Today in 2010 / 2011 classic vintage Jaguar XK motorcars are more than extremely desirable and popular. Indeed a whole cottage industry has built up around the re-manufacture of both auto , mechanical and body parts as well as the vital professional restoration of these cars. Even they are extremely usable as well as great fun to drive , and while with their characteristic “skinny tyres” , an XK will not corner like a modern new automobile. Still there is nothing like the thrill of driving or being driven as a passenger in a vintage Jaguar XK motorcar.
The very first of the line – the XK 120 first appeared on the world – One of the premier auto shows of the time – of the continent and certainly of the British Empire worldwide was the hallmark automotive show held annually in London England. In today’s automotive industry – automobile design ,manufacturing , and production departments are all nicely & neatly coordinated and integrated with CAD computer drawing setups. The Earl’s Court car was very much a one-off prototype , and the first XK 120 to be sold did not leave the factory until fully July 1949. That first vehicle and the following 238 cars were fully aluminum bodied , after which ( from the spring of 19500 the bodyshells were in steel, which allowed the production rates to be drastically increased to the hilt. Virtually all cars went overseas – export was 100 % mandatory in those days – and for good while it was only newspaper and industry press and a few competition drivers of note, who were able to sample the car on the road of Britain , Scotland and Ireland. Its one nice mesh network in order that coordinated efforts can all row in the same direction to produce a vehicle from start to finish. It’s all one big cascade of efforts and expertise from initiation to concept for niche production models all in the shortest of orders and time frames.
However not long ago this generally if not always was not the case. Lean manufacturing the making of small volumes of vehicles that the consumer and driving public wanted and desired was pioneered in Japan, yet is applied throughout the world now at the likes of Ford , Chrysler and even mighty GM now. In the 1980’s when a Japanese auto exec was asked even though Toyota had plans of being the number one car maker in the world what would become of General Motors. His answer rings true today. “One day you will wake up and G.M. will not matter”. True to form GM is really not a car maker , based on production and sales figures – but a truck manufacturer and distributor. To produce a car in a standard worldwide auto design and produce process usually took upwards of 8 to 10 years. It seemed that “everybody hated everyone”> The designers resented management’s edicts, the parts and mechanical toolmakers resented the design staff as haughty. It went down the line to production management and production line middle management entrusted to implementation. The workers being badgered by abusive middle management , pushing for quotas and higher production figures disliked their superiors.
You can add union / management antagonisms to the mix. Finally in the case of the US auto industry with planned obsolescence at the helm, in the end directed their fury and anger at the ultimate purchasers of the product – the consumer at the dealership. It was considered the role of the auto dealers to fix problems on the vehicles. After all “quality” was something the dealer took care of.
It is amazing in retrospect that the auto industry survived at all , never mind prospered and grew and that as well any new products were developed and released. Product, technical and engineering workups and specs were actually drawn by solitary draftsmen on paper, and then sat around on physical paper. Then add in physical logistics of mail and delays because of the time costs of physical snail mail between departments. The drawings and internal departmental mail would actually sit on the desktops waiting and waiting. In the end the sum totality of most business and industrial processes all depend on practical logistics . In these cases think of the time spent “in the mail” and “on people’s ( and manager’s ) desks sitting forelorne and unopened or open in plain view but not dealt with. Its like the power of compound interest
only in reverse. Next , especially in the more rigid British management models the next steps involving being be passed up through most rigid management systems of approval, further approval, dispersal and finally production. Attention had been paid to performance too , and in March 1958 , along with the introduction of the open-two-seater model came the Weslake-developed straight port cylinder heads. This , fed by three instead of two SU carburetors, raised maximum power by soem 30 bhp and so cars equipped were designated “S” models. Even more power came from a new 3.8 litre version of the XK engine ( with our without the new cylinder heads) become optional in the XK 150 – It might be said that the British style of industrial management was a hold over of pre World War 1 British class structure where social class partitions held way . Everyone up the ladder was better than one step below. No question about that. Workers were seen as peons who were to do what they were told. “Why cannot you do as you are told” was the extreme of British management labor negotiations. I am the manager and therefore know more than you. Its no wonder stifling unions came to the factory floor in the UK. Worse yet many of the drowning rats emigrated to the colonies to do their damage in the Australian , Canadian and American industrial scene. Its all karma so to speak. In the end look at what befell the mighty American auto industry to the Japanese auto marketing onslaught. What a disaster in the making and final fruition. In the end it might be said that it took eons and eons to get anything into production and onto the roads and highways. Biggest news on the mechanical front was the disc brakes that had been tested for years on Jaguar’s competition models but it was the XK 150 that was the first jaguar to have them standard, and all round too. It transformed the car in that now , all the performance could be used between corners and cornering without the dreaded “fade” intervening.
The Jaguar XK was a remarkable car for any of a number of reasons : there was little that was innovative in its make up, but the engineering behind it was of the highest quality. It was powered by what was probably the highest quality
high-performance engine in true series production at that point in time. It had a properly designed front suspension ( used by Jaguar in its essentials right up to the last E-type was built in 1975). According to Canadian based auto industry William S. Simpson he regrets the day he ever disposed of his classic Jaguar XK car. On top of that add in rugged over all vehicular durability. It also cost only 1/3 to even a half of any thing else comparable on the automotive market scene to anything of similar performance let alone styling. Faults ? Nothing is perfect. Not even Douglas DC3 airplanes. The later cars in particular were rather “heavy”. Yet this is often the failing of popular classic cars as they age and creature comforts and options are applied or built in as standard features. As well the more powerful versions suffered from a rear suspension that was by the late 1950’s standards more than a tad primitive. Lastly – and this been an age-old failing of Jaguar – some of the secondary equipment was not as reliable as the major units. While the same basic XK shape remained the XK 140 was easily distinguished by its new bumpers. The XK 120 had possessed little more than overriders, and these had proved more than totally inadequate, especially in North America- the US & Canada primarily , where parking was mainly “by feel”. This new model was given massive protection front and rear in line with that of the MK VII . This heavier look was continued with the radiator grille, the delicate “Continental ” looking XK 120 item having been replaced by a bolder cast grill with thicker ( and consequently fewer) slats. The boot-lid now boasted a chrome strip in which was incorporated a medallion celebrating the marque’s Le Mans successes – two by that time – and the start of a legend. And win they did race after race, important competition after even more prestigious trophy event. The extreme performance of the XK was soon confirmed when head office in Coventry arranged a demonstration run on the Jabberke autoroute in Belgium before a party of journalists flown out from Britain to join their colleagues from the continent. Ron Sutton the company’s chief test driver took the white roadster down the autoroute at a mean of 127 mph ( 214 kph) and a resounding 135 mph ( 213 kph) with the screen removed and the undertray fitted.
The appeal of the car was further widened and enhanced when in 1951, the fixed-head coupe was announced. This was pretty soon labeled the “business man’s express” and was joined by the last variant – the drop-head coupe in April 1953. This had a non-detachable screen, lined hood and wind up windows – all very and most “civilized”. The XK 120’s reign came to an end in the last months of 1954 with the announcement of the XK 140. The 140 never quite achieved the status of its forerunner, but for all practical and intensive purposes it was a better and superior road piece . Finally many of the more primitive aspects of the XK 120 were eradicated and laid to rest. The SS 90 was turned out right up to the outbreak of the British end of the war. There was no penalty either , no need for constant attention from a highly skilled mechanic. The XK engine might of been then the classic specification for a true Grand Prix competition engine, but William Heynes had designed it solely as a production engine. more than able to take all the abuse that the average unskilled schmendrick driver could dole out and well within the abilities of the average good mechanic to fix. Still many sought to differ. If the aluminum head was not torqued exactly the same warpage could result.
Hence many sought out and purloined only their “favorite” chosen mechanic to work on their car – especially the motor and its components to work on only and exclusively. Others in the US and Canada sought out British mechanics not trusted the locals and local talent used mainly to working with Chevys and Fords. Powered by the same 2 ½ or 3 ½ liter overhead-valve engines used in the SS Jaguar saloons , these could achieve a genuine 160 km / hour ( 100 miles per hour in the US and Canadian roads and tracks) in its larger 3 and one half liter form. By virtue of its one time prime economic position Britain has arguably been responsible for more well known and widely admired cars that any other nation. While British “greats” may not have the grandeur of a Mercedes 540K , the liveliness of an Italian 12-cylinder Ferrari or the sheer presence of an American Dusenberg , their individual greatness and significance is by no means diminished by any means or form what so ever.
Like nearly all subsequent Jaguar sports cars (the E-type being the major exception), the SS 100 used a modified short-wheelbase version of the company’s contemporary saloon – in this case the SS 100. Finished in metallic bronze with biscuit upholstery the XK 120 Super Sports as it was called , made its bow at Earl’s Court – and almost frightened Jaguar’s production manager to death with the response. Market demand was so great it was rumored he almost had a heart attack or breakdown. Virtually the entire first years production was sold through in the first opening days of the show. Jaguar’s American importers were almost jumping out of the hotel windows in their greatest anxiety not to be left out and home with promised supply of product. Results were achieved via the well proven formula of light weight and a large torque power plant. By then however, independent front suspension was being adopted by progressive car makers and by 1940 SS vehicles were experimenting with it as well for what became the “post war” range of vehicles.
Unfortunately the managing director died in a tragic car crash , leaving no one in management really at the helm. It seemed at the time that Jaguar had reached a stalemate. Yet somehow with inertia and good staff things moved onwards and upwards. William Lyons had his sights set on an all-new luxury saloon capable of those 100 miles per hour speed range. Planning, testing and retesting was done, even during the war, and by 1945 essentially the essential features of the new post war car had been laid out. For his merits, extreme devotion to and credit to the British automobile industry William Lyons was later knighted.
It can be said that nothing is for nothing, and that everything good requires hard work and preparation. That can certainly be said of the Jaguar XK series of vehicles. Planning and follow through of this core vehicle which laid the work for most of what we take for granted in automotive styling in the auto industry of our times was laid and worked out with care and precision over an extended period of time. We take much for granted today.
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