The Jaguar XK120 moved the goalposts for production cars, but values don’t reflect its greatness
A car-starved Britain, still trundling around in perpendicular pre-war hangover motors, glimpsed the future in October 1948 at the Earls Court Motor Show. There was literally nothing to match it for looks, performance and price, and today the Jaguar XK120 still offers a compelling price-performance package that is undervalued in the marketplace.
There’s no doubt that in 1948 the Jaguar XK120 was more of a sensation than the E-type in ’61. The E-type was more of its time, while in many respects the Jaguar Super Sports was light years beyond. The earliest Ferrari and Maserati ‘road cars’ were really exotically priced competition machines in street clothes, and to call them ‘production’ cars was stretching a point. With Ferrari and Maserati, competition breeding and organs filtered down into the ‘production cars’, but the XK120 was a genuine road car that provided the basis of a Le Mans winner. It’s all the more remarkable as the XK120 was never intended for volume production. Indeed, if the MkVII saloon had been ready for Earls Court, the XK120 might never have existed at all. Six weeks before the show, Jaguar decided to build a new sports car on a cut-down MkVII chassis. It was an exercise in brand awareness, and it would also be a testbed for the engine intended for the MkVII.
It’s said that Jaguar boss William Lyons styled the XK120 in less than two weeks, yet the XK120 has achingly beautiful harmony of line; it is the most feline Jag there’s ever been. And the new engine – the famed alloy-headed twin-cam XK six – is more important than any single Jaguar car model. It endured until 1992, and without it Jaguars would not have won so many competition laurels. Even this was styled: Lyons knew little about engines, but he knew he wanted it to be ‘glamorous’ and to look like 1930s GP mills, hence his request for twin overhead camshafts.
The 160bhp 3.4-litre engine was as powerful as Cadillac’s 5.4-litre V8 and, yes, a standard XK120 really was good for the 120mph its name implied, as underlined by the 132.6mph flying mile achieved on Belgium’s Jabbeke autoroute in Belgium in a car with a racing screen and an undertray. One British magazine wouldn’t allow married men (women hadn’t been invented yet) to conduct high-speed tests in the XK120. That’s my favourite XK fact.
The first 240 XK120s had handbuilt alloy bodies, with production tooling put in place in 1950 for steel-bodied cars. In 1951 a gorgeous fixedhead appeared and two years later a more luxurious drophead coupé. There was also a 180bhp Special Equipment version. In all, just over 12,000 XK120s were made up to 1954, with around 92% exported – most to the US. Along the way Stirling Moss won in the XK120, it placed at Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, conquered international rallies and gave rise to the spaceframe XK120C (that’s the C-type) that won Le Mans outright in 1951 and 1953. And Clark Gable rated his XK120 Roadster ‘a masterpiece of design and construction’, even though his ears must have created quite a bit of drag.
If the XK120 was a Ferrari produced in penny numbers it would be worth millions.
Find many Jaguar XK120 models for sale in the classifieds
1948 The XK120’s price, a mere £1263, was almost as sensational as the car’s looks and performance. There was simply no production car in the world to match the XK120’s price-performance package. For cost comparison, the Aston Martin DB1 was over £1000 more; no new Bentley could be had for under £4000; and no Rolls-Royce for under £5585.
1953 By now the XK120 line-up was complete, with the fully furnished drophead coupé the most expensive option at £1644, followed by the fixedhead at £1616 and the roadster priced at £1601. Incidentally, you could buy a new XK120C (C-type), for £2119, when an Aston Martin DB2/4 DHC would have set you back £2763. The newly arrived 2.0-litre AC Ace was just £1297, while the Austin-Healey 100 was £1063.
Today Strong growth in the Jaguar E-type market is not reflected in the XK120 sector. At a recent auction a freshly restored XK120 Roadster, albeit with replacement engine, made just £50,500; in the same sale a restored, matching-numbers E-type FHC made £91,000. Most production XK120 roadsters are still sub-£100k. An XK120 Roadster that sold for £130,000 in June had been restored for £150,000. Drophead coupés are broadly on a par. Fixedhead coupés are broadly two-thirds of the price. Any genuine SE will fetch 10-20% more than a standard car. Alloy roadsters have a separate value altogether; one recently sold for £234,000. The AC Ace underlines the value of steel XK120 roadsters: the Ace cost less when new, but is now worth much more.
Words: Dave Selby/Octane Magazine