Standing in the rain with his father at the Revival watching C-types and XK120s drift round corners left its mark on Angus Doe. He’s wanted to drive one ever since, and today we’re making that happen. Words Russ Smith. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
The List Reader Angus Doe has long harboured a desire to take a drive in the dramatically styled Jaguar XK120. Thanks to Classic Cars, that itch has been scratched. Jaguar XK120 drive. We grant a 31-year-old’s wish.
Aston Martin V8 Vantage ‘The late Nineties one – what a bruiser!’
Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint ‘Just about the last straight-six Alfa and so underrated’
1962-64 Ford Galaxie ‘Preferably a two-door with 390 or 427cu in big-block V8’
Lancia Integrale ‘I want to see if the handling really beats the Audi quattro’
Range Rover Classic ‘An early two-door – so much class and a V8 soundtrack’
Lotus Esprit S4S ‘Preferably in mustard yellow. Looks fantastic and has punchy performance’
BMW M3 E46 CSL ‘My father had an M3 but this must be in a different league’
Stunning, isn’t it? It’s all about the bonnet, and I love the rear wheel spats – those and the bubble roof make it look like one of those Thirties Bugattis with the teardrop styling.’ This month’s lucky reader, Angus Doe, is buzzing with excitement at his first glimpse of the 1954 Jaguar XK120 fixed-head whose wheel we’re about to put him behind.
We’re stood in the beautifully converted barn that houses the cars at North Yorkshire’s Classic and Sportscar Centre, supping tea and waiting for the early fog to lift. It’s a good time to pose the question that’s been bugging us since we saw Angus’s emailed wishlist of cars.
People are usually drawn to the cars they saw and lusted after when growing up, and indeed much of his list is filled with just the kind of Nineties hero cars you’d expect from a 31-year-old petrolhead – Lancia Integrale, BMW E46 M3, Lotus Esprit S4S. Among these, his inclusion of a sixty-plus-year-old Jaguar XK120 grabbed our attention like a Pagani Zonda in a retirement home car park. So tell us, Angus, why the Jag?
‘It’s their exclusivity compared to the omnipresent later E-type, and the fact that I practically worship the Jaguar C-type. This is the roadgoing link to that car, and of course the XKs have a significant amount of their own competition history too.
‘I’ve seen a lot of classic cars racing in the past and remember dragging my father to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1996 when I was just 11, so I suppose I started early. Dad and I also later stood in the rain quite a few times at the Goodwood Revival, noting the lap times down on soggy paper programmes, wearing our Barbour wax jackets. Often XK120 and C-types featured, looking great and drifting round corners. There’s just something about that early Fifties styling; they’re what I consider the connoisseur’s choice.
‘In recent years I’ve also watched videos of people like Jay Leno using JD Classics-prepared XK120s/XK150 on the Mille Miglia, and saw one of those actual cars at a JD Classics open day – it’s based just ten minutes from where I live in Essex – and that re-confirmed things for me. I also enjoy the somewhat rose-tinted view that this was made when Britain was a true world leader in cars, despite the post-war austerity and so on.’
‘There’s something about the early Fifties styling; the XK120 is what I consider the connoisseur’s choice’
Nice to know there’s a future enthusiast base for these cars; we just hope the reality of driving one doesn’t disappoint. But first we have to deal with the issue of getting Angus into the car. He’s peering through the small door opening with a quizzically raised eyebrow. ‘I’m five-eleven and a bit wide – I hope I’m going to fit.’ Quite a few people had the same issue back in the day, which is why for the XK140 fixed-head that replaced this car the following year, Jaguar moved its front bulkhead forward and gave the car a 6.5-inch longer roofline to enlarge the cockpit. On top of that our XK120 has the added wriggle factor of period-style bucket seats. I won’t call it an elegant process, but you sense Angus was going to get behind that wheel whatever it took.
Angus loved the XK120’s long-distance cruising gait. Reader Angus is an advocate of subtle, user-friendly modifications like the smaller wheel and disc brakes. The XK120’s profile as so often seen by Angus at the Goodwood Revival – at speed.
‘Once you’re in, it feels good,’ he grins. ‘I like the steering wheel close like this, but the pedals are a bit of a stretch away. My knees are hitting the dash and my left foot is catching something above the clutch pedal but I’m sure I’ll get used to it; it’s all part of the driving experience.
‘It’s not often you get this kind of excitable anticipation when you’re an adult – rather like how I used to feel on Christmas Eve when I was growing up.’
Time to fire it up, with a twist ‘It’s not often excitable ant an adult – it’s used to feel of the tiny key and a guess at which of the unmarked buttons in the beautifully refinished walnut veneer dash operates the starter – the black one above the ammeter, it turns out. ‘That’s a first for me,’ says Angus. ‘I’ve never driven a car with a separate starter before. The two-stage process makes it more of an experience.’
He slips the gearlever into first and we’re off. It’s a five-speed Getrag box rather than the original Moss four-speed – one of this car’s subtle user-friendly modifications, along with a front disc-brake conversion. I’ve been slightly concerned about Angus not getting the pure 120 experience, but he’s quick to set my mind at rest.
‘This is how I like cars – original looks but with mechanical upgrades to improve them, especially stuff like brakes. My 1966 step-front Alfa Giulia Sprint has a 2.0-litre Twin Spark engine under the bonnet. ‘This gearbox makes things easy, certainly compared with what I’ve heard about the standard one. It’s quite slick and there’s none of the driveline shunt that you often get in older cars, though the clutch is still pretty heavy, with all the action at the bottom end of its travel.
‘The engine is fantastic, much better than I thought it would be, with instant throttle response – no delay like you get in more modern cars. It feels lovely; and especially in second and third gears it really wants to go. It’s nice when you rev it out a bit but it also has such good torque, which is what you want for relaxed long-distance driving. And there’s always that glorious straight-six sound.’
‘It’s not often you get excitable anticipation as an adult – it’s like how I used to feel at Christmas’
He glances down. ‘I love the rev counter. You see watches designed to replicate that now. And it’s odd – but nice – how the rev counter runs anticlockwise, the opposite way to the speedo as if they’re mirrored. So many great details that make the car, and you, feel special. It’s like I’m an aristocrat in my own fantasy world; a gentleman off to the races.
‘It’s lovely to go from slight anticipation to feeling like you are confident and can enjoy yourself as time behind the wheel moves on. I think the biggest surprise with this car has been that the time between the two phases was much shorter than expected. Now I’m settled this Jag is so usable that I feel I could drive it anywhere… though perhaps not in the rain.’ It’s those tiny, flat wipers, struggling to clear the moisture from the still-lifting fog, with an added spattering of salty road spray. ‘They have two speeds – slow and slightly less slow. It’s the aspect of the car that most shows its age.’
We take a breather at a stopping point and take stock of the XK120. ‘This has that thing that I love about old cars – you don’t have to go fast to feel involved. And all the time you’re having to work for it. I feel like it’s putting hairs on my chest. Is that wrong to say? ‘And that thing where people see an old car and think it’s going to hold them up. They’d be wrong with this Jag, it’s still a performer. I’m at the stage where I want to push it harder, but have to hold back because of these damp roads and not knowing the car well enough.
‘These seats may be hard to get in and out of but I do like the lateral support they give. If this XK were mine I’d want to take it to a wide-open slippery space to find out where its limits are. It does seem like it would slide about. It feels progressive, but I’d like to know how much of a hero I could be at drifting the tail out.’
Heroics aside? ‘The colour really suits the shape because it picks out the lines so well; darker hues would lose some of that. It’s not super-ostentatious but looks so classy. I’m no car designer, but how could it possibly look any better? Some of the details too, like under the bonnet. I love the way that the radiator is laid back to slot between where the wings taper towards each other. And the oil filler cap is something I’d happily have as a paperweight on my desk; it’s a work of art on its own.’
Rooting around in the boot for a cloth, we find the car’s original 18in Bluemel steering wheel – the car currently wears a smaller but still period-looking Moto-Lita woodrim. Angus hadn’t realised. ‘Bloody hell! That wheel looks like it belongs on a boat. No wonder it’s been taken off – there’s no way I could drive the car with that fitted, or even get in it.’ Another difference in the XK140 was an inch-smaller wheel, but that wouldn’t have made much difference here.
Back behind the wheel and exploring some more of North Yorkshire’s finest lightly trafficked backroads, Angus’s growing confidence is evident in the way he’s beginning to analyse the car in finer detail. ‘It has quite a choppy ride on smaller roads but is otherwise good, and it’s never uncomfortable. I’ve also just noticed that there are no sun visors. It’s so cosy in here and the roof is so low that you don’t actually need them. Besides, there’s hardly room to fit them anyway.’
Despite being upgraded, the brakes need a firm shove. ‘That’s the element of the driving that would take me longest to trust, and even then I’m not sure I’d want to take it down an Alpine pass. There’s so much torque from the engine, and it’s so well behaved. It really holds the higher gears well so it can actually be quite relaxing to drive, not constantly having to change gear to keep up good progress.’
With the winter light starting to wane again we finally head back to base. It’s still not going to be easy to get Angus out of the Jag, though, for enjoyment as well as physical reasons. ‘I honestly could have driven the car for much longer. I absolutely loved the whole experience. I think the XK was great when pottering, and even better when grabbing it by the scruff of the neck. My real dream would be to take it on a long continental run with my fiancée – it would be a great car in which to get close to a lady.
‘I often think that the first of the breed is the purest, and to my mind that is definitely the case here. It’s the same reason I like my 1966 Giulia over the later ones, which may be quicker but have lost an element of what made them special in the first place. I used to think of the roadster XK120, but now my daydreams will always feature that evocative curved-bubble cockpit of the fixed-head. ‘This point was further rammed home when I had a chance to look at both XK140 and 150 FHCs at the Classic and Sportscar Centre. Next to this they look a bit bloated. For me the 120 really is the one to have despite its cramped cockpit. I could always put standard seats back in; I hear there is a set with this car.
‘Add to that a legendary and very tuneable and robust engine and I think it’s a winner. At the end of the day it’s not cheap, but I feel like this is just one of the classiest cars money can buy. I think I could adapt to owning one quite easily, especially one with a C-type-spec engine. Perhaps if I sold all my cars… and surely the market is going to come down one day?
‘There are faster classics, more valuable ones and so on, but this has a confident and effortless air to it. It doesn’t need to prove anything; it looks the business, drives well and has all that heritage. ‘That was awesome.’
Thanks to Classic & Sportscar Centre (classicandsportscar.ltd.uk) where this 1954 Jaguar XK120 FHC is for sale.
THE IMPORTANT MODELS
XK120 OTS (ALLOY) 1948-1950 Conceived as limited production model to showcase Jaguar’s new twin-cam engine. First cars coachbuilt with alloy panels over a steel and ash frame to save costs. Bulging order book soon puts paid to idea of just 200 cars.
XK120 OTS (STEEL) 1950-1954 Using pressed steel for most of the body sped up production, but the cars were far from all steel – opening panels aluminium; floorpans wooden. Other differences include resited fuel tank and stronger boot floor crossmember.
XK120 FHC 1951-1954 More than just a welded-on roof, coupé was redesigned from the front wings backwards and got wind-up windows and quarterlights in place of the OTS’s removable side screens. Floors were now steel with plywood heel area.
XK120 DHC 1953-1954 A kind of interim model, the drophead retained the FHC’s integral A-pillars and windup windows in fixed frames but combined these with a neater and more weatherproof hood arrangement. December 1953 saw door skins changed from aluminium to steel.
XK120 C 1951-1954 Better known as the C-type, 54 were built for racing. Won Le Mans, though several were also used as road cars. Engine tuned to 204bhp, mounted in aerodynamic alloy body over tube steel chassis. Torsion bar rear suspension; rack-and-pinion steering. Disc brakes in 1953.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1954 Jaguar XK120 FHC
Engine 3442cc inline-six, iron block, alloy head, dohc, two 1.75in SU H6 carburettors
Power and torque 160bhp @ 5400rpm; 195lb ft @ 2500rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Burman recirculating ball
Front: independent by upper and lower wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar Rear: live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and leverarm dampers
Brakes Drums front and rear
Weight 1379kg (3037lb)
Performance Top speed: 121mph; 0-60mph: 9.9sec
Fuel consumption 21mpg
Cost new (1957 UK) £1140
Values now (2017 UK) £37,500-£95,000