Last month, Bugatti released the Chiron, and we need to realign the hypercar pecking order yet again. Suddenly, 1,500-plus horsepower, 268 miles per hour, and $2.7 million is the new normal – all apologies to the $1.9 million, 1,500 horsepower also-new Koenigsegg Regera. In 2016, we don’t just have supercars anymore; the days when the Lamborghini Countach, or maybe the Vector W2 are long over. Now, we’ve got the almost, kind of attainable exotic, like maybe the BMW i8 or Ferrari 488 GTB. Then, beyond your run-of-the-mill Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and top-tier Porsches and Astons, you’ve got your cutting edge, oh-my-god-we’re-living-in-the-freaking-future hypercars that wed performance and technology like the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder, and LaFerrari. Koenigsegg and Bugatti lie somewhere beyond that, along with interlopers like the Lamborghini Centurion.
Got all that?
It’s a lot. But of course, there always has to be a first, and in the case of the supercar/hypercar/overall dream cars, before Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche, there was the Jaguar XK120. In a world slowly emerging from catastrophe, it was a lightning bolt; a beautiful, cutting edge car that managed to skip right over the present to bridge the gap between past and future. It also happened to be the fastest car in the world.
In 1948, The Big Three were still a year away from releasing the first all-new postwar models, and early sports cars like the Kaiser Darrin, Nash-Healey and Chevrolet Corvette were over five years away. The newest cars you could buy in the U.S. came from the tiny Kaiser-Fraser corporation. In England, the country stayed swept up its postwar austerity measures up through 1950, with sacrifices like sugar rationing staying in place until 1954.
But the seeds of change were already taking root on both sides of the Atlantic. American servicemen stationed in England were being sent back to the States, and some were taking their lithe little MG sports cars back to race on weekends. Behind the scenes, a businessman named David Brown bought the struggling Aston Martin brand and began developing the DB model cars (James Bond’s favorite), and in a tiny shop in Coventry, a new brand named Jaguar sought to build the best sports car in the world.
While most Americans had never seen a sports car before 1946 or so, the British had the lightweight and fast fundamentals down well before the war broke out. In 1934, the Swallow Sidecar company shifted its focus from crafting motorcycle sidecars to try its hand at coachbuilding. While it had some success re-bodying cars from Austin, Morris, and Wolseley, founder William Lyons wanted to build a sports car to rival the growing number of offerings from MG, Morgan, and Aston Martin. After several one-offs, the company released the SS 90, an impressively fast and luxurious roadster. It followed up with the even more powerful SS 100, which established SS as one of the most high profile sports car builders in England.
Production ceased once the war broke out, but it shifted back to cars almost immediately afterwords. On May 23, 1945 the company officially announced it was back, but with a big change: Thanks to the recent events in Europe, it didn’t exactly want to be associated with the “SS” name anymore, so it borrowed name of one of their prewar sedans, and became Jaguar.
The company made ends meet by relaunching its prewar sedans, but instead of restarting SS 100 production, the company threw its resources into a thoroughly modern sports car. While the SS 100 could hit the 100 mile per hour mark and scramble from zero to 60 in around 11 seconds (impressively quick for the era), Jaguar wanted its new car to outshine the old car in every way. According to legend, Lyons told his chief engineer Bill Heynes as they worked on engine designs during the Blitz that if they survived the war, the company would start designing its own engines. With the war over and a new sports car on the drawing board, it became top priority for the company.
By 1947, a working prototype (the XG) was being put through its paces in Coventry. A year later, Heynes and his team had developed the XK engine, the powerplant that would come to define the company for decades. A 3.4 liter straight-six, the engine used a novel twin-cam design that made it robust, easy to modify, and per Lyons edict, also looked good. It was the perfect engine for Jaguar’s newest car, which was beginning to take shape.
William Lyons was trained as an engineer, but had no formal design training, which is what makes the XK120 all the more impressive. Lyons used his knowledge of aerodynamics and an admiration of the BMW 328 to design the car, which he did in a sketch pad over two weeks. The final product, with its hand-formed aluminum body over an ash wood frame, was streamlined and simplistic – and far cry from the baroque, exposed headlights and chrome of the SS 100. It was mounted on a shortened Mark V sedan chassis, and with the XK engine cranking out 160 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, it could rocket the car to 120 miles per hour – giving the car its name, and most importantly, making it the fastest and most powerful car in the world.
In 1948, the XK120 hit the show circuit, debuting at the London Motor Show as a concept. In a sea of drab, warmedover saloon cars, it was unlike anything the auto show had ever seen. By the time it made its American debut at the New York Auto Show, Lyons had given it the green light for limited production, with a goal of selling 200 cars. And for maximum visibility, Clark Gable bought the first XK off the line.
But the XK didn’t need any star power to sell. First models were delivered in 1949, by ’50 it had sold well beyond its 200 car goal, and switched to a steel body and frame to shorten construction time. Despite starting at $3,449 (when the average price of an American house was $8,400), the XK was a universal smash. It was as popular with the Hollywood elite, with its luxurious leather interior, gorgeous looks and comfortable ride, as it was with well-heeled weekend racers –especially after they realized that the car could hit 135 once you removed the delicate chrome windshield. Compared to the popular 57 horsepower MG TDs, the Jag wrecked more than one amateur race day back in the early ’50s.
Back at Coventry, Jaguar was focused on pushing the car’s performance. It ran the car for 24 hours at an average speed of 100.46 miles per hour in 1950. In ’51, it held the car at 131.83 miles per hour for 60 minutes. In 1952, it ran the car for seven days and seven nights at an average speed of 100.31 miles per hour. For the growing company, it wasn’t enough.
In 1951, Jaguar introduced the C-Type (for competition), for $6,000, the C-Type used XK120 running gear, but had a tubular frame and lightweight aluminum body that was even more aerodynamic than the stock car. Almost overnight, it became the most dominant endurance racer in the world, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1951 and ’52.
But like all ground-breaking cars, the competition never takes long to catch up. By 1953, Mercedes-Benz was competing its 300SL racers around Europe, and enthusiasts around the world started to fall in love with strange, lightweight cars from Germany called Porsche. With all that competition, Jaguar decided to update its flagship, increasing output and revising its body, introducing it for 1954 as the XK140. A revised XK150 followed in 1957, but by the 1960s, the was ancient by sports car standards. It was replaced by an all-new car called the E-Type in 1961, and to put it mildly, the rest is history.
But the XK120 has never been forgotten. The XK engine carried on in the E-Type until 1971, and astonishingly, it proved robust and adaptable enough to soldier on in the Jaguar line until 1992. Before the XK120, Jaguar was another cottage automaker that was all but unknown outside Europe. By 1950, it was building cars that were lusted after by gearheads the world over. Today, Jaguar is synonymous with performance and luxury. For six important years, the Jaguar XK120 embodied everything we lust after in modern hypercars. Without it, who knows where it – or Jaguar – would be.