Sleek and sensuous, the XK left its mark on automotive design and performance.
No matter what we did, the 1953 Jaguar XK120 fixed-head coupe refused to fire up.
The then 17-year-old sports car wouldn’t run and the asking price had been reduced to just a few hundred dollars, not including the tow back to my friend’s parents house where it languished in the car port.
My friend knew nothing about repairing Jaguars, or any other vehicle for that matter. But we both considered the car’s sweeping front fenders, teardrop roofline and delicately finned grille to be a work of art.
Encouraged by his parents’ adamant desire to reclaim their parking space, my friend reluctantly parted with his treasure. He made a small return on his original investment, but surrendered ownership of one of the most significant and beautiful post-Second World War designs ever created.
The XK120 was originally conceived by Sir William Lyons, who founded Jaguar in 1922. Lyons, a former motorcycle sidecar manufacturer, did most of the planning for the car during the Second World War, and introduced a roadster version in 1948.
The car’s numerical designation was, in fact, a guarantee that the XK would reach a top speed of 120 mph. To deliver the promise of exceptional performance, an all-new 3.4-liter inline-six-cylinder engine was developed. Sir William specified that it had to have double overhead camshafts, just like most Grand Prix racing cars. The engine was rated at 160 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.
A four-speed manual transmission, with synchronizers on the top three gears only, delivered power to the rear wheels.
The original plan was to produce only a limited number of aluminumbodied XKs to test the public’s acceptance. But following its positive reception at the Earl’s Court auto show in England, steel-bodied versions were rushed into production.
The original 1948 XK120 roadster was followed by the coupe three years later. It also featured an all-walnut dash that in itself was a work of art.
In all, more than 12,000 XK 120s were produced from 1948 to 1954, with 85 per cent being shipped to continental Europe and North America. At a price of less than $4,000, this low-slung, high-performance machine was considered to be an absolute bargain.
The XK120 was replaced by th XK140 in 1954. The 140 produced slightly more power and featured a one-piece windscreen, beefier bumpers and other subtle modifications. It also sold at a much faster clip than the original, with nearly 9,000 made in just three years.
The 140 was followed by the XK150 in 1957. Although similar looking, the 150 was actually wider than its predecessors, resulting in greater — and badly needed — interior space. The car also featured a wrap-around windshield, four-wheel disc brakes and an adjustable steering column. Yet, amazingly, the base price remained below the $4,000 threshold.
The 3.4-liter engine was upgraded to make 190 horsepower, or 250 with the optional “S” performance package. In 1959, engine displacement was increased to 3.8 liters and horsepower raised to 210, or 265 in the 150S. Buyers of the limited edition “S” model could enjoy quick blasts from rest to 60 mph in a little more than seven seconds.
The 150’s underpinnings were a throwback to the original 120, with its steel box frame and solid rear axle/leaf spring combination. The suspension might not have been the most modern around, but that didn’t stop these Jags from winning races. In fact, Jaguar C-Type and D-Type racing cars using the XK’s exceptionally strong engine won their class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times from 1951-’57, as well as numerous other major contests.
The last of the 9,400 XK150 series rolled off the Coventry, England, assembly line in 1961 to be replaced by the even more gorgeous E-Type. Everything about the E-Type was new with the exception of its triedand-true DOHC six-cylinder engine.
Jaguar’s XK series cars were a technological marvel. They were not only popular sellers, but the XKs generated much needed export currency for a nation recovering from the ravages of war. Today, serious collectors of the marque have pushed the price of fully restored examples into the stratosphere.
That probably doesn’t make my buddy feel any better, but for a couple of glorious months at least, he was the proud, but public transportation-bound owner of a piece of exceptional automotive sculpture.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ historic writer Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, re views and features.