1950 Jaguar XK 120
1950 Jaguar XK 120. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Bill Vance

Two young motorcycle enthusiasts named William Lyons and William Walmsley teamed up in 1922 to build motorcycle sidecars in Blackpool, England. They named their little enterprise Swallow Coachbuilding Co. Ltd. and were so successful they progressed to custom car bodies and then complete automobiles. Needing larger premises, they moved to Coventry in 1928 and changed the name to S.S. Cars Ltd.; it would become Jaguar Cars Ltd. in 1945.

Although they built some elegant, sporty models before and just after the Second World War, these were just a prelude to the stunning new XK120 roadster that would vault Jaguar onto the world stage. It was introduced at London’s Earls Court Motor Show on October 27, 1948.

The XK120 was a sensation: elegant, powerful and reasonably priced. Sceptics doubted they would ever get it into production, and certainly not at the stated 1,260 pounds sterling (approximately $4,000).

Its sensuously flowing lines were penned by Lyons who had an uncanny sense of what “looked right.” The long, elegant fenders flowed along the flanks before curving gracefully over the rear wheels. A gently tapered hood ended with a delicate, vertical bar grille. The headlamps nestled in the valleys of hood and fenders.

But the new XK120 was not just a styling triumph, it was also an engineering and performance tour de force. Its most outstanding feature was a robust 3.4-litre (210 cu. in.) inline, six-cylinder, double overhead camshaft engine.

The new Jaguar twin cam was powerful as well as beautiful. Although displacing less than a Chevrolet six – 3.5 litres vs. 3.4 (216.5 cu in. vs. 210) – the Jag produced 160 horsepower, compared with the Chevy’s 90.

To demonstrate that it deserved the 120 (mph) that inspired its name the company took one to Belgium’s Jabbeke Highway in May of 1949. They removed the windshield, fitted a tonneau cover and belly pan, and clocked a top speed of 132.6 mph (213 km/h). A Jaguar was the world’s fastest production car.

To prove it had durability as well as speed, an XK120 coupe, a model introduced in 1951, was driven around a track in Montlhery, France, for seven solid days and nights where it covered 27,115 km (16,852 mi.) at an average of 100.31 mph (161.4 km/h). These plus other tests and competition successes proved that the 120’s speed and endurance complemented its beauty.

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