It’s good to be bad
In 1948 Jaguar developed the aluminium bodied XK120 as a temporary solution. In almost seven decades, the role of this lightweight sports car evolved from a post-WWII stopgap, to one of the most desirable street cars in the history of the brand. My friends at one of Europe’s largest classic car dealerships Gallery Aaldering had one of only 240 Alloy Roadsters in their showroom and invited me to take it for a drive.
SS Cars Ltd.
The history of the brand that we know today as Jaguar, started in 1922 as the Swallow Sidecar Company founded by William Lyons and William Walmsley. This successful business expanded from manufacturing sidecars for motorcycles to producing car bodies under the name of Swallow Coachbuilding Company. The next step was manufacturing their own cars with the first model being the Swallow S.S.I in 1931 with an engine and custom built chassis supplied by Standard Motor Company. In 1934 Walmsley sold his shares and Lyons transferred the company to SS Cars Ltd while continuing to improve the cars. In 1935 the brand new SS Jaguar was launched, a name that was there to stay. Or at least part of it. During World War II production ceased but development at SS Cars continued and after the capitulation of Germany in 1945 the company name was changed from SS Cars to Jaguar Cars. According to Lyons: ‘…the name Jaguar cannot be connected or confused with any similar foreign name’, referring of course to the gruesome paramilitary SS organization from Nazi Germany.
Although the name changed, technically the company picked up where it had left in 1940. Before the war the SS Jaguar was available in three engine configurations and these were renamed to Jaguar 1½ Litre, 2½ Litre and 3½ Litre after the hostilities ended. Both chassis and engines were still supplied by the Standard Motor Company, but Jaguar had other plans in mind with the new Mark V Saloon. During the war SS Cars had already started design work on an engine of their own, yet decided not to put it in the new Saloon which got the old 2.5 and 3.5 straight sixes. At the same time a new open sports car was in development based on the same chassis with independent front suspension as the Mark V. The new and very advanced 3.4 litre six cylinder XK-series engine with double overhead camshafts was a perfect fit for this new sports car and so the XK120 was first shown to the public in 1948. The number 120 was chosen as a reference to the top speed because 160 bhp ought to be enough to propel the 2,900 lb (1,300 kg) car to 120 mph, and possibly beyond.
Demand for the XK was much higher than expected and Jaguar was forced to change their production methods
Jaguar chose to build the XK120 according to old fashioned production methods with a hand made aluminium body on an ash frame. The car was intended as a low production test bed for the new engine and a marketing tool for the upcoming Mark VII saloon, so assembling new presses and retooling the factory for a couple hundred cars would not be economically justifiable. Demand for the XK was much higher than expected though, and Jaguar was forced to change production methods to keep up with demand. It took until 1950 before the first steel XK120 was ready for production. Sales numbers were already at an impressive level, but to prove that the XK120 was worthy of its name, Jaguar took one to the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium in May 1949 where it recorded a top speed of 132 mph (213 km/h). Only race cars and Grand Touring cars costing three to four times more were capable of these speeds, so the news went ‘viral’ and Jaguar ended up selling over 12,000 examples (including the Coupé and the more luxurious Drophead Coupé) with only the first 240 copies from 1949 and early 1950 being Alloy body Roadsters.
The car that Gallery Aaldering rolled out for me has chassis number 670059, so it is the 59th example built. Purely going by the looks of it, the sleek body with its distinctive rear wheel covers could be French or Italian. The tiny doors are an indication that getting into the XK might be a bit of a challenge and the large steering wheel doesn’t make things easier. The best way to step inside, is to sit down sideways while keeping both feet on the ground and then slide in one leg after the other as gracefully as possible. Now it is of the utmost importance not to slam the almost weightless door to prevent the thin sheet of aluminium from bending or even ending up in your lap. The view over the endless bonnet and beautifully curved fenders is majestic and this design illustrates that the engine takes centre stage. The large straight six takes on an even more dominant role when it barks into life after a push on the start button.
The acceleration is raw and brutal and by the time I am ready to shift up to fourth gear I back off in fear of alarming the police, angry locals or any living creature within a mile from the XK
With all the liquids and oils still cold I take it easy and take my time to get to know the other controls, like steering and braking. Because of the low weight the steering is relatively light but there is definitely some play, so communication with the front wheels is not razor sharp. The four speed transmission needs a firm and direct hand, but the shifts are short and crisp and shifting down with a tap on the accelerator makes things much smoother. With all the internals at the right temperature and an empty stretch of road in front of me, the throttle goes to the floor in second gear and at the same time I cringe. A race car like bellow erupts from the single exhaust a few feet behind me, ringing my ears. This cannot be legal! Knowing what to expect the second time, I brace myself and stab the Jag again. The deafening roar intensifies further and further as the engine speed rises, but what is even more surprising is the way the car itself speeds up. The acceleration is raw and brutal and by the time I am ready to shift up to fourth I back off in fear of alarming the police, angry locals and basically every living creature within at least two miles from the XK.
The tiny windscreen doesn’t do much in the form of blocking the wind and this intensifies the sensation of speed even further. With a tight curve coming up I brake hard and this offers another exciting experience. Seventy year old brakes are not the best way to lose speed efficiently, but the low weight of the car helps a lot. At high speeds the balance of the XK is exceptionally good and the car feels agile and much more communicative than expected. It is not hard to imagine why this car was so successful during long distance races and even became the basis for Jaguars first Le Mans winning race car, the C-Type. Merging onto the highway leading back to Gallery Aaldering, the right paddle goes to the floor one more time and I scream past commuters as if they are standing still. Verifying the top speed of 120 mph is not on the agenda for today, so I back off to prevent this 365,000 euro classic from being confiscated.
Before experiencing a classic car for the first time, there is always a mild form of anxiety about what to expect. Models that have been on a personal wish list for many years can lose that status within only a few miles, while others that were never offered a second glance suddenly end up in your personal dream garage. After driving the most desirable variant of one of the most desirable Jaguars I can definitely say that this loud, fast and brutal supercar from the forties made a big impression and left a few permanent marks in my memory. Would I buy one then, if I were in the fortunate position to do so? Being a big fan of even louder Italian V12 classics I probably wouldn’t. But buying this XK sure as hell beats spending that same budget on a fleet of new Jaguars, even if this would include the F-Pace, XJ and F-Type. In that case I rather get some ear plugs and scare the living daylights out of everybody, with a villainous smile on my face. Even Jaguar says it in their advertisements: ‘It’s good to be bad’.
Special thanks to Nick Aaldering from Gallery Aaldering for providing the Jaguar XK120.