Jaguar Sports Cars

The E-Type was the pinnacle of the already legendary Jaguar lineup.

In the 1920s, Jaguar (then called Swallow Coachbuilding Company) was making its money by creating motorcycle sidecars. It wasn’t until the 1930s that founder William Lyons started making car bodies, and then entire cars. By 1945, he had changed the company’s name to Jaguar Cars, Ltd. and had begun to make history.

In this article, you’ll learn all about some of Jaguar’s most famous models, starting with the Jaguar XK120. A sensation right out of the gate, the XK120 (which referenced its 120 mph top speed, incredibly fast for its day) combined exhilarating performance with incredible value, all in a sleek, futuristic package.


From there, Jaguar evolved the concept with the XK140 and XK150, enhancing the cars’ strong points while working to eliminate drawbacks. As a result, Jaguars just got better and better, culminating in the Jaguar E-Type. Originally a sports-racing project, it was adapted to road use and was popular enough to last for ten years of production, thanks to its refined machinery and beautiful styling.

Continue on to learn more about the Jaguar lineup, from the early six-cylinder cars to the later twelve-cylinder roadsters, complete with car profiles and photos.

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A seminal sports car for both Jaguar and Britain was the XK 120. It used a sedan chassis and a torquey new twincam six that proved an instant classic.

It’s no exaggeration to say the Jaguar XK 120 helped rejuvenate a nation’s belief in itself. Its seductive shape and magnificent engine brought acclaim -- and orders -- from all continents, reassuring Britons that their beleaguered island still could produce something of international value after World War II’s devastation.

They had William Lyons to thank. Untrained as an engineer or designer, he had what proved an unerring instinct for automotive style and value. A motorcycle enthusiast as a young man, Lyons cofounded the Swallow Sidecar Company in 1921, then moved into automobiles by designing sporty bodies for other maker’s chassis. His breakthrough was the splendid SS 100 (SS for Swallow Sidecar) sports car of 1936.

It wasn’t until after the war that his cars got their own engine, however: a 3.4-liter inline-six with an exotic-for-the-day twincam head and hemispherical combustion chambers. The work of Lyons’s chief engineer, William Heynes, this engine would be Jaguar’s soul into the 1980s. The six was strong and durable because it was intended for use in a sedan due in 1950. But Lyons knew there was greater publicity value in putting it in a new sports car.

Lyons always said he drew the XK 120 with a few quick strokes of the pen, although its basic shape could be seen in an experimental streamlined body he had done for the SS 100 in 1938. Regardless, the XK 120 was a masterwork, a low-slung roadster with pouncing-cat fender lines of disarming grace. Its underpinnings were less exciting: a shortened version of the heavy sedan chassis, independent torsion-bar front suspension, live rear axle, recirculating-ball steering, and drum brakes. No matter. Unveiled late in 1948, the car was an immediate sensation, especially at a price of around $3000.

The Jaguar XK 120's performance rivaled cars costing much more, and though not designed for competition, the XK 120 was a race winner.

Brakes, handling, and engine cooling could have been better, but the XK 120 was comfortable, tractable, and fast -- top speed of 120 mph (hence the car’s name). Early roadster bodies were aluminum, the convertible and coupe that followed were steel, while optional pistons and cams could boost horsepower to 190. In any form, the XK 120 had character and sex appeal and a significance rarely associated with automobiles.

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Given the success of the XK 120, Jaguar made only considered changes to its successor -- and took pains to retain the overall styling.

So advanced and successful was the XK 120 that Jaguar didn’t need to replace it for a full six years, with the XK 140. This allowed the factory to get heavily involved in motorsports, producing the LeMans-winning C-type in 1951 and the wind-cheating D-type three years later.

Predictably, the successor XK 140 was an improved variation of the XK 120. As before, the roadster came with traditional British side curtains, the coupe and convertible with proper rollup door glass. Jaguar moved the engine/gearbox assembly forward three inches, enlarged the cockpit, and raised the rooflines slightly. That created enough room to permit a pair of very small “+2” rear seats in the coupe and convertible. It also resulted in a forward weight shift, which along with adoption of rack-and-pinion steering, improved the handling. Engine cooling was better thanks to wider-spaced grille bars.

Standard horsepower increased by 30 to 190, same as the previous $800 “special equipment” package. An “M” package added wire wheels and fog lamps, while a new “C” option brought LeMans-proven C-type cylinder heads, which were painted red and gave the 3.4 -liter inline-six one horsepower for each of its 210 cubic inches.

Total XK 140 production was 8884; 38 percent were roadsters and the balance was split evenly between Fixed Head and Drop Head coupes.

On average, the 140s were about 200 lbs heavier than the 120s, and top speed didn’t really increase. But John Bolster, technical editor of Britain’s Autosport, said the 140 was “a great improvement in every important respect” over the 120. His MC coupe, heaviest of all 140s, took two gear changes and 10 seconds to reach 60 mph, but its real appeal was an ability to get to 100 mph quickly and cruise there “with only a whiff of throttle.” The 140, Bolster asserted, was “the most effortless car imaginable.”

In June 1955, Road & Track tested a $3745 MC roadster -- the lightest XK 140 -- and saw 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds. That, it said, was “performance per dollar excelled by no other car . . .”

These were sports-car fellows and this was sports-car nirvana. There were things Detroit still didn’t seem to understand.

“The quality of finish is immediately apparent on the outside,” R&T said of its Jaguar, “but a look under the hood shows attention to detail that is in marked contrast to that found under a domestic product.”

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Jaguar's final XK 120 variation was the XK 150. It bowed in 1957 as a revamp of the XK 140. Its styling was stodgier, it was heavier, and at first it had no more power. But it was among the first cars with standard four-wheel disc brakes.

Some say the XK 150 proves that Jaguar's first postwar sports cars hung on too long. They may be right, but the 150 was also the most thoroughly developed of the early XKs, if arguably the least sporting. This final variation on the original XK 120 theme was Jaguar's response to recently introduced rivals such as the BMW 507 and Mercedes-Benz 300SL, which bettered the XK 140 in catering to American demands for more comfort and refinement.

The 150 was thus roomier, plusher, and more civilized than any previous XK. And the bodyshell was restyled, losing some pouncing-cat contours and gaining a wider grille and one-piece windshield. Critics bemoaned the heavier appearance, especially since it was matched by higher curb weight. Fortunately, the extra heft didn't spoil overall handling balance. And Jaguar scored a production first by replacing fade-prone drum brakes with four servo-assisted Dunlop discs that easily compensated for the extra weight. The discs had demonstrated their value on Jaguar's LeMans winners.

Initially, the XK 150 was offered as a coupe and convertible. The roadster returned after nine months, but now with wind-up windows. Engine specs were the same as the 140, but the 150's extra weight prompted more buyers to pop for the 210-hp option, which now produced peak torque at 3000 rpm, not 4000. Not coincidentally, the extra-cost automatic transmission also garnered more orders, a sure sign of change in the sports-car world.

Fewer buyers ordered manual transmission, but those who did could activate overdrive with a floor lever rather than a dashboard toggle.

Inevitably, the first XK 150s were slower than their predecessors, but the deficit was corrected in the spring of 1958 with a 3.4-liter "S" engine rated at 250 hp. For 1960, Jaguar bored its 3.4 to 3.8 liters, rating this option at 220 hp in standard tune or 265 in "S" form. A 3.8- liter 150S could top 135 mph and sprint from 0-60 mph in around 7.0 seconds, thus restoring whatever verve the XK had been missing.

Though not the longest-lived, the 150 proved the most profitable of the original XK series. Tellingly, where roadsters had been the best-selling XK 120 and 140 body styles, the coupe was by far the most popular 150, accounting for 52 percent of sales. The roadster was the least popular, at just 13 percent. William Lyons had correctly read the evolving market and, with the XK 150's successor, he'd do it again.

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The XK-SS was one of those short-lived legends that make sports-car lore so rich. Jaguar built just 16 of a planned 100 before a factory fire destroyed its tooling.

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.

The XK-SS was a way of getting added value out of the retiring LeMans-winning D-type by modifying the race car just enough to make it suitable for road use. A competition-spec, triple-Weber 3.4-liter six was used, though racing cams concentrated power in the upper rev range.

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.

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One of the most famous and recognized of all sports cars, the Jaguar E-type backed its libidinal lines with superior performance.

In the world of ’60s sports cars, this is where sex appeal came for lessons. Ferraris were provocative. Jaguar’s E-type -- XK-E in America -- was positively suggestive. An awed Road & Track subtitled its test report, “The greatest crumpet collector known to man.”

Of course there was far more to it than libidinal lines. Its performance was predatory. Jaguar took the hot S-spec 3.8 from the XK 150 and moved the big inline-six rearward to redistribute weight 49/51. The new car was shorter and lighter than its predecessor, and added a vital component even the LeMans winners lacked: independent rear suspension.

Construction, too, improved on the racing D-type’s, with a monocoque (unitized) bodyshell in a choice of roadster or new hatchback coupe. Styling was by aerodynamicist Malcolm Saver, making this the first production Jaguar not shaped by William Lyons. Still, the founder’s hand was evident in the overall character of the car, as well as in its well-appointed, if cozy, cabin and in its reasonable price.

Jaguar unveiled its E-type in March 1961 at the same Geneva show that launched the XK 120 13 years before, and to the same frenzied reception.

The Jaguar E-Type basically was a well-sorted production version of the LeMans-winning D-type racer, though with independent rear suspension. Jaguar’s grand 265-hp 3.8-liter six was mounted to provide a near-even weight balance.

“Here we have one of the quietest and most flexible cars on the market, capable of whispering along in top gear at 10 mph or leaping into its 150 mph stride on the brief depression of a pedal,” wrote John Bolster of Autosport. The new all-independent suspension provided a comfortable ride and combined four-wheel discs (inboard in back) for outstanding all-around road manners. There even was decent luggage space.

The E-type of 1965 got a displacement increase to 4.2 liters for better torque but no more horsepower. The following year brought a 2+2 coupe with a nine-inch-longer wheelbase, taller roofline, and optional automatic transmission. Styling of Series 2 models suffered in the late ’60s from side marker lights, clumsier bumpers, and upright exposed headlamps. But that hardly dulled their appeal. The E-type helped define the 1960s and to this day is one of the precious few sports cars to command the attention even of people who care little about automobiles.

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Its classic inline six enfeebled by emissions standards, Jaguar in 1971 turned seat convertible (shown) or a 2+2 coupe, both on the longer of two wheelbases that had been offered on the six-cylinder E-types.

History repeated itself with the Jaguar E-type Series 3 V-12. It was a smashing success once, in 1948, when Jaguar debuted its robust new engine in a sports car instead of the sedan for which it was designed. But the inline-six that met its public in the XK 120 was 23 years old by 1971, and enfeebled by emissions regulations. The E-type was 10 years old and needed new life. Why not put the new passenger-car V-12 in a revised version of the aging sports model? Thus, the E-type Series 3 V-12 was born.

Despite its sports-car heritage, Jaguar depended on sedans for its survival and had developed its twelve to power them with sufficient torque and refinement. It was beefy enough to handle up to 7.0 liters displacement, but an initial volume of 5.3 was chosen. The all-aluminum single-cam V-12 was about three inches longer than the inline-six, and though it outweighed the six by less than 75 lbs, it still tipped the scales at almost 700 lbs. Jaguar rated it at 272 hp in Europe and 314 in the United States, though a realistic American figure was 250 hp at 6000 rpm and 283 lb/ft of torque at 3500. Installed in the E-type, it created the Series 3.

The new engine fit in the same bay as the six, but for better leg room Jaguar shelved the convertible’s 96-inch wheelbase and gave all Series 3s the 105-inch span previously exclusive to the 2+2 coupes. A larger radiator inlet with formal grillework and subtle wheel arches to clear wider tires were other changes. Larger, softer in nature, with weight redistributed 53/47, the E-type had lost the wilds of its youth.

New safety rules mandated rocker switches on the Jaguar E-type

“Perhaps a little naively,” said Robert Bell in Motor, “all we expected to try was a new engine. What in fact we drove was a new car -- not a yowling, aggressive Ferrari-like machine, with which, perhaps, most people associate a V12 engine, but a very smooth, quiet and refined grand touring sports car.” Still, newer rivals had better ergonomics, were more reliable, and just felt more modern. “A magnificent engine in an outclassed body,” was how Road & Track saw the Series 3.

Jaguar had not duplicated its success of 1948, and it would be years before any of its sports models generated even a flicker of that excitement. Encounter a V-12 E-type, though, and see if you don’t study it long and hard.

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The XJ220 had the potential to be a highly successful supercar, but ended up an embarrassment. It was very fast and very beautiful, but some customers who

Jaguar’s XJ220 appeared to have it all: a beautiful aluminum body, buyers queuing up with cash in hand, a 200-mph top speed. How then was it reduced to a fender-banging embarrassment in cable-TV exhibition races? And why did Jaguar end up suing some XJ220 customers?

It all started well enough, the concept XJ220 garnering raves at its 1988 unveiling. Conceived as a road car capable of racing in the Group B series that generated the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40, the XJ220 had a 520-hp V-12, all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, and bold jack-knife doors. By December 1990, Jaguar had set a price of $536,000 and quickly collected 1500 deposits of $92,500 each; it returned all but 350 -- the number of XJ220s it planned to build. Group B dried up, but the XJ220 survived in what Jaguar believed was a more marketable form.

The production XJ220 completed in June 1992 was a two-seat mid-engine coupe visually similar to the original. But it had a 542-hp 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6, rear-wheel drive, and conventional steering and doors. It was quiet, comfortable, and very fast; even if it didn’t reach the 220-mph target that was the basis of its name, it confidently exceeded 210.

doors, and all-wheel drive and steering. When it went into production in 1992, circumstances had changed and the car had a twin-turbo V-6, rear drive, and conventional doors.

But it wasn’t the V-12 techno-wonder that had been promised, and in a faltering supercar market, Jaguar could unload fewer than 170 of the 265 XJ220s it eventually built. Scores of original depositors who refused to take delivery were sued for not honoring their contracts.

To promote the car, Jaguar and the ESPN sports network cooked up Fast Masters, in which retired race drivers ran XJ220s at tiny Indianapolis Raceway Park. The long-legged exotics were out of their element. AutoWeek’s Denise McCluggage likened it to “racing thoroughbreds around the dining room table.” Much lovely aluminum was rearranged. On the open road, the XJ220 delivered. It was others who broke their promises.

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The XK8 puts Jaguar’s sports-car credentials in order for the first time since the E-type.It comes as a coupe and convertible and features Jaguar’s first V-8 engine.

New Jaguars don't appear that often, so the 1996 arrival of the XK8 was a big event. Not only the first clean-sheet Jaguar since 1987’s “XJ40” sedans, it’s the first with a V-8 -- itself only the fourth major engine in Jaguar history. Moreover, this new coupe and convertible are the first XK Jaguars since the beloved E-type (a.k.a. XK-E) died 21 years before.

Yet despite its wonderfully evocative styling, the XK8 does not pick up where the E-type left off. Jaguar may call it a sports car, but it’s really a posh grand tourer like the model it replaces, the XJS. Indeed, the XK8 uses part of the S-type platform, rides the same classic, all-independent double-wishbone suspension, and offers similarly luxurious “2+2” accommodations.

The XJS was hooted on its 1975 debut for abandoning sports-car basics as much as for its controversial coupe styling. But Jaguar knew what people wanted. With steady improvements to its big V-12, and the later addition of convertible and six-cylinder models, the S actually gained in annual sales as time passed.

The XK8 mates beautifully with a new five-speed automatic transmission from Germany’s ZF that changes gears like a mercury switch.

It was thus logical that the XK8 would follow a similar formula. The XK8 originated soon after Ford bought Jaguar in 1990 and axed an erstwhile E-type successor dubbed XK-F (some of which was later salvaged for the Aston Martin DB7).

Meanwhile, Jaguar was investigating V-8s and had a prototype engine running by late 1991. Two years after that, Ford approved a V-8 XJS replacement coded “X100,” and the XK8 was a showroom reality just 30 months later. That was warp-speed for tiny Jaguar, but the X100 team received valuable timesaving pointers from the Ford crew working on the new ’94 Mustang.

The result blends traditional Jaguar elegance with American manufacturing professionalism. XK8 not only is rock-solid and free of quirky details, it’s agile like the XJS never was. It’s fast, too, thanks to that muscular new “AJ-V8.” An all-Jaguar, all-alloy, twincam engine (what else from Coventry?), the AJ-V8 relishes revs, yet never rises above a muted growl. And it mates beautifully with a new five-speed automatic transmission from Germany’s ZF that changes gears like a mercury switch.

A pure sports car? No, the XK8 is far too refined for that, but it is a genuine sporting Jaguar and modern in every way. If that’s not something to celebrate, nothing is.

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