The two most powerful, successful and evocative letters in postwar British car-building and motor sport? An X and a K are just letters on their own but put them together and watch the magic happen…
The picture instantly conjured up is of beautiful sports cars, speed records, innovative engineering, multiple Le Mans wins and a wonderful engine. And it all began 70 years ago at the Earls Court Motor show when the world stood back and gasped at the first Jaguar XK120.
“It wasn’t much more than a styling exercise on a modified saloon chassis built to showcase the new engine,” says Chris Keith-Lucas, the “Mr XK” who has lived, breathed and raced XKs for 45 years.
“The world went mad for the XK120 but Jaguar had no way of making it in large numbers – the press tools didn’t exist. So they had to make the first few hundred by hand.”
One of these early aluminium-bodied cars (they were steel-bodied from 1950) will be among six XK120s and one XK140 lining up on the grid at the Goodwood Revival this year for a very special Fordwater Trophy. Two 70-year-olds – the XK and the Motor Circuit, also born in 1948 – will be celebrating together in the spirit of the early Goodwood Members’ Meetings where the streamlined body of the XK120 rapidly became such a familiar sight.
XK was an engine first and foremost, a double overhead cam straight six originally in 3.4-litre capacity that went on to sire such a famous dynasty: everything from the first 120s through 140s and 150s to C-types, D-types, XKSSs, E-types plus all the Jag saloons, not to mention other makes like Lister. As usual they will be sprinkled widely across many of the Revival races. But the focus of the 70th anniversary XK celebrations will be the Fordwater Trophy and where the XK story began.
Who better to talk to for their take on that than Chris Keith-Lucas, better known (like the XK itself) through his initials. CKL Developments, which Chris founded in 1999 after 25 years as MD of Lynx Cars, has grown into one of the world’s leading specialists in restoration and race-preparation of 1950s and ‘60s Jaguar sports and racing cars. Today Chris is technical director – and world-renowned XK authority….
CKL, an XK and the Fordwater Trophy – surely three inseparable things. So which car will you be driving?
I am going to drive a car that hasn’t seen the light of day for 15 years: a 1954 XK120 fixed head, the only FHC in the race. In period it was Jack Sears’ car, the actual machine he did his early racing in. We helped to recommission it 15 years ago since when it hasn’t turned a wheel. It will be really rather a privilege. Just don’t expect me to be very quick in it.
XK120s and Goodwood Motor Circuit grew up together; how do they get on today?
In the day you could see lots of XK120s racing at Goodwood and to start with they were very competitive. Then as now they are fun to drive here, quite heavy with a low centre of gravity but very slidable and definitely fun to slither about in. The XK120 has been the way into historic racing for a lot of people.
Does it make a good “trainer” historic race car?
We think of it as the Tiger Moth with the D-type as the Spitfire. Our advice to someone starting off in historic racing is use an XK to get up to speed, then move on to faster and more exotic machinery. Any XK will give them the skills they need, as well as providing a lot of fun.
What’s it not so good at as a racer?
The XK120 was very quick in its day and the racer of choice for a lot of people. But it did date quickly, with its two-carb engine and fade-prone drum brakes. Later 140s and 150s put these things right with more power, better brakes and rack and pinion steering.
Is XK for you more a car or an engine?
There’s a feast for the eyes under the bonnet of an early aluminium 120. In those days you’d go to the pub to meet your mates and first thing would be to put the bonnet up. With an XK120 everyone would suck in air between their teeth. The XK engine in an early 120 is a beautiful thing.
I have a great fondness for the astonishing shape of the first 120s. It was soon after the war and they hadn’t really thought about the technicalities, so it was still built like a 1930s car with a wooden frame and heavy chassis. I love the way the XK developed through the ‘50s and into the 1960s with the last 150Ss – they are a very different car from the aluminium 120s.
What’s so special about the XK engine?
It is a delight because it is so monstrously flexible. It is a very long stroke engine; it will pull from 1500rpm to 6000rpm in top gear. And of course it does sound wonderful.
What’s it like being the world’s XK guru?
It’s not as if I put a sign up over the door saying Jaguar XK guru. I am just the bloke who has been doing it for such a long time, since 1973, I have seen it all and absorbed an awful lot of information. I do seem to have become a necessary part of a lot of people’s due diligence when they are buying significant Jaguars.
Any insider Jaguar buying tips?
Significant Jaguars are selling at really solid prices but the middle of the market is quieter. There are lots of really good E-types sitting in showrooms unsold at the moment…
What was your first experience of a Jaguar?
Father had a MkII and as I child I remember sliding from side to side on the back seat feeling dreadfully car sick. That’s my first Jaguar memory.
What would you put your last gallon of petrol in?
The car I have the greatest fondness for is the XK150S my wife and I share. It is actually her car, let’s make that clear, and we have had so much fun all over the world racing and touring with it. The XK150S has the same engine and brakes as a Series 1 E-type so is pretty nearly as quick. Our car does so many things so well it has been absolutely brilliant.
But if I had only one gallon of petrol it would have to go in the D-type. An early shortnose with metal tonneau cover and no fin – just as the designer drew it on day one. It is so compact and beautiful, a little nugget, and to drive it’s like a single organism with you as part of it. Just electrifying. Driving a D-type should be on everyone’s bucket list.