There can be few individual cars that have had so much influence on British motor sport as this particular Jaguar XK120. The performance of JWK651 at the 1950 Le Mans 24 hour race was one of the key determining factors behind the decision of William Lyons (later Sir William) to develop the C-type Jaguar with the specific intention of winning the race the following year, which it duly did.
In spite of early competition successes with the new XK120, including Silverstone 1949 and Palm Beach 1950, Lyons was wary about providing official factory entries to the major international competitions and so conceived a compromise approach where six cars were prepared by Jaguar to full works specification but were sold to carefully selected drivers who entered as private competitors. Five cars were prepared for racing, of which, chassis 660040 was one and was constructed on 1 March 1950, registered JWK651 and sold directly to its first owner, Leslie Johnson.
After taking delivery of JWK651 in March 1950, Johnson quickly entered it into the Mille Miglia, which was run on 23/24 April. In total 383 cars took part including JWK651 and three other XK120s. Johnson, with co-driver John Lea, finished the gruelling 1000 mile round-Italy race in fifth place overall, which remains the equal-highest finish for British drivers in a British car. A month later JWK651 was entered into the Le Mans 24 Hour race. For this event the cars received an array of additional modifications including rebuilt engines, a 24 gallon fuel tank, and better brakes. The race itself commenced on 24 June and started well for Jaguar. By quarter distance JWK651 was in fifth place overall and by the 15th hour was in second place and running on the same lap as the leading Talbot Lago. Unfortunately, it was not to last and JWK651 retired with a failed clutch in the 21st hour when the car was third, putting paid to any chance of finishing, let alone victory. While the efforts of Johnson had ultimately been frustrated, they were not in vain and a letter of congratulation from William Lyons highlighted how pleased Jaguar were with the performance, which would be the catalyst that led to the development of the C-type and ultimately the D-type, which delivered the victories of 1951, 1953 and 1955-57.
The final time Johnson campaigned his XK120 was in 1952 when he entered the RAC Rally with Leslie Lefever as co-driver. Despite bad weather they ran well, placing as high as third at one point but were heavily penalised for driving without rear spats, despite having previously passed scrutineering without them, which pushed them down to a disappointing 16th.
After the rally Johnson sold the car to his co-driver, Leslie Lefever and over the next five decades the car passed through the hands of a number of owners but remained largely unrestored. By 2005 the car had finally received a full body-off restoration and been reunited with its original engine. Since that time JWK has returned to the track with numerous appearances at the world’s most prestigious events including Le Mans, Spa-Francorchamps, Goodwood and the Mille Miglia to name a few. The XK that famously ‘did it all’ is still doing so and long may it continue.
Car displayed courtesy of J D Classics Ltd
Photography by Martyn Goddard