Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

1948-54 Jaguar XK-120

Actor Humphrey Bogart and his Jaguar XK-120

Actor Humphrey Bogart and his Jaguar XK-120

Eager to show off its powerful new inline six-cylinder engine at the 1948 London Motor Show, Jaguar mounted in a swoopy XK-120 concept car. The startlingly beautiful new sports job caused such a sensation that it was soon rushed into production, with the very first roadster sold to iconic Hollywood star Clark Gable. Jaguar soon found that the XK-120’s wood-framed aluminum body wasn't suited for mass production and steel was substituted after the first 242 cars were completed.

As the fastest production car in the world, The XK-120 earned its name, reaching what was then a scorching 120 m.p.h. on the open road. Standard models came with rear fender skirts that diminished aerodynamic drag while enhancing the cars’ sleek look.

The XK was right in so many ways that designers of both Chevrolet’s Corvette and Ford’s Thunderbird bought examples to study, copying its proportions to the inch when developing America’s answers. Its straight six cylinder engine was engineered well enough to power Jaguars well into the 1980s.

The XK-120 was offered in three guises: a roadster with removable side curtains, a drop-head coupe with roll-up windows, and a beautiful fixed-head coupe with steel top. It was replaced by the even faster XK-140 in 1955 capable of 140 M.P.H.—an unheard of speed then. While Ferraris added engine displacement to bully their way through air resistance, Jaguar's slippery shapes weren't just beautiful, they actually aided performance.

Malcolm Sayer, who styled the XK-140, also designed Jaguar’s C-Type, a re-bodied racing version that won the grueling 24 hours of Le Mans twice.  Reproductions are still being built.

Just over 12,000 precedent-setting XK-120s were built before the similar-looking, but more powerful XK-140 debuted in 1955. Today the XK-120’s gorgeous lines and sizzling performance make it a prime collectable that inspires furious bidding at prestige auctions.

Written by Jim Cherry