The Jaguar XK120 is a celebrity in its own right, it was the fastest production car in the world at the time of its release, and it was powered by the same Jaguar XK engine that would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times in the 1950s.
The most famous of all the XK120s is almost certainly the car you see here, it was ordered new by Hollywood legend Clark Gable and driven by him and his rumored fiancé across Europe driving from Paris to Rome. Gable specified that his car with a number of competition upgrades, as well as a luggage rack for his golf clubs.
Fast Facts – The Clark Gable Jaguar XK120
- The Jaguar XK120 was first unveiled at the 1948 London Motor Show as a showcase for the new Jaguar XK engine, a straight-six with a displacement of 3.4 liters that could propel the car to a top speed of 120 mph.
- The new car caused an absolute sensation in post-WWII Britain, it was only meant to be a limited production model but the demand was such that it went into full production, and Jaguar struggled to make enough of them.
- The XK120 was replaced by the upgraded Jaguar XK140 in 1954, which in turn was replaced by the Jaguar XK150 in 1957. The 13 year production run of the XK series helped establish Jaguar as a leading manufacturer of sports cars, further assisted by their five wins at Le Mans throughout the 1950s.
- The most famous XK120 owner was Clark Gable. His car is a 1952 model that he ordered with a number of competition options, he used it for a weeks-long road trip across Europe with his rumored fiancé Suzanne Dadolle, and then had it shipped back to the United States afterwards and registered in California.
The Jaguar XK120
For three quarters of a century almost any article that’s written about the Jaguar XK120 includes at least one line mentioning the fact that Clark Gable owned one. In the mid-20th century Gable was known as “The King Of Hollywood,” and the fact that he personally ordered an XK120 helped to further propel the car’s sales in the all-important US market.
The Jaguar XK120 had been developed to showcase the new high-performance Jaguar XK engine, a straight-six with a displacement of 3.4 liters, double overhead cams, and 160 bhp – a heady figure for the time.
The car was first shown to the world at the 1948 London Motor Show where it proved explosively popular, with people crowding around the stand and the world’s motoring media covering it in Britain, across Europe, in the USA, and as far as way as Australia and New Zealand.
The world had been relatively starved of exciting new sports cars due to WWII, which had only ended three years before the release of the XK120. Many manufacturers went back to building the cars they were making pre-WWII, and sports cars were few and far between.
This dearth of exciting automobiles meant there was huge demand for anything new and exciting, and Jaguar seem to have slightly underestimated this with the release of the XK120.
They expected it to be a low-volume production model with a hand-shaped aluminum body over an ash wood frame on a steel chassis, however demand was such that they had to significantly revise the car from 1950 onwards, giving it a steel body that was far quicker and easier to produce.
At the time of its release the Jaguar XK120 was the fastest production car on earth thanks to its advanced new engine, an engine that would dominate at Le Mans throughout the 1950s and go on to power the later XK140, XK150, Mark I, and Mark II, and E-Type Jaguars among others.
Amazingly, modified versions of the XK engine would still be in use in the early 1990s.
In total Jaguar made 12,055 examples of the XK120 between 1948 and 1954 in Roadster (lightweight convertible), Drophead (standard convertible), and Fixed Head (hardtop coupe) body work. Today they’re highly sought after by collectors and typically sell for sums well into the six figure range.
Clark Gable’s 1952 Jaguar XK120
Clark Gable is a man who needs no introduction, even today 62 years after his death in 1961. He appeared in over 60 major motion pictures and he’s remembered today as one of the most iconic leading male actors in Hollywood history.
Gable was known for his love of fast cars, he owned a number of remarkable vehicles over his lifetime and in the early 1950s he contacted Jaguar to order himself a brand new XK120 with a number of competition-inspired upgrades including wire wheels and bonnet louvres – he also requested a luggage rack on the trunk to hold his golf clubs.
He took delivery of the car in Europe and used it on a cross-continental holiday with his rumored fiancé Suzanne Dadolle – a former member of the personal entourage of general Charles De Gaulle, the future President of France.
Dadolle is said to have met Gable at a cocktail party in 1951, they then met again in Paris in 1952 when he was there working on a film. The two are said to have become inseparable, and were often seen out together dining in alfresco cafes and walking arm in arm.
It would be around this time that Gable took delivery of his sleek new Jaguar, and the pair set off for a journey from Paris to Rome across Europe, doubtless causing much surprise along the route as passing motorists realized who just flew by in the opposite lane.
Gable had the car shipped back to the United States in 1953 and registered in California. He later sold it on to Irving Robbins Jr.
Many years later in 1982 the car was bought by the current owner’s father, its early history had been forgotten and it wasn’t until 2011 when world-renowned Jaguar restorer Georg Donni was contacted to restore the car that its full early history was uncovered.
The restoration is said to have cost over CHF 400,000, or approximately $447,610 USD, during which time it was confirmed that the car retained its original engine, chassis, and body – making it a desirable full matching numbers example.
After the restoration it was shown to the world at the 2016 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este where it received a warm reception.
It’s now due to roll across the auction block with RM Sotheby’s on the 20th of May with a price guide of $385,000 – $550,000 USD. If you’d like to read more about this unusual XK120 or register to bid you can visit the listing here.
Images: Peter Singhof ©2023 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s & The Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust
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