#0068 - Jaguar XK-120 OTS, 1949
Photographed: Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance, 2009. Owner: not recorded
An Unconventional Acronym: The Open Two-Seater—official name of this roadster—was the first post-War sports offering from Browns Lane. After the car's launch at Earls Court in 1948, the Fixed-Head Coupe didn't arrive until 1951, and the Drop-Head Coupe some short time after that, comprising a roster of three variants aimed at different motorists, each one keeping with a particular British austerity in their model names. Apparently, roadster, coupe, and cabriolet were too pedestrian. But, rather like the Porsche 356 Speedster, the OTS gave a spartan approach to driving bottled up in an elegant, fast-looking form. And, contrary to all the name nonsense, the Jaguar was quite accessible.
Also like Porsche, Jaguar were comitted to the development of a single powerplant. But of course sporting interests were, at first, cursory for William Lyons. Therefore, the drive to push technology for the purposes of track day was something less fervent than Porsche's raison d'etre, and it has been recorded many times over how the Jaguar marque almost unassumingly fell into competition success. That said, I really shouldn't appear to downplay the XK-120. I just wish to speak without the usual dollops of hyperbole, (see the next section).
Murmurings of Greatness: Widely regarded as one of the best sports car packages ever issued for public consumption, the XK-120 is no great leap beyond a BMW 328, and quite less sophisticated in many respects. Often, the two are compared with one another, although it should be noted that the ethos of propulsion is vastly different between them. Regardless, the XK-120 was both comparable and available, and in the latter respect won great acclaim. For its part, I would say the biggest plus for the XK's ubiquity was that it set the standard of dual overhead-cam technology for road cars.
As for reliablity, well hindsight plays a major role in this equation. Decades worth of gremlins stymied critics and enthusiasts alike, but have been swept aside by the late collector car craze, an era that has seen considerable development applied to old problems. That said, today there are so many Jaguar specialists who can properly sort an XK or E-Type that it has become reasonable to expect these models to be among the most reliable in the world of classic sports cars. Keeping our line to the XK, these cars were made of very tough stuff—salon car motors and suspensions, bullet-proof gearboxes, and relatively few extras. So if there were problems with the cooling, weak drum brakes, or oil circulation, sixty years of development has given the XK-120 more solutions than it could ever have asked for.
Indeed, around the sixtieth anniversary of the XK-120, the fine folks at Octane made a case for the XK as the best possible choice for a classic sports car. Setting aside any bias, when you consider the cost, reliability, parts surplus, maintenance support, performance, and beauty of classic Jaguars, their case appears fairly solid. Perhaps only the classic Corvette has a similar balance of virtues, and so the question of which one to pursue is only a matter of personal style, to say nothing of nationalistic pride. (British journalists are amicable toward the Corvette up until the point that it challenges some sense of their perceived superiority, in which case they naturally promote their countrymen.)
For my part, however, it's six of one, one half-dozen of the other. The XK, and by association the E-Type, born of the same basic in-line six, is to England what the Corvette is to the United States, and similarly, we can of course extend the comparison to include the Porsche 356 of Germany. These are volume production cars that gave big performance to a vast number of enthusiasts for far less cost than was expected before the War. Each of them accomplished this task with a particular artistic flair and mechanical ethic, and was hugely successful all the same. Of course, I leave Italy out of the running at the moment because their concerns were not so volumetrically inclined, a fact which remains true to this day.
So, in conclusion, we'll keep the praise to a murmur. It's quite easy to be so positive about something that has enjoyed great popularity for the better part of its considerable lifetime—and that goes for the Corvette, too. As further comparison, we should of course note that Jaguar has a clear edge in terms of precedent, with the XK debuting in 1948, as opposed to a yet dissatisfied North American market that had to wait until 1956 to receive a real volume sports car of its own design, (note that I'm deliberately excluding the first generation Corvette here). The radical E-Type re-style was also a few years out ahead of the great Stingray Coupe, at least in terms of official launch, as we've noted in our text that the Stingray design that was released in 1963 actually dates from 1957.
In any case, if you're going to applaud Jaguar for anything and do so unequivocably, it should be their timing.
Morphology: The XK aesthetic is born from the BMW 328, Talbot-Lago T-150 C SS, and even the Bugatti Type 57 where the closed cars are concerned. Once again, the greatness of the XK-120 is not its claim to any of these artistic ancestors, but the fact that such lines were made available to a wide breadth of the motoring population. Mechanically, the XK-120 is most similar to the Talbot-Lago, which, of the trio mentioned, is the one with a big displacement, in-line 6-cylinder, dual overhead-cam motor. But the Jaguar's roadster body suggests a cross-polination of the T-150 and 328, with the result being a long and airy version of a late classic-era show car, and with not too much in the way of modernist updates, either. Therefore, to say the XK-120 was an instant classic is gilding the lily somewhat, because that's exactly how it was designed. A more pronouncable assessment might have been to say that it looked instantly dated, but it's just too handsome to stoop so low.
And Some Further Comparison: As an original exercise, the XK-120 is hardly top of the list—far less so than the Corvettes we've been discussing—but retains an unerring simplicity that avoids fault in every degree. Of course, Jaguar will change this approach with the E-Type, but if we consider historical context we will once again find ourselves turned to that concept of timing, which Jaguar seemed to have in spades more so than any other post-War auto manufacturer. What I mean is that the XK-120 was perfectly fit to instil desire within the day's enthusiast. For a sporting gentleman of 1948, this was the shape of what to drive. By the time the sixties rolled around, well, things were different, and Jaguar had an answer for that generation as well. No one else was so well in-tune with the market as William Lyons.
In this respect, we can forgive Jaguar their early lack of originality, for even the Corvette of a few years later was playing to a different era, fast as things were changing in the post-War market. The XK-120 was a perfect fit. And the way the marque developed it into the C-Type, the D-Type, and then to the E-Type shows how very good the original platform was.
So there, I hope we've covered the usual accolades with some sense of perspective. I suppose my take on the XK is almost fatalist, as if to say somebody was going to make the best mass-market sports car package, and that it's rather a function of time and place—being first to the table with a viable product—than any measure of inherent superiority. The automotive world has always been too subjective for that, anyhow, and so I love playing devil's advocate to the greatness mongers.
Octane Magazine: It's so easy to be a critic, but they are still the best out there. Issue #60 from June 2008 carried an extensive feature on sixty years of the XK, including that aforementioned case for the species as the best choice among all classic sports cars.
General Acknowledgements to Automobile Quarterly, Beverly Rae Kimes, Quentin Willson, Road & Track, Christie's, and most any other respected source to tread over this well worn territory.
UltimateCarPage: As always, more specifics can be found in their well appointed feature, although their horsepower figure might be a tad on the high side.Back to Index