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Jaguar XK120

Published: 20th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Jaguar XK120

Model In Depth...

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Fancy owning a motorsport legend for road and track use? Paul Davies looks at true classics that made their names on stages and circuits, and still provide fine drives today

It may or may not be founded upon fact. The engine for the XK120 was conceived whilst Jaguar men William Lyons, Walter Hassan, William Heynes and Claude Bailey undertook ‘firewatch’ duties on the roof of the company’s Coventry factory during World War Two. What is indisputable is that the sports car won its first ever race, and launched a legend. Savour the scene at the London Motor Show in 1948 when the XK120 makes its grand entrance. Until then sports cars were perpendicular in styling and just about struggled to hit three figures if the wind was in the right direction. The Jaguar was sleek and sexy, and the top speed was reflected in the model name; in fact owners soon found the promised 120mph a shade on the modest side. Leslie Johnson was the driver who took the ‘works’ car (JWK 651) to its debut win, at the Daily Express meeting at Silverstone in August 1949. From then on the XK won, and won, and won. The following years would see a Who’s Who of motorsport get behind the big, near-vertical, steering wheel, wrestle with the recirculating ball steering, and pray that the standard drum brakes would last the distance. No-one complained about the engine, however. Johnson, Tommy Wisdom, Peter Whitehead, Stirling Moss, Duncan Hamilton, and Roy Salvadori, are names we all associate with Jaguar’s early racing days. But did you know Phil Hill won his first race in an XK120? And that Prince Bira, Tazio Nuvolari and Jacques Ickx (father of five times Le Mans winner Jacky) also drove the car? (To be fair, Nuvolari only practised at Silverstone in 1950; he did not race because of illness.) Ian Appleyard was the XK120 rallyman, with his wife Pat (daughter of Jaguar boss William Lyons) he won the Alpine Rally three times as well as the ’51 Tulip, both the ’51 and ’53 RAC rallies, and many others. Appleyard’s alloy-bodied XK120, registration NUB120, is now owned by Jaguar.

Apart from its styling, the XK120 wasn’t rocketscience, except that engine. With twin overhead camshafts, and cross-flow alloy cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers, it was one of the greatest power units of all time. Envisaged originally as a four-cylinder (until lack of refinement and pace caused a rethink), the 3.4-litre, straight-six, unit of the original XK120 developed 160bhp, or 180bhp in its popular Special Equipment form. By 1961 in 3.8-litre XK150S guise it was good for 250bhp. Many people raced and rallied the XK120. It’s successors, the XK140 and XK150, did not achieve as much. By 1951 Jaguar had developed its C-Type, followed by the D-Type, sports racer and no less than five Le Mans victories were recorded. In 1961 the appearance of the E-type stunned the world almost as much as the entry of the XK120 did 13 years before. More than twenty years after Leslie Johnson’s first victory, the car was back winning, when John ‘Plastic’ Pearson’s indecently quick, glass-fibre bodied, XK120 became the car to beat in Mod Sports. The latest name to add to the long list is Rob Newell, who won the 2002 Jaguar Club Championship – his car boasting nearly 400bhp from an engine that was actually conceived on a factory roof (fire watching) in World War Two!

Jaguar XK120 Summary


XK120 Roadster, Drop Head, Fixed Head Coupe (1949-1954): 12,055 (First 200 cars had alloy bodies)


Engine: Six-cylinder, in-line, iron block, cross-flow, light alloy cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers and chain driven twin overhead camshafts. 3442cc (3781cc). 2 x SU carbs. 160bhp and 180bhp in SE trim (3.8/XK150 265bhp).
Gearbox: Four speed, top three-synchro.
Drive: Rear Wheels.
Suspension: Front, independent with wishbones, torsion bar springs and anti-roll bar. Rear, live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs.
Steering: Box with re-circulating ball.
Brakes: Front and rear drums (discs on XK150s).

Claim to fame

Revolutionary post-WW2 sports car, highly successful on race and rally.Winner in international and club races world-wide. Alpine (1950,51,52), Tulip (1951), RAC rally winner (1951, 53). 1952 SCCA Champion (Steward Johnston).

Famous names

Leslie Johnson, Tommy Wisdom, Ian Appleyard, Peter Whitehead, Roy Salvadori, Peter Walker, Tony Rolt, Duncan Hamilton, Briggs Cunningham, Phil Hill, Stirling Moss, Tazio Nuvolari, Prince Bira, Steward Johnston,Walter Hansgen, Jacques Ickx, Louis Chiron, John Fitch, Dick Protheroe, Rhoddy Harvey-Bailey, John Pearson, Paul Skilleter, Rob Newell.

Where to buy

One-make Jaguar magazines, Classic Cars For Sale, leading specialists and auctions.

What to look for

The XK120 had its 60th birthday last year, so expect any non-restored car to need considerable work. Mechanical parts are tough, but rust can be found anywhere in bodywork – especially in sills, wings and front bulkhead. Beware bodged restorations and running repairs!

What to pay

They’re not cheap, and you have to look hard to find one. Most were exported, so LHD imports sometimes available (try who also manufacture an XK replica). Expect to pay £45-50,000 for a good car. Later XK140 and XK150 models more readily found and boast better mechanical specs too.


Jaguar Drivers Club:; Jaguar XK Club:; Jaguar Enthusiasts Club:

Classic sport

Jaguar Enthusiasts Club XK race championship now operates as part of the Masters Series (

Maintenance, tuning and sport

Very good supply of spares via specialists such as David Manners (, SNG Barratt ( and Guy Broad ( Engine reconditioning and tuning from VSE (

Competitive Rating: 9

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