Channel Clark Gable in This Award-Winning Jaguar XK 120


When actor Clark Gable took delivery of a Jaguar XK 120 on the set of Never Let Me Go (1953) in Cornwall, the car was nearly as big of a deal as he was. Not only was the vehicle beautiful, and its engine a technological tour de force, with a top speed of 126.448 miles per hour, the XK 120 was the fastest car in the world.

Jaguar almost didn’t build it. As WWII ended, Jaguar was developing a 3.4-liter inline-six with dual overhead camshafts. The company had always built six-cylinder engines, back when it was called SS Cars, and had developed an overhead-valve design in 1936, but this engine was something new: Beautiful, reliable, and powerful, the XK would become the engine that put Jaguar in the history books. The company intended to put the DOHC six in a luxury-laden, six-passenger touring sedan called the Mark VII, but in 1948, as the British International Motor Show at Earls Court grew closer and closer, it became obvious that the Mark VII wouldn’t be ready in time. How could Jaguar show off its new engine? Based on a sketch from Jaguar’s lead designer and co-founder William Lyons, the company decided on a limited-run sports car, with an aluminum body over an ash frame.

Jaguar built the concept in two months. When the XK 120 debuted at Earls Court, it was a sensation. At the time, DOHC engines were the province of ultra-expensive vehicles like Duesenbergs and Stutzes, but you didn’t have to be mega-rich to own an XK 120; you just had to be well-off.

Courtesy Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust

At £999, the XK 120 cost about 1.5 times as much as a Cadillac Series 62… and it looked like liquid speed. So what if it didn’t have a roof or windows? Seven months later, an XK 120 would clear 120 mph, making it the fastest production car to date.

1951 Jaguar XK120 Vintage English Roadster engine

As if the polished aluminum valve covers of the XK weren’t enough, the car’s gotta-have-it status was sealed when Jaguar decided to build them nearly identical to the 1948 concept. Given the original plan to build only 200 or so, the first XK 120s were delicately and expensively produced, with bodies made of aluminum. Initially, the only body style was a roadster. Jaguar made 242 between 1949 and 1950 at its facility on Holbrook Lane in Coventry, before switching the body material to steel and ramping up production: In 1951, it built 490 right-hand-drive units and 1025 left-hand-drive ones.

A fixed head coupé (FHC) arrived for 1951 with a roof and windows, chrome door handles, and an interior dominated by a gorgeous walnut dashboard. That same year, Jaguar also announced the “SE” specification, which enhanced the car’s performance with a set of wire wheels to improve brake cooling, and higher-lift cams and dual exhaust pipes to unlock 20 more horsepower. In 1953 came another body style, the drophead coupé, with a folding canvas top, real windows, and the walnut dash, plus another set of high-performance goodies: a C-Type head and larger carburetors, which together bumped output to 210 hp. Production of the XK 120 ended in August of 1954.

The 1951 example you see here (currently available on Hagerty Marketplace) wears the same color scheme as the one Gable received in Cornwall: Battleship Gray over red leather (he also owned a ’52 that he sent straight to Barris Customs for a gold paint job, removal of the headlight spears, and relocation of the license plate). Although available from the factory in 1951, the color scheme is different from the one this car originally wore, which was Birch Gray over red and biscuit, a combination about which the current seller on Hagerty Marketplace feels strongly: It “does not suit the car well.” Lest you have any worries about the reception of this change in the collector-car community, the matching-numbers car was honored at the 2024 Amelia Concours specifically for the excellence of its restoration, for which it earned the Gil Nickel/Far Niente Award.

1951 Jaguar XK120 Vintage English Roadster frame engine powertrain resto

That restoration, a four-year, nut-and-bolt effort, was top-notch. The body and chassis were separated, and the latter was stripped, rustrpoofed, and repainted. The former was stripped and all its panels realigned, before the whole shell was repainted. All the chrome work is new, down to the seat frames and hoodsticks for the roadster top.

The XK six boasts new pistons, sleeves, bearings, and timing chains, among other new components. A few wise upgrades have been made in the name of function: The main journal bolts, known for their troublesome retaining tabs, have been replaced with ARP studs, and the connecting rod bolts with studs from the same manufacturer. Both sets of original bolts come with the car, should you wish to reverse the modifications.

Marketplace Jaguar XK 120 front three quarter

You have to look closely indeed to find anything to complain about on this car: The clock doesn’t work, the windshield trim is slightly marred, and one of the included reproduction batteries has a bad cell. But who needs to look at the time when they’re driving a car as legendary as the XK 120?

At the time of writing, the bidding sits at $45,000 with eight days left on the auction, which ends on Tuesday, May 28, at 3:10 p.m. ET. The car currently resides in Lancing, Tennessee, about an hour northwest of Knoxville.


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    “Restyled by Barris Kustoms
    Late in 1952 Mr. Gable dropped the Jaguar off at Barris Kustoms for a mild makeover. At the shop, George Barris and his crew shaved the trim from the headlights. They also smoothed the front fenders by shaving off the marker lights. The wing mirrors were then removed before the holes were filled. The deck lid was shaved for its handle, and the license plate holder and light were removed. Barris Kustom badges were also mounted on the cowl, below the windscreen posts.[1]’
    Padded Top by Carson Top Shop
    After Barris had completed their work, the car received a padded top by Carson Top Shop. Because Gable was 6.2, the height of the top was raised 2 inches.[2]

    I bought a beautifully restored 1950 XK 120 last year. It is a non-authentic gorgeous blue with a tan interior. It also has a non-authentic (but Jaguar) fully synchro 5-speed (thank goodness). As Jay Leno attests, the sound of the engine is incredible and the acceleration for a car of that ear is remarkable. I need to have turn signals installed, however. Whenever I give hand signals, drivers behind me give me the finger because they think that’s what I’m doing!

    In my senior year in high school – 1952 – a retired Air Force Officer returned home to Brookhaven MS. Having been stationed in England as his last tour, he brought with him an XK120. For me, a budding hot rodder, it was love at first sight! He had a daughter in the nineth grade. I wonder how her dad’s car played into her popularity?

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