The 1950 advertisements said it all: “An entirely standard production Jaguar Super Sports XK120 was timed at 132.6 mph by official observation.” That wasn’t exactly true; the record car had a higher axle ratio, along with a single aero screen, a metal tonneau cover, and an underpan for aerodynamics. Handmade 1948-49 aluminum-body XK120s were dream cars materialized, so desirable that the planned 200-car run extended to 240 units. Made in pressed steel from 1950 to 1954, XK120 production topped 12,000.
The true top speed was barely the 120 mph suggested by its name, yet nothing else at the time came close. Steel roadsters cost $4039 in 1951, when the average U.S. price of a new car was $1500 and a new house cost $9000. XK120 styling was clearly a crib of the pudgy 1940 BMW Mille Miglia, but not-yet-Sir William Lyons made his design longer, tauter, and more dramatic, a true icon. It looked wonderful with rear fender skirts and even better without them for wire-wheeled XK120Ms. The supremely elegant but too-slim grille led to overheating everywhere outside damp Britain. A coupe was added to the range, then a “drophead coup” with roll-up windows.
The XK120’s twin-cam six-cylinder won Le Mans five times in the XK120 C- and D-type prototypes. The XK120 inspired the , which copied all its salient dimensions and was a major influence on sports car design for a decade. XKs moved Jaguar from being a small player in the British home market to a major force in the world, the marque most envied by rivals and most cherished by owners unbowed by dismal reliability.