There’s something intrinsically sinister about a Jaguar. Whether this impression is born from Jaguar’s association with the infamous Kray Twins, whose ride of choice was a Jaguar MK X, or the mark’s long-standing role as the transport for Bond villains such as Le Chiffre and Mr Hinx; these cars perfectly evoke the svelte ferocity of the stealthy jungle cat that is their namesake. While this is true for all classic jags, I’d argue none do it better than the legendary XK120.
Launched at the 1948 London Motor Show in OTS or open two-seater form, the XK120 was intended to be a testbed for Jaguar’s new XK engine. The car on display was the first prototype and almost identical to the final production version, and is utterly gorgeous. The crowds lost their minds at the sight of the long, low, swooping silhouette of the menacing coupé, prompting Jaguar founder and Chairman, William Lyons, to put the car into production. The first car was delivered in 1949 to Clark Gable, aka “The King of Hollywood”, firmly establishing the big cat as a symbol of class.
The first 242 XK120s had wooden frames draped in aluminium bodies, which beginning with the 1950 model year, were replaced with pressed steel to meet demand, adding an extra 50kgs to the kerb-weight. The advanced dual overhead-cam 3.4L straight-six MK engine featured an alloy cylinder head and pushed out 160 Ascot-worthy horses. The car would later be available as a fixed-head coupé from 1951, and finally as a drophead coupé from 1953. The 120 in the name refers to the car’s cigar-extinguishing 120 mph top speed, which earned it the ever-exciting title of ‘fastest production car in the world’. Perfect for running from the law or hastily ‘forgetting’ to pay the bill at a restaurant. In true gentlemanly fashion, the name was actually rather modest, as on 30 May 1949, on the empty Ostend-Jabbeke motorway in Belgium, a prototype XK120 timed by officials of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium achieved an average, between two runs in opposing directions, of 135mph. The only modifications being the windscreen had been replaced with a small aero screen and the addition of a tonneau cover over the passenger side.
However, clearly the itching of the Jaguar mechanics’ moustaches hadn’t been satiated by building merely the fastest production car in the world, because after achieving that astounding top speed, they took to an oval track in France to see what their new roadster could really do. Incredibly, Jaguar’s XK120 managed an average speed of over 130mph for a whole hour and an average of 100mph for over 24 hours. In 1952 the itch obviously returned, because soon a fixed head XK120 had taken home numerous world records for achieving an almost unbelievable average of 100mph FOR A WHOLE WEEK. Moustaches never content, Jaguar returned to the Jabbeke Highway in 1953 for a final top speed run. Equipped with legendary test driver Norman Dewis’ giant cojones, they managed to push a modified XK120 to 172 mph through the flying mile.
The XK120 added a final, hilarious feather to its cap on 13 June 1954, when Al Keller steered an XK120 fixed-head coupé to victory at the first Grand National road race, making it the first imported car to win in NASCAR. It then became the only imported car to win in NASCAR, as the Americans apparently didn’t appreciate losing to the British, banning foreign cars from the series after the race.