Zoom Zoomering in an XK 120
Moses Znaimer with his 1954 Jaguar XK-120 drophead coupe. Photo by Naomi Harris (2011)
… (with no apologies to Mazda.)
I had seen the car before, I had heard it run, I had been inside it but never had I been in it while moving.
I knew already that this was a special car, and it made me emotional when I first saw it and got the information on it. I got that tingly hair-standing-on-end type excitement when I first examined this 1954 XK120 Drop Head.
The first time I ever saw the car I went home and wrote my excitement into an email to long-time owner Moses Znaimer and explained myself to him as rationally as possible all the while feeling as excited as a teenage boy who just discovered girls.
I was trying to be adult about the whole thing, though – at least as much as I could. You have to understand that this is a 60-year-old Jaguar that has never been restored, making it a prime candidate for the new Concours d’Elegance “preservation class.” Not only that it has been in the possession of its present owner for nearly 50 years so its provenance is indisputable, but there are also no significant blank spots in the history of the car, and it has had only two owners. Amazing!
But today is special. It seems there is a question about the car’s newly repaired braking system. Pedal soft? Needs pumping? Whatever it is, I have been asked to come and drive the car and give my opinion – and what a thrill it was going to be.
I am greeted in the drive, as usual, by Jan, the affable man who is charged with, among other things, the care and keeping of the special cars Moses loves. I am led down the path by Jan to the magic XK 120. We take the roof down together, and he hands me the key.
I turn the key and push the button and listen as it starts immediately as if it has been waiting for me all morning and is impatient to get on the road. Not wanting to get Her Majesty upset, I push it into first gear and enjoy the feeling of that crunchy old Moss Gearbox as I let out the clutch and ease out of the protective shelter of the garage and onto the orange gravel lane, past that cool DeLorean that I didn’t have a chance to look at up close, and eventually we get onto the road.
The car was so truly satisfying even at slow speeds – a true gentleman’s sports car, this is. I can think of many romantic innuendos to insert here but I am keeping this clean and my head focused, but this was satisfying. If you have ever driven a more “basic” sports car of the era, then you can appreciate the luxury that is this Jaguar Drophead Coupe, even if you do have to twist and contort to get into it and smash your head on the roof to get behind the wheel. Who cares? Once you are in, you are in a genuine legendary motorcar from the 1950s that pioneered the Jaguar name into the history books and was the beginning of Jaguar’s legendary racing program.
Nothing else matters as we drive along the quiet side streets toward the highway. This car behaves in a surprisingly dignified manner when we stop at signs and move through traffic with absolute ease. I was almost surprised at how drivable it was. I am well accustomed to driving old motor vehicles and I own several so I am always prepared for some of them to be a particular challenge usually due to some quirk of design from the period or perhaps due to wear and tear or the ravages of time. But this car? Nothing, aside from the creaks and groans you may expect from any automotive senior citizen, it was sweet and uneventful.
So next thing we knew the Gardiner Expressway was ahead, leading us to the Queen Elizabeth Way and our red carpet to a few moments of automotive royalty. The next hour was a bit of a dream although I was wide awake for all of it. I paid particular attention to every little noise the car made and how it performed and the shakes and rattles of the car as it undulated over the pavement irregularities.
We made an exit onto a service road where I warned Jan of what I was doing and then slammed on the brakes to see their performance. It was easy to see how these brakes would have been so great in the 1952 Le Mans race that saw the XK120 “C” first make its debut. That’s just “C-Type” to most of us, just so we don’t confuse things. As the car came to a stop in a perfectly straight line with my hands off the wheel but ready to grab it should any thing go wrong, the car glided to a perfectly self-guided straight-line stop. Wow is all I could say, but after the car had come from the fabulous Beere Brothers in Bolton, Ont., how could I expect less than this?
I could not find fault at all with these brakes, so off we went as I was given the privilege of taking it all the way to Oakville and back for its weekly exercise drive. The car was shockingly well behaved at speed and quiet enough to have a conversation with Jan about the quirks and history of the car and Jaguars in general. It was as good as a lot of modern cars are with no doubt. We finally came to the edge of Oakville and as I looped around at Ford Drive to return to Toronto, I did have a moment of gratitude for Ford’s involvement in Jaguar history. In spite of Ford’s failure to make Jaguar profitable, they did contribute a lot to its place today. If not for them, there may not be a Jaguar or at least not the strong rebounding Jaguar that we know today – very profitable if you need me to tell you.
So around that loop we went at Ford Drive, and it was the closest I came to “pressing” the car even though I was passed on the ramp by a truck hauling cars (how embarrassing). I did give it a bit more fun around the next turn back onto the highway while commenting to Jan that if it were my own car, I would be really pressing on here but, alas, respect for someone else’s car won the day, and fun would have to wait.
Back onto the QEW for the return trip. This time I was enjoying the transmission and, with palm on the solid mounted shift lever feeling the box talk to me about its grievances and troubles but I heard and felt nothing but a smoothness of the gears whirring around doing what they are supposed to do.
It is, of course, that original and by now famous Moss Gearbox. We complain today about how they need double clutching, and the gears aren’t synchroed very well, but we spoiled modernists forget how good this transmission was back in the day.
If you ever have a chance to drive a car with an original Moss Gearbox that has super low miles, you will be amazed at how crisp it can be, um, first gear not withstanding of course. This one, though, was pure joy and wonderful entertainment. It responded well to my gentle “getting acquainted” moves of the gear lever, although I did make it crunch a couple of times – it was nothing serious. I would hate to hear an inexperienced driver handle it, though. Oh my heart hurst just thinking of it.
As we neared the Toronto city limits, I was struck by the seating position, nearly bolt upright and not very comfy for me usually, but I really hadn’t noticed. When I focused on the seat I was i,n I thought to myself I could maybe drive across country in this car. It was awkward to get into and out of but a joy to sit in once there.
I always say the biggest trouble with these cars is by the time you can afford one you hurt yourself getting in and out. Not fair at all but, seriously, I used to complain about getting into our XJ-S convertible with the top up and twisting to get in till I hurt myself (usually my head). I sincerely repented as soon as I got out of that XK 120.
This day had to be the best use of time I could ever think of – driving an original unrestored XK 120.
By coincidence, one of my favourite shows Moses did was called “The Originals.” Loved that show, and I love this original car. Quite fitting, and I promised to show up at the ZoomerPlex in my own “original” and unrestored prize-winning ’62 MK 10 just to show how much this XK 120 deserves a preservation class trophy.
Duane Grady is president of the Ontario Jaguar Owners Association. This article recently appeared in the organization’s newsletter.