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Jaguar XK140: Evoluzione English Style

By Harry Newton

For several decades (actually since 1955), I have listened to otherwise fair-minded enthusiasts bash the Jaguar XK140 series as a bastardization (my word) of the seminal XK120. I admit my own guilt in this regard. Now, perhaps the perspective of time has at last endowed the XK140 with recognition of its true merit, as evidenced by the model’s newfound value parity with its predecessor.

When the sleek XK120 made its debut at Earls Court in 1948, the public gave the new Jaguar roadster an immediate thumbs-up. Quickly, a decision was made to tool up for higher volume, with stamped-steel bodywork replacing the aluminum paneling featured on the original 240 roadsters. Even the factory management was surprised by the demand for the stylish and powerful new roadster. Six cylinders, double overhead camshafts, and totally new styling, coupled with a top speed of more than 120 mph in stock off-the-showroom-floor trim made this a most desirable package. The XK120 can be credited as William Lyons’ first step toward knighthood. As an aside, when Chairman Lyons was knighted, it was for Jaguar’s commercial success in the export market, not for any engineering achievement.

Several variants appeared in short order: a brilliantly designed FHC (fixed-head coupe) and a DHC (drop-head coupe) with wind-up windows, a padded and lined convertible top, and a wood veneer instrument panel. Then came a “special equipment” model that was dubbed XK120M. Available in all three body configurations, the SE or M (take your choice) featured knockoff wire wheels, dual exhausts, and a higher compression engine producing 190 HP versus the originally claimed 160 HP for the initial model. The factory also introduced a built-for-racing XK120C (competition) that gave Jaguar its first victory at Le Mans in 1951.

The majority of XK120 production was devoted to left-hand-drive models, primarily for the American market. It was easier to buy a new Jaguar sports car in the U.S. than in the U.K. And recognizing the American market’s importance, Lyons and his management team tailored the XK120’s successor to what they perceived to be the needs and preferences of that market. For the XK140, which first became available as a 1955 model, they came up with beefier front and rear bumpers that provided considerably better protection from the ravages of the American propensity to “park by ear,” though some perceived an aesthetic trade-off. Similarly, the oval grille became somewhat more massive, as did the tail lamps. More chrome was added in the form of centerline-moldings on the bonnet and boot. An emblem was added to the bootlid, declaring to interested passersby the marque’s recent Le Mans victories. In standard form, the XK140, like its forebear, was fitted with disc wheels and skirted rear wheel openings, resulting in a sleek, rather formal appearance. In fact, the car combined a rare blend of sportiness and elegance. The M (cosmetic) and MC (cosmetic plus steroid enhancement) upgrades featured Rudge-patent wire wheels as well as dual exhausts to emphasize the two stages designated by those suffixes.

The changes were not solely cosmetic, nor were they prompted only to accommodate the vagaries of the American market. The engine was moved forward four inches to provide more legroom in the passenger compartment, and the coupe and drophead were given a vestigial back seat and higher roofline, almost, but not quite, qualifying for 2+2 designation. This was facilitated by relocating the batteries from behind the front seat to a new under-fender location behind the front wheel arches. The gear change was made more user-friendly and ergonomically better situated. A Laycock-de Normanville overdrive, fitted primarily to M models, became a useful option. Perhaps the most significant mechanical improvement was the adoption of rack and pinion steering, far more precise than the earlier model’s recirculating ball system. On the minus side, the wonderful exhaust note of the 120M was muted, depriving XK140 drivers of one of the greatest sounds in automotive history.

Renowned Jaguar historian George Bentley agrees with the purists that subsequent models never equaled the XK120’s aesthetics. On the other hand, he considers the mechanical improvements indeed contributed greatly to the later cars’ driveability.

Between 1955 and 1957, 8,937 XK140s were produced, 84% of which were left-hand-drive, most of which can be presumed to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the colonies. Only one in four was in the drophead configuration. This compares to XK120 totals of 12,045 and 86% over a longer six-year period. Supporting the premise that they have earned considerable respect over the past couple years, XK140 prices recently have risen to parity with those commanded by the previously more desirable XK120.

SIDEBAR

On New Year’s Day, 2000, I rode shotgun for my friend Skip Cook in Jan Voboril’s 19th annual Tour de Mulholland, a delightful picnic/rally through the Santa Monica Mountains. Our mount was Skip’s recently restored XK140 DOHC, and a fine day it was. Several dozen enthusiasts take part, usually including Jay Leno and Phil Hill, who was absent this year for the first time in more than a decade.

Skip’s Jaguar is quite proper, an XK140 MC, done up in BRG with tan top and leather. At the Topanga Canyon start, a gentleman approached Skip and identified himself as a former owner of the car. He was, it turned out, noted Jaguar collector David Iwerks, and he appeared quite satisfied with the quality and authenticity of the car’s revival. The Mulholland route brought back memories of just what splendid recreation it was (and still is nearly a half century later) to put these Jaguars to their intended use on a challenging secondary road. And I don’t recall anyone lamenting the absence of power steering or air conditioning—the car itself was the focal point of attention.

Asked why he chose a drophead over the basic and more easily found XK roadster, Cook cited several features: roll-up windows; a better-fitting, more stylish padded and fully-lined convertible top; really elegant wood veneer on the instrument panel and door capping rails; and the generally better sound insulation and weather protection. He credits the optional overdrive with making the XK140 a truly pleasant long-distance tourer.

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