By on July 15, 2009

“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.

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17 Comments on “Review: 1954 Jaguar XK120 Roadster...”

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    It may be an ergonomic nightmare, but gads, is it beautiful. Someone lock all of our auto designers in a room and force them to look at this and learn.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t agree with the ergonomic nightmare description. The car was never meant for people over 5’9″ tall, and with big feet (>size 9). When the car was designed, very few Brits were too big for the car.

      I drove my xk120 all over, finally selling it with 212,000 miles. I never had a sore back or rear end from the hours I spent in it. The gearbox is really delightful, after one learns how to use it. Double clutching on upshifts as well ad downshifts, when done perfectly give a high degree of satisfaction for a job well done. Having driven a 1940 Chevy truck with no synchronizers at all prepares one for the Jag.

      The only real problem with the brakes was what happened driving through very deep puddles. Once wet, they quit. However, for street use they never failed me.

      The original exhaust note can’t be beat. Very low speed steering was heavy, but fine road feel at speed.

      Time to stop complaining and enjoy the car.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Chuck stopped by for lunch in his exquisite XK-E yesterday. He and his son are headed down the coast to LA (and back). I hope his starter starts working again. I had to push him down the hill from my house to get him going. And it’s not a Lucas unit either! Godspeed Chuck, wherever you are today.

  • avatar

    Just last night I was watching an old movie and admired the hero’s gorgeous XK 120 (or 140?). An old Mike Hammer detective flick called Kiss Me Deadly, if anyone cares. And today, lookee here!.

    Before this article, I always knew that the old XK was drop dead beautiful. I did not appreciate the power that these old Jags had.

    Delightful article!

  • avatar

    Thanks Chuck.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Chuck: Great Report. Great Fun.

    “as close to comfort as Coventry is to Copiapó.”

    Looking at the Great Circle route:

    EGBE Coventry [West Midlands Airport], Warwickshire, England
    SCHA Copiapo [Chamonate], Chile
    6875 mi

    Try this instead:

    TXKF Bermuda Intl, Kindley Field
    YPPH Perth [Intl], WA, AU
    12389 mi

  • avatar

    That engine is a work of art. Simply beatiful.

    You should have posted a shot of the engine when you did the 300SL Roadster review.

    But I guess you’re going to review more cool old cars, so please, in the future, include them whenever possible.

  • avatar

    Every time I see one of these, I am reminded of my bitter disappointment when I discovered at the age of 20 or so that while I could with difficulty fit my 6-foot 2-inch frame behind the steering wheel of an XK120 coupe, I would not be able to drive it because there was no way I could get my foot onto the clutch pedal; the steering wheel was in the way. Then my friend’s father who owned a Mark VII sedan told me that the designers had forgotten to draw in a fuel tank, so the car had a little tank in each rear wheel well, and the associated valves and switchgear. I loved the looks of these old Jags ever since I became aware of them as a teenager, but I have yet to actually drive any Jaguar.

    • 0 avatar

      In 1959 I bought a 1954 XK120 MC (modified competition) roadster from Baylor M. Lowes, a US Bank (Portland) loan officer for  $1,450. (he was a great guy). It had Oregon Lic.plate number  “4-B”. In those days that was a real status plate.  Baylor told me he bought the car with that plate number registration already on it.  I was the 3rd owner.

      I was nineteen years old at the time.   The car was a light pea green color and fairly fast compared to other like Jags.  The roll bar had been removed and the sheetmetal holes had been filled in behind the seats.   The silver painted wire wheels were in perfect shape.  the Dunlap tires only fair.   I replaced them with a set of  wide white wall Firestone’s as I could buy Firestone’s wholesale but not any other brand..  Not being a purist I had it painted a 1958 Corvette metallic blue.  then dyed the leather from med green to black.  I liked it a lot better but most other XK120 owners  thought it was a terrible combination and should have been left as it was.  They even liked the primer it had from fixing a few hay bale mishaps and from filling in the roll bar holes.. Most hated the white wall tires. Looking back they were probably right but it was a gorgeous car.  

      An aside, the prettiest combination was a blond girl with a bright red XK120 roadster with tan leathers and chrome wires. Her dad was a well known boat builder.  she never said more than a few words to me as I was a few years younger, but her car was like new, maybe it was new. 
      I met my wife in that wonderful car…… now back to the car..

      The carbs were twin Solex 2 1/5″ or 3″ with non-polished rough cast aluminum bells rather than the normal SU cabs and had dual exhaust out the back.  the single muffler had two inlets and two outlets.. Probably the best sound of any car we have owned including some high winding twin cam fours.   

      I was just short of 6′ 2″ about 180 lbs and never had any problem driving the car.   I remember the car was a near perfect fit to me.  

      Blew a cam follower sleeve in San Fransisco, that summer on number 2 cylinder ,  Just ground off that cam lobe, pulled the spark plug and drove it home on 5 cylinders w/o any problems,  Got it home and rebuilt the head and Boracar machinest rebuilt the cam lobe.  Ran perfect for a few years.  
      Then  I got a rather stupid idea and sold it to a rancher in Pendleton Oregon.   Unfortunately the guy wrapped it around an underpass abutment on old Highway 30 just west of Pendleton, Oregon.  I understood neither he nor the car survived.  the State Police gave me the name of the insurance company as I wanted to buy the car for salvage.  they never called me back after several attemps   I have felt terrible over that for 45 plus years, both for his loss of life and the destruction of the car.  I don’t know if the car was was ever rebuilt.   We have had several great cars, but that Jaguar was probably the best, better than our XK150 FHC, or even our XK8 convertible.  Not for reliability or comfort or for anything else except for the sheer excitement of the sound, wind in our hair and driving that car down the winding West Coast Highways, over the mountains and any where else we choose to go..    
      A girlfriend’s folks from the nineteen fifties had several collector cars, one was a 1938? SS-100, black roadster, that got me started on Jaguars for life.   I did not know how rare that car was until much later.

      Now at age 70 we are still looking at collector cars. 

  • avatar

    An excellent review. – The bodywork and the drive train components may have been traditional, but the XK engine was cutting edge and as previous poster stated a work of art. –

    Often disparaged, those three SU HS6 make a smooth transition through the RPM’s and wonderful throaty sound. – Weber DCOE’s are throaty, but SU’s are more gentlemanly.

  • avatar

    The earlier ones has triple SU ( Skinners Union ), and later on became 2. And u know why it does that.

    The biggest I saw was when I was a kid in HK, i saw an Aston Martin DB 5 or 6 with 2 super big SU i think , but they were humongous , arthritis big or F cup size.

    Thanks for these nice posting.
    I bet 40 yrs from now if there cars & gas still around us Gear heads will still be reminiscing on cars this era.

    Cars built in recent times just does not cut it.

  • avatar

    Sigh, as a kid I’d often pass the Browns Lane factory on the way to Gran’s house and feast on the array of XKs, E-types and XJs that were always sitting in the front lot. They lit the fire of desire in a boy too young to appreciate girls. There was nothing but weeds gathering in an empty lot last time I passed.

  • avatar

    I knew something was off with the discussion there – this is likely a later engine from a 140 or 150 (don’t remember when they went to the orange valley between the cam cover) – and likewise with the carbs – the early models had two large SUs, and I’m not sure if it was the XK150s or only the XKEs that went to the triple setup. Either way, great to see this as a review – my father’s ’53 FHC will run one day.

  • avatar

    Paul Niedermeyer: Thanks again for the lunch! My starter is actually fine. We’ve figured out that it is my starter BUTTON on the dashboard that has the problem. Always something with an old car. I’ll fix it when I have a moment. From your place we went down the Oregon & NorCal Coast, and tonight are with a jag friend in Palo Alto, CA.

    Detroit-Iron: You’re welcome!

    Robert Schwartz: I chose the Chilean locale for both it’s anti-podean position and the alliterative ring to it. No place-names from Oz off the top of my head worked as well.

    Stingray (and others):
    That engine is a work of art. Simply beatiful.
    You should have posted a shot of the engine when you did the 300SL Roadster review.

    RF didn’t use my photos for the 300sl review.

    I just now noted that the engine pictured above is a later 3-carbed, 3.8 liter one from an early (61-64) E-type. My dad’s 120 had a rather grotty engine bay, so I wanted a photo of a cleaner one to show. The photo above is one I shot of a XK 120 that belongs to a Seattle Jag Club member who drove his car on a recent club tour. I neglected to look closely prior to using it, sorry. In the grand scheme of things it is not that far off from the original XK, but this particular one is NOT correct.


  • avatar

    In the shameless self-promotion department, more on the origins of this car (which Chuck recaps quite well) here:

  • avatar

    Hi Chuck
    I own two of these beauties an XK 120 FHC and an XK 150S OTS. Being of much shorter height than yourself they are well suited for my frame.

    It might be of interest to the readers of this column or website to know that I have formed the largest Global network of XK 120/140/150 and E-Type Owners on Facebook. Presently there are close to 700 pictures of XK 120/140/150/E-Types uploaded by their owners that you can browse through. Would love to have you and other XK 120/140/150 and E-Type Owners join the Group. Click on the link below or paste in your browser. Thanks

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth, I’ve also got a large group of XK pictures collected on Flickr… which you can peruse even if you’re not a member of the Facebook community.

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