Although it was clear from its 1948 British Motor Show debut that the XK 120 would be a quick car, Jaguar still needed to prove it. It first did so when Ron Sutton reached an astonishing 132.6mph on a closed section of Belgian motorway in May 1949, and then again at the car’s first race at Silverstone later the same year, which it won.
These, though, were European events. For Jaguar to become truly globally successful, it needed to crack the North American market. The car had already enjoyed a high profile thanks to Hollywood actor Clark Gable buying an early example, but what Jaguar needed was a race to prove the car’s performance.
In late 1949, buoyed by the XK 120’s Silverstone success, the usually cautious William Lyons agreed that the XK 120 that finished second – chassis 670001, the second right-hand-drive car built – would be shipped to New York for a race around the streets of Florida’s Palm Beach Shores on 3 January 1950, an event organised by the Sports Car Club of America. The man who had won at Silverstone, Leslie Johnson, was to drive it.
Johnson flew to New York in a long- range Boeing 377 Stratocruiser with one of Jaguar’s top mechanics, John Lea, via Iceland and Newfoundland. At the end of their long journey, the race didn’t happen.
Problems with the intended street circuit caused a last-minute switch to the privately owned Singer Island nearby, where a new 2.1-mile course was hastily created. Johnson had to contend with a highly competitive field of 34 other cars. They ranged from genuine production cars, such as MG TDs, Healey Silverstones and Allard J-types, to some extraordinary home-brewed specials including Briggs Cunningham’s Cadillac-engined Healey, a Ford-Riley, and the hotly favoured Ford-Duesenberg of George Huntoon, which had raced at the Indianapolis Speedway.
The race started when the XK 120 pace car (supplied by Jaguar’s East Coast importer, Max Hoffman) pulled over. Autocar’s race report reads, “In a subtropical setting of waving palms, sand dunes and stucco architecture, the raucous pack of 35 cars was on its way, jockeying towards the first of ten sharp corners that graced every two-mile lap.”
It’s an often-forgotten fact now, but Johnson was a fine driver who was totally at home in the XK 120. Records Autocar, “Leslie Johnson, driving with his usual artistic precision, nosed his red Jaguar into the succession of murderous corners to such good purpose that by the 12th lap he was in second place and going like a train.”
The twisty road layout didn’t allow the brakes to cool, though, so after chasing down leader Huntoon, Leslie’s XK 120 suffered from brake fade, allowing Briggs Cunningham’s Healey-Silverstone Cadillac and George Rand’s Ferrari to pass. The British driver still finished fourth, which was a fine result for the first-ever appearance of a works-supported Jaguar in an American motor race.
Even better, East Coast importer Max Hoffman had put up a trophy for the best performance by a British car and Donald Healey had offered another for the best production car, both of which Johnson’s XK 120 won (both seen in this picture of Johnson in the car taken after the race). It was the perfect publicity for Jaguar at the New York Motor Show six weeks later.
The car remained in America and was sold to Commander John Rutherford (who drove a Healey Silverstone in the same Florida race), giving it the second accolade of being the first XK-engined works racer to be sold. Even though it was campaigned throughout the Fifties and Sixties, this important car survives. Although Jaguar would enjoy much greater successes in America, mainly at the hands of Bob Tullius’ Group 44 outfit, Johnson’s Florida performance was the first to show the country what the XK 120 and the burgeoning British company was capable of producing.