Extravagant Cat: 1953 Jaguar XK120 SE OTS Project

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The XK120 was an accident.  William Lyons, Jaguar’s chief, dreamed of producing a saloon-bodied luxury car that would go at least 100 mph. But World War II interrupted the continuum of life, and afterward, what was needed in a car changed. Engine efficiency was paramount because gasoline was very expensive. Large motors were out. Jaguar was developing its X series engine, which began as just a four-cylinder displacing 1790 cc’s. Testing proved that the efficiency:power sweet spot was met by a six-cylinder DOHC 3.4-liter motor fueled by two SU carburetors, producing 160 bhp. This motor was destined for the new Mark VII saloon – the realization of Lyons’ dream. However, the saloon was not ready! Coachwork was coming along too slowly for Jaguar to make it to the first post-war auto show in 1948. So, the company hastily cobbled up a swoopy sports car to show off its new engine. This creation became the Jaguar XK120. The XK120 was nothing short of revolutionary – a luxury sports car capable of traveling 120 mph, faster than any human had traveled in an auto up to that time. It sold so well that thoughts of focusing on the saloon vanished. Here on craigslist is a 1953 Jaguar XK120 SE Open Two Seater (OTS) for sale, for the princely sum of $87,500. This car is located in the Napa area of San Francisco, California. Thanks to T.J. for the steady supply of barn find tips!

The “SE” stands for “Special Equipment” and indicates that the car received engine or exhaust work that increased its horsepower over the base motor. Sometimes the cylinder head was a C-type, or the SU carbs were larger, but other modifications were also common. Up to 220 bhp was attainable in 1953 from dealer-installed options. The seller indicates this particular car has higher lift camshafts and a dual-pipe exhaust. The motor turns but does not run. The plug wires are tagged and the radiator cap looks new-ish, so perhaps this cat ran not long ago.

The interior is mostly complete but was apparently attacked by a brigade of mice. At least the stuffing looks comfy. The car’s colors, according to the accompanying Jaguar Heritage Trust certificate, were Lavender Grey over Biscuit/Red. Lavender Grey is a very rare color, appearing pearly grey.

The underside of the car is dry and rust-free. The boot reveals a surprise – a side-curtain stowage bag. These usually do not survive; if this is original, it’s a real find. The seller says this car had only two owners and the California pink slip comes with the sale. There’s a lot of costly work to do here. These cars were handmade and no two are exactly alike. Fitment can be a bear. Meanwhile, the entry price is stiff, and the cars top out around $150,000 for really nice examples. Would you pay the ask for this example?

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  1. CadmanlsMember

    These are beautiful cars and Jaguar was starting to build a serious sports car. So clean underneath. This one is going to take some loving to bring it to where it needs to be but the reward will be well worth it.

    Like 7
  2. JohnfromSC

    The seller is far too optimistic. The prices on these are currently softening a bit, and I think $130K is closer to the top now. To reach that number requires a nut and bolt restoration including a minimum of $20K for a high end paint job. Even if you do it all yourself except the paint, I think you are likely in about $60K and $100K if you farm it out.In this condition, $40K is likely a more realistic number as it now stands. I speak from having owned an XK for many years and also judging them.

    Like 20
    • Michelle RandAuthor

      You nailed the price – $40k – of two other project cars in similar condition that I found. I think that’s about right.

      Like 9
  3. bobhess bobhessMember

    My first drive in a sports car was in a ’52 that my boss owned and drove regularly. That seem logical as he was the Jaguar/MG dealer in the area. Pea green with a tan interior and a straight pipe exhaust. I actually used it to pick up parts. If you don’t think that car impressed me tell me why I’ve been up to my gills in sports cars up to this very day. Beautiful cars.

    Like 10
  4. tompdx

    In addition to a C-type head, etc., I understood that SE could also simply mean wire wheels, or was it chrome wire wheels …? In any event, that’s what it could mean on later XKs (140, 150).

    Like 0
    • JohnfromSC

      Hi @tompx, turns out that the XK150S really was a bit more special. The 3.4L DOHC engine in the S model had higher compression, different head, stronger crank and three HD8 su carbs instead of only two, delivering greater HP compared to the 3.4L in the non S version.

      Interestingly, Sir Williams Lyon never built any car totally new from scratch. The last year of the XK150’s had the engine displacement enlarged to 3.8L with the same, standard 4 speed transmission ( no synchomesh between 1-2nd). Guess what the engine and transmission was used in the first E types? You guessed it, identical. Suspension aside, only the differential and inbound brakes were new to the E type drivetrain!

      —I hope this wasn’t TMI.

      Like 2
  5. Malcolm Boyes

    I was a cub reporter in London and my editor was a few years older than me and a car nut..who also enjoyed the Clubs around London at night. He bought a 1948 XK 120 Roadster..cream with a black interior and license # UPD 120 ( funny how we remember things. A week after he got it he broke his arm so I became his day and night chauffeur. What a joy..it just lubricated my early car love.Thank you Keith Dovkants!

    Like 3
  6. JagManBill

    I had a 54 SE OTS 30 years ago. The difference is the head and exhaust. While not labeled as a “C Type” head, it was. Plus the exhaust was dual to the rear through a single dual in/out muffler. That was the total “SE” package. Carbs were standard pair of 1.75 SU’s. No add’l changes. Gotta agree on the price. I personally think that $40k would be a runner. Might (and probably would) need a rebuild, but you can move it around. Not running I’m thinking more in the $32-35k range.

    Like 2
  7. MGSteve

    Why does it bug me that sellers can’t take the time or effort to remove the car from the trailer for the photo. Call me old fashioned, but it just seems like laziness and a lack of caring . . . . or greed (make a quick buck . . . ).

    Sorry, I feel better now. Rant is over.

    Like 5
    • Michelle RandAuthor

      Ha ha, I’ll add my gripes. Move the car away from your other 12 cars! Post the photos right side up! Get your finger out of the photo! Stop photographing into the sun. Or, put a dang light on the car so we can see it inside your dark garage. Vacuum the carpets! Gosh, give it a bath!

      Like 0
  8. George Birth

    I agree this one is overpriced. For the price he is asking the car should be in better condition. I don’t know where these guys get their prices from, but I can buy a much nicer car for a whole lot less money, and drive it home.

    Like 3
  9. Kelly Breen

    A beautiful car that has all the potential to come back to life, but I will only ever admire a car like that. My needs are far too pedestrian and practical – paying off the house, groceries ect.
    When I see this high end stuff I appreciate my ratty little MG Midget all the more.
    TTFN gotta go for a drive!

    Like 1

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