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Jaguar XK

Jaguar XK Published: 22nd Aug 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Jaguar XK
Jaguar XK
Jaguar XK
Jaguar XK
Jaguar XK
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70 years ago Jaguar launched the XK, a sophisticated sports car that catapulted Browns Lane into the big league

To best appreciate the impact that the XK made on visitors to the Jaguar stand at the first Earls Court Motor Show in ten years, remember that 1948 was a time when ownership of any type of car was beyond many Britons and a luxury for most. The average wage was £3 18s per week, a quarter of homes in the country lacked electricity and even if you were in the fortunate position of being able to afford a new model, the waiting list could extend for several years.

What’s more you would also have to sign a covenant not to sell a car for a given period, leading to various car dealers with Arthur English/ Sydney Tafler’s dress sense selling dubious used models at inflated prices on various bomb-site lots. To gaze at the XK was to look at an almost unattainable future – or, to quote Stephen Bayley in his fascinating book Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything: “This is the car that made Jaguar’s reputation”. Perhaps the most perfectly complete expression of the English sports car, it is also a fairly complete expression of English genius in all its most fl awed, opportunistic, eccentric originality.

The brochures for the XK120 promised a world of ‘140mph speedometers’, hoods of ‘the fi nest Mohair material’ and the optional Mono windshield ‘for competition work’. It was a car that seemed to belong to a world of Goodwood, Henley and of stars of the silver screen, rather than ration books, bread & dripping and ITMA on the BBC Light Programme. Even if the petrol allowance for private motorists now amounted to just 100 miles of driving per month, ownership of such automotive splendour would still be worthwhile. As monthly Motor Sport magazine subsequently observed “It was even rumoured by sceptical persons that the ‘XK’ was too good to be true and must be just a publicity move, that Jaguar would never put it into series-production, at all events at the original price”.

Star entrance

In fact, Jaguar was somewhat amazed at the response to its new model – the other major attraction at Earls Court was the new Morris Minor but that was obviously aimed at a different sector of the market. The XK120 was both the fi rst sports car to bear that marque name – the 1936 100 was sold under the “SS” logo – and the first new post-war offering from Browns Lane.

As is well known, the XK120 was initially seen as a method of publicising the company’s new 3.4-litre straight six DOHC engine. During the Second World War William Lyons informed his Chief Engineer William Heynes that the future of the company lay with in-house power plants and the goal was for the 3442cc unit to power a new generation of 100mph saloon cars.

However, the MkVII would not be ready until 1950 and so the plan was for the XK120 to maintain the company’s profile in the latter half of the 1940s. The William Lyons devised coachwork, with its faint overtones of the BMW 328, was crafted from aluminium, mounted on a modified MkV chassis and was, quite simply a vision of beauty. This extended to beneath the bonnet, for as the great man once said, “it doesn’t cost more to make an engine look pretty”.

And so, when the XK120 made its bow, not a few show-goers who originally planned to put their names on the waiting list for an ultra-sensible Austin A70 Hampshire (the automotive equivalent of a pipe and polished brogues) were mentally plotting their way to Jaguar ownership. Browns Lane initially thought that it would sell no more than 200 XKs per year but clearly this was underestimating its potential. At first Jaguar could only build six cars per week and so a steel panel body was developed, although this would not enter production until the spring of 1950. The XK120 made its US début in January 1949 at the New York Motor Show and on 30th May an example was famously driven at over 130mph by Ron Sutton on the Jabbekke highway in Belgium in May 1949. The chaps of Motor Sport attempted to maintain a stiff upper lip throughout – “the Jaguar impressed those present almost as much by its silence and the way it held the road as by the historical speeds attained”. Three months later a Jaguar won the production car race at Silverstone and when The Motor published its evaluation of the XK120 on 16th November, the overall tone of their report was one of astonishment. “Regarded simply as a technical achievement, the Jaguar is outstanding, not because it is unorthodox in any way but simply because of its excellence as a comfortable car of very high performance”.

The top recorded speed of their test car was clocked at 124.6mph, with 0-60 in 10 seconds (good going back then), and the price – including Purchase Tax – was £1263 3s 11d, which made the X120 a highly expensive proposition but not entirely unattainable to a ‘professional class’ motorist.

Jaguar’s early publicity also listed a four-cylinder 2-Litre XK100 sister model but, as with the subsequent 1954 2.4 Litre ‘Standard Model’ and the 1968 basic specification XJ6, it was not to be seen.

It was the XK120 that captured the public imagination on both sides of the Atlantic and over 80 per cent of production was in left-hand drive form. Famous owners included Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. By early 1951 the XK20 was also available as a Fixedhead Coupé, which boasted winding windows and even a heater as standard and was promoted by the requirements of Jaguar’s US customers. Those die-hard enthusiasts who thought that such items of equipment were best suited to Laurence Harvey-style Mayfair gadabouts than proper sporting drivers were appeased by the 180bhp SE – ‘Special Equipment’ – option. This included a modified high-lift camshaft, wire wheels, a dual exhaust system and stiffened springs.

‘Traditional Jaguar elegance is expressed in every line of this beautiful convertible’ was one of the brochure’s modest claims. This was ‘a car appealing to discriminating owners’ – i.e. all spivs, wide-boys and bounders need not apply.

The XK120 was replaced by the XK140 in October 1954, and although a few purists complained that the Jaguar was starting to soften in its middle-age, the fact remained that the buyers appreciated the more spacious cabin and the flashing indicators. The high-lift camshaft was now standard equipment, resulting in a 190bhp output and there was now rack and pinion steering while at the bumpers was a badge with the words “Winner Le Mans 1951-3”.

As with its predecessor, the XK140 was available in a choice of three bodies and the 210bhp Special Equipment package included a C-Typederived cylinder head, a choice of compression ratios and fog lamps. In 1956 automatic transmission became an optional extra, thereby causing various ‘traditional’ sports car owners to faint in dismay, while British cinema crystallised a certain aspect of the Jaguar’s image. The Green Man featured none other than Terry-Thomas at the wheel of an XK140, ready to overtake any absolute shower he might encounter on the A3.


Last life for this cat

The final incarnation of the XK (XK150) made was recognisable via its single-piece windshield and higher wing line. Even that version promised a greater degree of comfort and the publicity noted that ‘the enthusiast has, in the past, accepted certain drawbacks as being inevitable, but with the introduction of the XK150 all disadvantages have been swept away. In other words, by the late 1950s, draughty, rattly side-screens were no longer acceptable even on a sports car in this class.

1958 also saw Jaguar offer a Special Equipment model complete with a ‘B’ type cylinder head, servo assisted disc brakes, wire wheels and windscreen washers. The Roadster was now available in additional ‘S’ guise identified by triple HD8 SU carbs, giving a 250bhp power output, 136mph and 0-60 in just 7.3 seconds. Autocar positively raved that “The Jaguar XK150 is undeniably one of the world’s fastest and safest cars”. By late 1959 the 3.4 plant was augmented by the 3.8-litre which in S guise kicked out a claimed 265bhp and was good enough for its E-type replacement throughout its production run.

The XK150 ceased in October 1960, six months before the launch of the E-type, and had transformed the image both of Jaguar and of British sports cars per se. According to the late great Brian Laban in Classic Jaguar XK: The 6-Cylinder Cars 1948 – 1972, only 21 per cent of Browns Lane’s output was exported in 1946-1947 – by 1951 the figure was 84 per cent. Seventy years after its début, every car since bearing the Jaguar badge is in its debt.


Remember when… 1950

Although launched in 1948, XK120 production didn’t get into full swing until orthodox steel bodies were introduced in 1950. Read how the world was back then with some of the highlights

After a century of British rule, India formally becomes a republic in January after three years of independence. Dr Rajendra Prasad became the country’s new ruler.

Looks like all change now, thank goodness, but the Korean conflict was at its peak with British troops joining US forces to help take control of the South Korean capital Seoul. The Korean war lasted for three years until an armistice was declared.

The BBC transmitted its first ever live pictures overseas between the UK and France. Over in Belgium a referendum narrowly votes back the return of King Leopold III from exile.

As post Wartime petrol rationing ends, Rover looks to new form of propulsion with its jet turbine car that could run on either petrol, paraffin or diesel. A two-seater cyclops fronted drophead was given its first public test drive at Silverstone. While Rover and BRM also entered the 1963 and 1965 Le Mans races nothing came of the concept.

Do you really want to know the singers you could be listening to? No Elvis or Buddy Holly yet, but there was Nat King Cole, Mario Lanza, Patti Page, Perry Como, Frankie Lane, Bing Crosby, Guy Mitchell and the deeply thought provoking If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked A Cake from Eileen Barton. Turn the volume up…


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