If the XK 120 rejuvenated Britain’s confidence, the LeMans winners it spawned restored the country’s spirit. Creating a “super sports” highway car from a LeMans victor was a fine idea -- or so it must have seemed. Jaguar tried it with the XK-SS, a high-performance roadster with roots in the world’s most prestigious sports-car race.
Throughout the 1950s little Jaguar battled mighty Ferrari, Maserati, and Mercedes-Benz factory teams in races heavy with nationalistic emotion. The greatest single test was LeMans, and Jaguar conquered it for England a remarkable five times.
It won in 1951 and 1953 with the XK 120C (for “competition”). These were XK 120s with space-frame chassis, redesigned suspension, and aero bodywork. The fastest got 220 hp from the twincam 3.4 six and outbraked rivals on terrific four-wheel discs. Next came the lighter, slipperier D-type, a beautiful sports-racer that won in ’55, ’56, and ’57. With its 3.4 enlarged to 3.8 liters and 306 hp, the ’57 winner hit 179 mph.
To wring some added value from the D-type at the end of its reign, Jaguar converted some into road-legal sports cars called the XK-SS. It shaved off the driver’s headrest fairing, widened the monocoque, added some upholstery, a passenger-side door, a folding top with detachable side screens, and flimsy little bumpers. The only place for a muffler was on the left rocker panel, and the only place for luggage was on a decklid rack. Retained was the 44-gallon rubber-cell racing fuel tank and the dry-sump competition 3.4-liter engine.
The XK-SS was ferociously fast, stopped on a sixpence, and had a remarkably comfortable ride. But it also was cramped and noisy, and the exhaust heated up the aluminum bodywork. Racing cams concentrated power in the upper rev range, making every drive an all-out affair. Reviews were mixed. Was the XK-SS too untamed to succeed? We’ll never know.
On February 12, 1957, three weeks after the car’s introduction, the part of the factory where it was built caught fire, destroying tooling, jigs, and partially completed cars. Jaguar was out of the super sports business, but the idea of a sports car built along D-type lines was worth pursuing. Jaguar would, and in the process create its most famous automobile.