Once little more than a showcase for the XK engine, the stunning XK120 became a sales phenomenon.
As Ian Appleyard’s legendary rallying XK120, NUB 120, proved during the early 1950s, this car was practically born to excel at motorsport, so it’s hardly a surprise to learn how good they are to drive today.
That said, it’s quite a large car, so is hardly fly-nimble, and the relatively ordinary steering, suspension and brakes (and, on unmodified cars, occasionally obstructive Moss gearbox) combine to make the whole driving experience feel very much of an era. Purists may take a very dim view of running gear upgrades, but done sympathetically and using Jaguar parts, they can transform an XK120 into a genuinely enjoyable sports car.
Taller drivers are strongly advised to make sure they can fit behind the steering wheel – the original four-spoker certainly looks the part, but its sheer size does swallow quite a bit of interior space.
You’re guaranteed to forgive the XK120 anything once you get it onto a B-road and open the taps, though. 160bhp might sound meagre today, but back in 1950, it was considered ballistic, and it does emit a truly fabulous snarl when pushed.
Power (bhp@rpm) 160bhp@5000rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 195 lb ft@ 2500rpm
Top speed 120mph
Gearbox 4-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
XK120s can be separated out into two distinct variants: the early all-alloy/ash framed cars (the first 242 cars built up to early 1950, all of which were hand-built roadsters); and the later, cars, which retained aluminium doors and bootlid/bonnet panels, but employed pressed steel elsewhere. Given that XK120 production ended in 1954, you’ll be extremely lucky to find a good car that hasn’t been at least part-restored by now, so watch on early cars for rotten or fractured wood frames and evidence of potentially corrosive electrolytic reaction in any areas where steel and aluminium panels meet.
On balance, it’s often preferable to go for a solid car with tired mechanicals, rather than vice versa. Rebuilding the legendary XK engine is hardly cheap, but when you discover that a new door costs £1500, and a wing can set you back by over £2700, it’s clear that the cost of a full body restoration can spiral out of control, especially if it’s entrusted to a marque specialist. More than any other classic car, it’s strongly advisable to buy the very best example you can afford when hunting out an XK120.
Painstaking originality doesn’t have a huge impact on values (apart from within the rarefied circles of concours competition), although very early models with plain wheels and rear arch spats are generally preferred left as originally intended, rather than upgraded with basket wire wheels and removed spats. Returning modified cars back to original spec isn’t particularly difficult, although reversing other popular modifications (bonnet louvres, leather bonnet straps, etc.) can be trickier, and may involve a considerable outlay.
Since the XK120’s six-cylinder engine came into being before the car itself, this is clearly the heart of the matter. Broadly speaking, it’s a strong unit, although it does tend to use oil and isn’t immune to poor cooling. Persistent stalling can often be traced back to something simple, like a blocked petrol tank breather or incorrect valve clearances, while a rattling noise from the bottom of the engine suggests that the timing chain is on its last legs. Since replacement involves removal of the engine, this can be a deal-breaker.
All XK120s were factory-fitted with the (in)famous Moss gearbox, which was relatively unpopular when new, and doesn’t take kindly to rushed changes. Upgrading to a later, all-synchromesh gearbox is common; the XJ6’s overdrive transmission is a popular choice, although transplanting a Getrag five-speeder is a more straightforward swap, just so long as the ’box comes with an adaptor plate to allow it to marry up with the bellhousing. Budget on £3500 for a reconditioned unit.
Supermodel looks notwithstanding, the XK120’s steering and suspension setup is relatively ordinary, with a torsion bar and telescopic dampers up front, and a leaf-sprung live axle out back allied to lever arm dampers. Steering is recirculating ball. It’s not uncommon for XK120s to be uprated using later XK140 components (telescopic dampers, rack and pinion steering), while specialists can re-build and modify existing steering to eliminate an original design flaw that can cause premature wear.
Half shafts are a known weak point on XK120s, simply because they are so rarely properly maintained or, indeed, replaced. Given enough time and neglect, the oil seal will wear a deep groove in the shaft, which will eventually break it, with inevitable consequences. It’s a similar story with the front stub axle, although eventual failure here on cars with drum brakes can be more serious, as it frequently takes a wheel with it.
Don’t even think about attempting to buy an XK120 on a shoestring budget – remember this was the Bugatti Veyron (albeit a very good value one) of its day, so running costs are likely to be similarly rarefied.
That’s not to say owning one is an impossible dream, however: be prepared to pay for the very best car your bank account can muster and make sure you have a contingency fund on standby for potentially strenuous repairs, and there should be no horror stories waiting for you in future years.
Choose wisely, and you’ll have a piece of genuine iconic motoring history parked in your garage. Every drive will be an exhilarating event, every fuel-stop will make you the centre of attention, and it’s probably about as close to depreciation-proof classic motoring as you’re ever likely to get.
A classic superstar if ever there was one.
The XK120 must surely rate among the most beautiful cars ever made. It’s not especially quick in standard tune, and an unmodified car can prove a challenging handful to the unfamiliar driver, but the sheer drama a sorted example evokes is addictive.
And drama is key to the XK120’s general appeal. Even today, an early roadster (which has a plainer interior and much simpler lightweight soft-top than the later DHC) stands out a mile from the crowd, the deceptive simplicity of its flowing lines bereft of the increasingly heavy-handed jewellery that befell the dynamically superior, but aesthetically fussier XK140 and XK150 DHCs in later years.
It’s also that rarest of classic cars – a true icon. Jaguar founder and design chief William Lyons only ever intended the car to be a short-lived rolling showcase for the new XK engine, so he was genuinely taken aback by the huge interest the car generated at its 1948 London Motor Show debut. Such was its success, in fact, that it took another icon to finally eclipse it – and that car (the E-Type) wasn’t launched until 1961.