A milestone car by almost any definition, the Jaguar XK-120 was greeted with high enthusiasm everywhere it appeared. Originally, only the open roadster was to be offered, but because buyers in several prime export markets, particularly the U.S., had shown a preference for more civilized accommodations, a drophead coupe (i.e. convertible) with proper glass side windows was announced shortly after introduction. A fixed-head (closed) coupe appeared at the Geneva Show in March 1951 to complete the line.
The first 242 roadsters, all early-1949 models built in late 1948, had light-alloy bodywork, after which pressed steel was used exclusively. Because of their obvious rarity, the "alloy" XKs command the highest prices on today's collector market, and are found with both right- and left-hand drive (serial numbers 660001-660058 and 67001-670184, respectively). This writer was privileged to examine a pair of alloy-body cars being restored, and found the coachbuilder's art evident in such details as the hardwood door frames, the latch surface bolsters, and the curved bows supporting the tonneau just ahead of the trunklid.
All XK-120s wore narrow, somewhat fragile bumpers that complemented the curvaceous body lines but didn't stand up well to America's rude and perilous parking habits.
Americans lulled into premature senility by the cushy, chrome-laden Detroit iron of the early postwar period quickly discovered that this sleek cat was everything many domestic dealers flatly declared a sports car could not be.
Before embarking on a solo run, it was helpful to read the owner's manual, grandly titled the "Operating, Maintenance and Service Handbook," to familiarize yourself with the controls. Seated behind the large steering wheel, you viewed a full set of no-nonsense, white-on-black Smith's instruments, which even then were obligatory for a British sports car. The Jaguar's complement included a "revolution counter" with inset manifold pressure gauge (early models) or clock at the bottom of the dial; an ammeter, oil pressure gauge, and water temperature gauge combined in a separate dial; a "petrol gauge" that doubled as a crankcase oil level indicator by pressing a button before starting the engine (capacities were 17.5 gallons and 12.5 quarts U.S., respectively), and a large speedometer with trip and total mileage recorders.
All were housed along with the ignition switch and separate press starter button in a leather-covered panel, mounted centrally and angled downward from the upper dash rail. The coupe's instrument board had a slightly different arrangement and was finished in burled walnut. A manual choke was customary in those days, but it was seldom needed in the XK-120 because, as the factory claimed, the "auxiliary starting carburetter is entirely automatic and controls the mixture strength without assistance from the driver." Other cockpit delights were a short gear lever with remote linkage, a gearbox dipstick (located well forward on the tunnel top), racing-style "fly-off" handbrake, and a small grab bar ahead of the passenger seat.
Appropriately for a sports car, the XK-120 was blessed with high-geared steering giving just 23/4 turns lock-to-lock and a compact 31-foot turning diameter, though steering effort was predictably heavy. Braking from speed brought out surprisingly little nosedive, a benefit of the slight rear-end weight bias that also enabled rapid getaways without undue wheelspin. And make no mistake: the XK-120 was quick even by today's standards. With the optional 3.54:1 final drive (the middle ratio of three available), a well-broken-in example could reach corrected maxima of 30, 61, and 88 mph in the lower three gears, and sail on to that magic 120 mph in fourth.
A roadster tested new by the author sprinted from 0 to 60 mph in 9.7 seconds, flew through the standing-start quarter-mile in 18.0 seconds at 86 mph, and could run at precisely 100 mph on the flat at a relatively relaxed 4,390 rpm. At $3,600 POE in 1952, the XK-120 was indeed quite pricey, but nowhere else could you get this unrivaled combination of "grace and pace" for less. For those with the wherewithal to indulge their motoring fantasies, this cat was one whale of a buy.
Go to the next page to learn about a variation on the XK-120, the Jaguar XK-120MC.