launch. In May 1949, not long before the XK120 began series production, a Jaguar test driver proved to the assembled media that the car's eponymous top speed was genuine, achieving a terminal velocity of 132.6 mph and making it the world's fastest nonsupercharged production car.

Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before the XK120 started to capture checkered flags on the racetrack -- including in its first attempt, at Silverstone, in August 1949. A couple of young drivers who went on to international fame -- Phil Hill and Stirling Moss -- successfully campaigned XK120s in the early days, and the model spawned the legendary Le Mans-winning C- and D-type Jaguars. The car's spectacular top speed had more practical applications, too, at least in the case of Colonel T. H. Trevor. The colonel used an ex-racing XK120 to visit Imperial outposts in enemy territory during the Malayan Emergency in 1952 and fully appreciated the car's great potential for speed. The Jag's short stature meant that it could squeeze beneath wire barricades, and owner-added Thompson submachine guns helped further ensure that its beautiful bodywork never got shot up.

Outstanding handling -- for the 1950s, at least -- surely didn't hurt, either. Jacobsen happily showed off his Jaguar's impressive capacity for roadholding, aided by Dunlop radial tires. The substantial chrome grab handle for the passenger seems very appropriate, because this must have felt like Buck Rogers' space ship when new. Ride quality is firm and very sporty by period standards, yet driving the XK120 today, although fun, is a bit cumbersome. Clutch-pedal travel is very long, and the brake pedal is positioned much closer to the driver than the other two. Jacobsen's car is a 180-hp SE model, so the addition of fanlike wire wheels and the subtraction of rear fender skirts improves braking performance, but the drum brakes' effectiveness remains average for a '50s car, which is to say horrible by 2012 standards. Despite the leverage gained from the huge, hollow-steel wheel, the steering requires significant driver inputs -- more so than with smaller vintage sports cars. So does the stiff gearbox; fortunately, its throws are wonderfully short and positive. You shift because you want to -- the torquey straight six happily pulls from 10 mph in top gear. The engine sounds quiet, smooth, and nicely throaty, and a decidedly feline purr is audible at idle.

The Jaguar's very narrow track accentuates its long, slender lines, which are evocative of its namesake cat. The exterior design dictates a very narrow cabin, but scalloped doors make it feel less cramped. The driver's perspective is awesome: bulging fenders capped by corner marker lamps blend into headlamps and a long hood. Topping off the enlightening experience is a typical vintage-British-car smell, which can be likened to that of a small, oily boat.

Cumberford, dazzled by Clark Gable's XK so long ago, deserves the final word: "When modernized -- as our beloved [late contributor] Phil Llewellin's XK120 was -- with disc brakes and a less primitive gearbox than the original four-speed, an XK120 can stand with any modern car on today's roads. And look better than 98 percent of all new cars without even trying."

THE SPECS

Engine 3.4L DOHC I-6, 150-210 hp, 195-213 lb-ft
Transmission4-speed manual
Drive Rear-wheel
Suspension, front Control arms, torsion bars
Suspension, rear Live axle, leaf springs
Brakes Drums
Weight 2920-3060 lb

THE INFO

Years produced 1949-1954
Number produced12,055 (244 aluminum-bodied roadsters, 7368 steel-bodied roadsters, 2678 coupes, and 1765 convertibles)
Original price $3945 (1949)
Value today $80,000-$110,000 (steel-bodied roadsters; aluminum-bodied roadsters are worth three or four times that); $50,000-$75,000 (coupes); $65,000-$85,000 (drophead coupes)
Why Buy?
Just look at it. Roadsters (like Jacobsen's) are the original XKs, but more luxurious and weatherproof yet still highly attractive coupes (from 1951) and convertibles (from 1953) offer additional choices. The "XK" engine remained in production with very few changes until the mid-1980s, so be wary of swapped engines. Compared with other cars from the early 1950s, the long-legged XK120 feels less out of place in modern traffic. Racing pedigree and a surprising amount of stowage space are added bonuses.

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