The Jaguar XK 120 is the perfect example of what a prototype should do.
Jag launched it in 1948 at the London Motor Show as a way to test out a new engine and gauge interest in a new body design. It intended the car to facilitate the evolution of the brand.
“The real reason for the XK 120 was survival,” said Fred Hammond, Jaguar’s Head of Heritage. Because William Lyons, the brand's founder, saw the future of the company as based on sedans, the idea was to build a sedan with a race car engine so as to best appeal to consumers.
Lyons didn’t expect to sell many of his novel XKs—they were mainly being used to test engine components and body composition for that potential future sedan—so he made them with readily available, lightweight aluminum. (The conventional method for making car bodies back then used steel, which was scarce after World War II; aluminum was considered flimsy.) Demand for the XK 120 exploded, especially in the United States, where drivers had never seen a postwar sports car.
“Don’t forget a lot of the cars that were in the marketplace were leftovers from before the war,” said Hammond. “The XK 120 was considered to be a fabulous value for the money. It felt much more modern than anything else people had driven, especially for the American driver. They had only the ponderous cars from the '30s, and those were put back into production with no updates right after the war. The feel of the sports car was so new to them.”
Early models came with a straight-six, 160-bhp “XK” engine and a feline body molded out of the aluminum and trimmed in ash wood. It was Jag’s first sports car in nearly a decade, so there was a lot of pressure to hit on something that would stick. Preliminary results were exceptional: The car set speed records, and Jaguar ended up using that engine until the 1980s. Movie star Clark Gable owned several of the first models; they have since been in many movies, including It Should Happen To You, Kiss Me Deadly, Batman Forever, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Steady, Strong Investment Value
Since then, the XK 120 has survived well in auction and private sales. Earlier this month, an exceptional 1953 Jaguar XK 120C took $8,091,216 at the Bonhams auction in Monaco; the wildly successful racer had remained virtually unchanged from its original form. RM Sotheby’s recently sold a 1950 Jaguar XK 120 Roadster for just over $287,000. Dozens are listed on Hemmings for $100,000 and more. Not a bad return, considering the original XK 120s cost roughly £1,000 ($1,470) at their debut.
Hagerty data shows values increasing steadily over the past five years, with the average sale price of XK 120s made from 1948 to 1954 rising from $85,000 in 2011 to $97,000 this year. The rise has followed that of the general auction market.
“From a value standpoint, in recent times they have climbed quite a bit,” said Jonathan Klinger, a spokesman for Hagerty, noting that they’re easier to procure than other six- and seven-figure historic cars. “Their values were going up significantly, and they recently became six-figure cars, so a lot of the restored cars have come to the market at once.” In other words, once the cars hit six-figures, it became worth it for those owners to sell them.
Klinger said the strong increase may level slightly in the next couple years, which reflects the overall market, but will remain on a high plateau, like similar-era models from Ferrari and Maserati.
The difference between those slightly more famous cars and the Jaguar XK 120s is that while hard-to-find Ferraris and Maseratis command an additional tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, the more prevalent XKs cost less and remain reliable as casual drivers. That's not to say they're ubiquitous—not by a long shot. Jaguar made 12,078 XK 120s from 1948 to 1954; by comparison, it made more than 76,000 E-Types, its most iconic car.
“The Jaguar is really nipping on their heels in terms of the price point,” Hammond said. “They are reliable to drive, and many of the best are in North America. In England a lot of cars from that era just didn’t last. England is an island surrounded by salt water. The climate isn’t conducive to preserving cars.”
A Design to Love
If you ask most buyers, they’ll say they bought the car for passion rather than to make money. Granted, few collectors of beautiful objects, whether Picassos or Patek Philippes, admit to buying for purely investment purposes. But in this case, it might be relatively true.
Who can blame them? The model’s name comes from the 120-mile per hour top speed Jaguar promised, which at the time made it the fastest production car in the world. Zero to 60mph took 10 seconds, aided by that lightweight frame. By 1951, XK roadsters with their revolutionary engines and four-speed manual transmissions were averaging more than 100mph for 24 hours on special, banked tracks across Europe.
The first 242 XK 120s made had wood-framed open-top aluminum bodies with two seats; Perceiving the design line from the front wheels, over the hood, and to the rear was like watching a rolling wave: smooth, calm, powerful.
Production switched to all-steel construction—better for making the cars in volume—by 1950. It eventually came in three versions: as an open two-seat roadster (OTS) and later, as a “fixed-head” coupe (FHC) in 1951 and a drop-head coupe (DHC) in 1953. (The detachable canvas top and sidescreens were stowed behind the two seats.) The DHC and FHC versions are generally more luxurious than the OTS ones—they even had wind-up windows and wooden veneers on the dashboard and doors—but all had the sleek barchetta doors with no external handles, a style named after the famous little Italian roadster that looked like a little boat. Driver and passenger had to pull an interior cord to open the door.
“The XK 120s are more desirable [than the later-model XK 140s and 150s], especially the ones designed before 1950 because those had aluminum skins,” Hammond said. “Any of the open cars command more money than the coupe.”
The design has undoubtedly influenced Jaguar’s aesthetic, even today: The taper on the F-Type from hood to back, for instance, echoes the one along the XK 120. And you can see aspects of the 120's tall front grill even in models issued as late as 1990s-era S-Types.
“They set the design direction for postwar cars,” Klinger said.
A Diverting Driver
How do you go about procuring one of these beauties? Carefully—and realistically. While they hold their value well, don’t expect them to jump radically in sale prices next year. Instead, this is a car you buy for a long-term love affair.
“Any of the original XK models are good,” Hammond said. "If you find one that is a good value, any one of those is a good investment." You can even take your car to Jaguar and have it officially certified as authentic and in proper show and sell order. “Make sure the numbers match and the condition is pristine. Cars that the color has been changed on can be a little bit of an issue. As hot as the cars now are on the collectable market, getting a good one with its original form is the most important thing.”
Don’t buy one if you are tall. Even though they are reliable and sturdy as far as vintage cars go—this is the car you buy to drive in one of the many historic races worldwide—their non-adjustable seats and relatively short pedal beds make them better suited to a 5-foot, 10-inch driver than to a 6'4’’ driver.
In the documents describing the $8 million lot that Bonhams sold, racing star Stirling Moss praised the 3.4-liter XK engine for its “nice, smooth power” and “lovely noise,” but he also decried those seats: “I do remember how Jaguars never had good seats,” Moss said. “The XK120's weren't that good, and when the C-Type came along, they built racing seats which weren't much better."
Not that this detracts at all from the drive. These babies are considered thrilling behind the wheel.
“They’re excellent handling cars, especially the later ones,” Klinger said. “They sound great. They are plenty peppy enough. They handle well. They’re just fun.”