In 1948 Jaguar developed the aluminium XK120 as a temporary solution. In the almost seven decades since then, the role of this lightweight sports car has changed to that of a milestone, next to becoming the most desirable XK of all. Our friends at one of Europe’s largest classic car dealerships Gallery Aaldering had one of only 240 Alloy Roadsters in their showroom and offered it for a drive.
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.
XK120 Alloy Roadster
Although the name changed, technically the company picked up right 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. 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 on the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium in May 1949 where it recorded a top speed of 132 mph (213 km/h). Only race cars and Ferraris costing three to four times more were capable of these speeds, so those who were still in doubt were convinced 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.
C-Type Le Mans
The car that Gallery Aaldering rolled out for us 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 on your lap. The view over the endless bonnet and beautifully curved fenders is majestic and this design illustrates that the engine plays a significant role. That is immediately evident when the start button is pushed and the large six cylinder barks to life. With all the liquids and oils still cold I take it easy and take 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 the 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 down shifting 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 the throttle goes to the floor in second gear and at the same time I cringe in fear.
A race car like bellow erupts from the single exhaust a few feet behind me. 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. What is even more surprising is how the car itself speeds up. 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 and basically every living creature within a mile 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 before that in fear of the law and the risk of having this 365,000 euro classic being confiscated.
It is always interesting to experience how different classic cars can be. Cars that have been on a personal wish list for many years can lose that status within a few miles, while others were never offered a second glance and all of a sudden shoot up into the top ten of all time best experiences. 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 very loud Italian classics I would probably not. But it sure as hell beats spending that budget on a fleet of new Jaguars, even if it includes 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 because even Jaguar says it in their advertisements: ‘It’s good to be bad’.
Special thanks to Gallery Aaldering for providing the Jaguar XK120 Alloy Roadster for a test drive.