1953 Jaguar XK 120M Fixed Head CoupeSir William Lyons, the head of Jaguar, had a keen sense of style and greatly admired the pre-World War II Talbot-Lago «Goutte d'eau» ("Teardrop") Coupes. Those fabulous Talbot-Lagos were the inspiration for Lyons' most famous Jaguars, the XK 120-140-160 series.
Inspiration: The Talbot-Lago «Goutte d'Eau» coupes inspired
The 1949-54 Jaguar XK-120 sports car was an astonishing afterthought for the automaker after World War II in gloomy, war-devastated England. It turned out to be one of the most famous sports cars of all time—and a bright sign to the British that perhaps they were on the way back.
The XK-120 was strictly built as a limited-production model to show off Jaguar’s advanced new dual-overhead-camshaft inline six-cylinder 210-cubic-inch engine with hemispherical—or “hemi”—combustion chambers that, in the 1950s, Chrysler would make famous with its V-8s.
Jaguar chief William Lyons not only had a marvelous sense of style but also a sixth sense when it came to gauging the direction of styling fashions and anticipating the public mood. His pre-war Jaguars were beautiful. The postwar XK-120 was staggeringly beautiful—sleek, modern and with a seemingly endless hood (especially seen from inside the car) and tiny cockpit that hinted at the race track.
You couldn’t change a line or curve without upsetting the car’s voluptuous shape.
Lyons was unhappy to find that Jaguar wouldn’t have its striking new Mark VII sedan ready for the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show in London. Jaguar’s small, talented staff thus rushed to produced the “showcase” XK-120 model with the new engine. They shortened the massive Jaguar sedan chassis and used many sedan-based parts to keep its cost down. The automaker had little money to play with. Nobody in England did.
The new Jaguar engine had been designed to allow high-speed cruising in the 4,000-pound Jaguar Mark VII and, in the XKs, provided race-car performance. It was the most powerful production engine you could buy at the time, developing 160-horsepower.
Cadillac’s much larger 1948 V-8 had 346 cubic inches and produced 150 horsepower. A year later, Cadillac's new, highly acclaimed high-compression pushrod 331-cubic-inch V-8 made 160 horsepower, but lacked Jaguar’s advanced engine features - the overhead camshafts and the hemispherical combustion chambers.
The dual-carburetor Jaguar engine even looked good, almost like a piece of sculpture. Lyons said it “doesn’t cost more to make an engine look pretty.”
The XK-120 got its “120” designation because it easily hit 120 mph during a pre-production test run in Europe. Even costly American cars strained to reach 90 mph—and then had dicey handling if they reached that speed.
In contrast, the XK-120 had solid high-speed handling and a comfortable ride because of its advanced torsion-bar suspension.
The XK-120 stole the London show hands down, and orders poured in for the car. The new Jaguar suddenly had become the world’s most coveted auto. The British government saw to it that most were exported to the U.S. because it desperately needed exports after the war to get coveted American dollars to buy such things as steel and rubber to put British business back on track.
That left even wealthy British folks unable to get one.
Jaguar was taken by surprise. The original plan was to make only about 200 XK-120s, but demand indicated that thousands could be built. Jaguar wasn’t about to keep the XK-120 a low-volume model when it could earn lots of money with it—and also make its new engine highly visible.
The sophisticated, drop-dead gorgeous XK-120 two-seater had been planned with other new Jaguar models by Lyons and several brilliant Jaguar engineers while England was bombed during the war. The small Jaguar factory was just making light combat vehicles, so Lyons and his staff had time to plan new car models and a very advanced engine to power them.
Lyons was a superb showman, so he saw to it that the first American to get an XK-120 on the West Coast was world-famous actor and car buff Clark Gable (who also loved Packards). Gable raved about the new Jaguar. Other celebrities soon snapped up the XK-120.
But most XK-120s were bought by relatively average upper-middle-class folks because the car cost approximately $3,600. People were amazed that Jaguar could offer the XK-120 at such a low price. Ferraris with similar performance cost $12,000—and up, if you could even find one for sale.
The early XK-120s had aluminum body panels over hand-made ash wood framing. That was OK for a low-production car, but demand called for the body to be redone for mass production in steel, except for the hood, trunk lid and doors. Those parts were aluminum to keep weight down—although the XK-120 was still fairly heavy for a rakish two-seater because of all its strong sedan components.
The move to steel bodies delayed mass production of the XK-120 roadster. The first one didn’t reach America until about 1950. The fast, luxurious Jaguar Mark VII sedan arrived here about a year later with the new engine.
Only 240 1949-1950 XK-120 roadsters had the rare all-aluminum body. A total of 7,391 steel body 1951-54 roadsters were built. The roadsters looked the most racy, but had side curtains instead of roll-up windows. Jaguar also built a 2,678 luxurious coupe versions—and 1,769 more-comfortable convertible versions with roll-up windows and a better folding top.
As with most 1950s cars—especially sports cars of any make—the XK-120 wasn’t perfect. Its slim bumpers provided minimal protection, and its luxurious cockpit was tight for tall persons. The steering wheel had a telescopic feature, but still was too close to the driver, and the gear shifter got balky during fast shifting. The engine overheated in heavy summer traffic, and the brakes weren’t good for sustained hard driving, although they were OK during normal driving.
The featured 1953 XK 120M Fixed Head coupe was sold at the 2010 RM Auction in Monterey, California for $107,250. The engine in this car makes 180 horsepower.
The dramatic fixed head coupe arrived in 1951 to complement the roadster; 2,680 were produced. Numerous track and road victories attest to the XK120's well-deserved reputation.
Painted in a striking gloss black over Magnolia hides, the 1953 Jaguar XK120 Fixed Head Coupe shown here is a multiple award-winning example of one of Jaguar's most impressive vehicles. It has been recognized by Jaguar's North American office and was displayed at the company's headquarters in Irvine, California for two months in 2005.
Featured in the program for the 2004 Cranbrook Concours d'Elegance in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the Jaguar also won the coveted Judge's Choice award at a 2003 marque gathering in Phoenix. It has also been used as an advertising car in vehicle detailing firm Zymol's 2005 campaigns. In addition, the XK120 was the first American-owned car to ever be featured on the cover of Jaguar Heritage Magazine.
Brought to its current condition under the supervision of noted Jaguar expert Bill Richert, this XK120 was treated to a stunning in-depth restoration consisting of expertly laid acrylic paint and beautifully completed Connolly leather. Underhood, the Jaguar's engine bay has been finished to an especially high level, and it includes meticulously polished aluminum detailing.