“I don’t think this is what Sir William had in mind.” The sleek and sensuous British Racing Green Jaguar XK120 roared along the gravel road on the floor of a remote valley in the middle of Nevada. I doubt William Lyons could have imagined the scene fifty-some years before. The XK120’s speedometer needle waggled vaguely, yet constantly between 60 and 90 MPH—indicating that we had reached ‘ludicrous speed” (given the conditions). A plume of dust streamed out behind the car, the parched solid matter equivalent-yet-antithesis of the liquid rooster-tail following a hydroplane. My co-driver laughed at either my comment or the sheer joy of the moment, it was impossible to tell.
We were participating in the June 2000 running of “La Carrera Nevada”. The event’s a recreation of Mexico’s famous La Carrera Panamericas set in the American outback. The north of the border locale keeps logistics simple and costs low, while satisfying would-be Walter Mitty’s in pre-1955 cars. The participants all drove “Yank Tank” products of Detroit, with two exceptions: two XK120 Jaguars. Jay Lamm drove one and my father and I piloted the second.
The rally traversed some 1200 miles in three days over remote, often unpaved roads. The weather varied from baking sun to howling thunderstorms. The attrition-rate was startling; well over 75 percent of the cars broke down and dropped out. The two Jags finished in fine fettle: dusty, dirty, with true British brass. Sir William Lyons would have been proud, though he might have questioned our sanity. Gentlemen do not go bouncing about on rutted desert tracks in his fine automobiles.
In many ways, the XK120 should not have existed. It was built strictly as a concept car to show off the English automaker’s new XK engine. Conceptualized on a Coventry rooftop during air-raid fire-watches by William Heynes and his engineers, the XK powerplant was born a legend. Debuting at the 1948 London Motor Show, the XK120 was an immediate sensation. There was more than enough demand for the concept to become a profitable production car, so Jaguar got to work. Demand was so high, in fact, that the first few hundred cars were built by hand using wood frames and alloy bodies, while tooling was created to build subsequent models from steel.
It was named the XK120 as a reference to the engine, and the car’s theoretical top speed. While almost all of us look at speedometers that reach that number today, back in the late 1940s this figure was stratospheric. This made the XK120 the fastest production car in the world at that time. A stock example could reach 125, and Jaguar famously tested a slightly modified XK120 on a Belgian freeway clocking an official 136.5 MPH. To illustrate the The DOHC, hemi-head inline-six’s amazing torque, it puttered past the automotive press at 10 MPH in top gear just after the record run. This car was the Bugatti Veyron of its day: the very pinnacle of automotive engineering.
So, what’s it like to drive one?
Actually it’s awful. Awful ergonomics. Awful gearbox. Awful brakes. Awful (actually non-existent) weatherproofing. Awful instruments. Awful steering. Awful seats. Awful everything really, except that amazing engine, which is awfully awesome. (Jaguar fixed nearly all the XK120’s ergonomic and mechanical shortcomings with the XK140 introduced in late 1954.)
Once you manage to get yourself into an XK120, it becomes painfully obvious that this is indeed a styling-exercise-turned-production-car. I’m 5′11″, and the XK120’s driving position is . . . bizarre. My head pokes out above the windscreen. My left elbow sits well outside the car. My knees press up under the dash and rub the backside of the large-diameter steering wheel. To operate the pedals, my ankles flexed into positions feared by circus contortionists. The passenger side offers a bit of relief from this ab-crunching torture, but it’s about as close to comfort as Coventry is to Copiapó.
In terms of driving dynamics, the XK120 is best described as a high-performance tractor. You have an engine with seemingly limitless grunt. You’re wrestling it around with a steering wheel the size of a XXL pizza. You spar endlessly with the Moss gearbox, noted for a straight-cut non-synchro 1st and barely-synchro everything else. You have drum brakes that may or may not stop you, depending on random chance or planetary alignments. Leaf springs and recirculating-ball steering wrap up the whole rustic package of chassis vagueness.
But man oh man, does this thing GO! If you can flex your knee and ankle in the unnatural position required to press the go pedal the XK120 takes off. It was as if Jaguar foreshadowed the Muscle Car 16 years before the Pontiac GTO. Is it any wonder that the very first (and only until 2008) NASCAR race won by an import car was with a Jaguar XK120? When the engine starts growling and the landscape around you begins to blur, the endorphins erase all the pain caused by the Dick Cheney approved ergonomics.
Man is this thing a hoot to drive. Which is exactly what Sir William had in mind.