Unique Jaguar driven… On the road in his magnificently restored Pinin Farina XK120. Rare Breed. It’s a Jaguar XK120. Only it’s bodied by Pinin Farina. And so it’s unique. Robert Coucher takes to the road. Photography Matthew Howell.
Robert Coucher drives this unique Jaguar.
This 1954 Jaguar XK120 SE by Pinin Farina is one of the rarest Jaguars in existence. Based on the underpinnings of a Jaguar XK120 SE Roadster, it is one-of-one – the only XK120 with a Pinin Farina body. If that doesn’t get the heart rate of a collector of unique coachbuilt cars racing, nothing will.
Jaguar launched its fabled XK120 at the 1948 London Motor Show as a test bed for its new twin-cam six-cylinder engine. The car was an open two-seater (OTS), chassis number 660001, and its curvaceous coachwork received such a positive response that Jaguar boss William Lyons decided to put in into production. It was followed by a fixed-head coupe (FHC) and drophead coupe (DHC), the result being that the XK120 line-up became regarded as one of the best of Jaguar’s designs. Indeed, with a top speed of 120mph, the XK120 was the fastest production car you could buy, so it is rather special.
Why did Jaguar sanction this XK120 by Pinin Farina? In one word: America. In the 1950s, Britain was on an export mission and its motor industry was critical in the ‘export or die’ drive. Most Jaguar XKs were exported to America, so Jaguar Cars Ltd was keen to keep its US customers happy. New York-based importer of luxury European automobiles, the Austrian-born Max Hoffman, was a hugely important influencer and player in the top end market – he commissioned the architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design his Jaguar Hoffman Auto Showroom at 430 Park Avenue, Manhattan, so you can imagine the pull he had at Browns Lane. Hoffman is credited with ‘creating’ the masterful Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing W198, the stripped-out Porsche 356 Speedster and the elegant BMW 507 to satisfy the needs of his wealthy US customers, so his influence extended into Europe too.
‘On its original twin SU curbs and standard cams, this is the smoothest XK engine I have ever experienced’
When Max Hoffman put in a request, most manufacturers were more than happy to comply. But for this one-off creation he simply purchased a standard 3.4-litre Jaguar XK120 OTS in Special Equipment specification. That included the more powerful 180bhp engine fitted with a C-type cylinder head, a firmer suspension set-up, wire wheels and a twin exhaust, a specification known as the the ‘M roadster’ in the United States. Completed on 5 April 1954, the Jaguar was shipped to Pinin Farina in Turin on 25 May, where the unique coachwork was begun.
The Italian coachbuilder utilised much of the original steel Jaguar bodywork, adding an aluminium bonnet and bootlid. The running gear remains totally standard, which must be a good thing for roadability and reliability. The finished car was unveiled at the 1955 Geneva motor show and then the Autocar show that followed in the April. It was due to go on to the Turin show in 1956 but the American owner lost patience and it headed west instead.
The Pinin Farina XK remained in America for years and was then bought by a German collector in 1978, who intended to restore it – at some point it had been repainted in burgundy and the seats recovered in tan leather. Then, in 2015, Classic Motor Cars of Bridgnorth quietly purchased the somewhat deteriorated Jaguar and set about a full nut-and-bolt restoration, with the intention of returning it to original specification and condition. In total some 6750 man-hours were invested in the job. You wouldn’t want to multiply that by the hourly rate.
CMC found the Jaguar to be in a poor state, rotten from the waistline down, with numerous unique parts missing. The front-end bodywork had to be completely rebuilt, as did the rear quarter-panels, inner arches, boot floor, sills and doorskins. Missing parts included the lights, bumpers and chromework fittings, which had to be remade by hand. In some instances, 3D scanning was used – the rear window was long gone, so the aperture was scanned and new glass created. Missing doorcards were made up with shapes and patterns as used on similar Pinin Farina cars of the period. The CMC team found a small sample of the original leather, which was matched with the originally supplied Connolly Vaumol in Ochre. And when the windscreen was removed, a small patch of the original paint was discovered and also matched exactly.
The XK chassis, suspension, steering, brakes and engine were all stripped and rebuilt to original specification just in time for the Jaguar to be shipped to this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey. As a precaution the XK was fitted with a quick-release electric fan but it behaved perfectly on the Pebble Tour, driven by CMC’s founder Peter Neumark, as well as on the Concours lawn, where this unique car won the runner-up award in the Post-War Closed Class.
With the XK back in England I’m invited up to CMC in Shropshire to take a closer look and drive it around the country lanes. I’m joined by CMC’s new managing director, Nigel Woodward, previously of Jaguar Land Rover Classic and Aston Martin Works Service. Removing his jacket and tie, Nigel shrugs on an anorak and makes for the Jaguar. ‘I haven’t actually driven this XK before,’ he says as he squeezes his six- foot-plus frame into the tight cockpit, which is of more Norman Dewis dimensions. Off down the lanes Nigel is totally at home, driving the car with confident skill. Smooth and controlled, he relishes double-declutching up and down the Moss ’box, is progressive on the brakes, and extends the 180bhp 3.4-litre with enthusiasm. Makes it all look easy.
Now it’s my turn. Getting in through the small door into the left-hand seat (it was built for America) is tight, as is the available space once you’re in: that broad, near-vertically mounted steering wheel is a short distance from the similarly upright seatback. The engine fires easily with a push of one of the identical- looking black knobs on the dash but, thanks to the quirks of the original Moss gearbox, you need to be careful when selecting first gear because reverse is right next to it, slightly to the left. Hie throw is long as is the pull back to second gear, which is slightly hampered by the seat; it takes a little time to re-learn. Slow and smooth is the way to go. Up into top (no overdrive), and the gearing proves perfectly suited to country roads but maybe a bit low for long motorway journeys.
An XK120 FHC’s cabin is not exactly voluminous, and the Pinin Farina’s roof is even lower. Fortunately, I’m just the right size and, as I become ever more comfortable behind the wheel, I notice how taut the car feels on the move. No doubt the standard Jaguar XK underpinnings help but that 6750-hour restoration is clearly in evidence.
You don’t feel or hear the bodywork and chassis flexing, there are no rattles at all, the suspension doesn’t crash and wind noise is muted. The XK120 had a steering box – replaced by a superior rack-and-pinion in the 140 – so there is always going to be a bit of slack in the system. But once loaded into a corner it’s accurate and light enough thanks to the large diameter of that beautiful thin-rimmed black steering wheel. And although the XK has unassisted drum brakes all round, and they need a firm shove, they are well up to the task for street use.
With the quiet road opening up and with good sightlines, a down-change elicits a lovely six-cylinder bark from the exhaust and the 3.4-litre starts to work.
What a wonderful mill this one is. On its original twin l3/4in SU carbs and standard cams, this is the smoothest XK engine I have ever experienced, if not the most powerful. With loads of torque from idle, it revs cleanly and creamily right up to the 5800rpm redline. Change up and it does it all again, which is a pleasure thanks to the light and feel some clutch. The engine sounds neither laboured nor short of breath and the reciprocating balance is amazing. Clearly every horse has been extracted: that fellow Andrew Turvey at CMC certainly knows how to blueprint an engine to the finest of tolerances.
As the road tightens down to a bumpy lane you have to keep the car well over to the left, being careful to ensure that the inexact steering doesn’t deflect the Jaguar across the centreline. The car is shod with period-correct 6.00/16 Avon Turbospeed crossplies and they sure feel vintage. They’re perfect for concours and shows, but after 1951 Jaguar offered the ‘sporting driver’ the option of 185 VR16 Pirelli Cintura radials. Their Cinturato descendants are the ones I’d opt for if the Pinin Farina were to be used in the manner that its sweet engine and pliant chassis deserve.
We pull over and take time to study the XK Pinin Farina in close detail. The initial impression is of restrained elegance. PF cleverly kept the distinctive Jaguar ‘face’ with those signature headlights and radiator grille. The front wings are sculpted and curvaceous, as you’d expect of an XK, and the car’s stance is rakishly low, so much so that there are two little teardrops (nipples, if you like) let into the bonnet to clear the two front cam cover nuts atop the engine.
The original colour scheme of pale metallic green over darker green is very discreet, helped by the matching wire wheels. Then there’s all the Pinin Farina jewellery, such as the chrome headlamp surrounds, sidelights, strakes, PF badging, stylised bumpers and neat Marchal marker lights fitted to the C-posts.
One aspect I don’t think is quite resolved in the design is the location of the rear wheels within the car’s overall dimensions. They appear too far forward in the coachwork but this might be due to the long tail section. And maybe the rear of the Pinin Farina is less attractive than the front with its wide window, large boot and long rear wings. It’s certainly not as cute as the original XK’s pert and curvy hindquarters.
It gets better inside, though. The PF’s striking interior is fabulous. Open the driver’s door and you are struck by that vivid Ochre leather as Connolly’s finest emits the most alluring aroma. And the steering wheel is a masterpiece. The correct Smiths instruments are on parade but ensconced in a beautifully wrapped leather dashboard, the seats are luxuriously padded, and the doorcards exude quality craftsmanship with their armrests, pleats and pockets. Carpeting and headlining are rich and thick, and the chrome window winders and doorpulls are pure Pinin Farina fare, as you might find in a Ferrari or Lancia of the period.
CMC, thanks to detailed research, excellent craftsmanship and modern techniques, has more than succeeded in returning this Jaguar by Pinin Farina to perfect original condition. But what’s more surprising is how well its on-road dynamics have been finessed. The engine, coachwork and chassis are first class and this is a car you really should enjoy driving.
But the $64,000 (and some) question is this: is the one-of-one 1954 Jaguar XK120 SE any better-looking than Jaguar’s signature XK120 FHC? The question is, of course, rhetorical, as this is something for the collector of unique coachbuilt motor cars. Yes, this unique XK is for sale and if you decide to add it to your collection then please take it out for a blast to savour its Pinin Farina specialness – but also to enjoy its innate Jaguar soul. Every stonechip will be worth it.
More information at classic-motor-cars.co.uk.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1954 Jaguar XK120 SE by Pinin Farina
Engine 3442cc straight-six Jaguar XK, DOHC, twin 13Ain SU carburettors
Max Power 180bhp @ 5800rpm / DIN
Max Torque 204lb ft @ 4000rpm / DIN
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and nut
Suspension Front: double wishbones, torsion bars, lever-arm dampers. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, lever-arm dampers
Performance Top speed 120mph / 0-60mph 8.8 seconds
Above Fully integrated styling is a step on from the standard XK’s sweeping wings, though cab-rear proportions appear awkward to some. Left and right Detailing marks out the Pinin Farina XK120 from the standard car; on counry roads it’s a joy to drive. Clockwise from above Straight-six is familiar, and in original XK120 SE tune; nose is recognisably Jaguar too; interior features fine leather, standard clocks but a surprisingly modem rethink in style.