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A Life’s Work

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Ex-racing 1950 Jaguar XK120 lives again on Queensland’s roads after an epic rebuild.

Modern racing drivers must look back at their historical counterparts and shudder. Today, drivers are cocooned in a survival cell in carbon fibre racing machines with the best fireproof clothing, six-point harness, automatic fire extinguisher, roll cage and deformable fuel tanks. Driver aids prevent you crashing at all, and even if you do, there’s often world class medical facilities on hand for expert care.

Depending how you look at it, let me take you back to the good old/bad old days. This is a 1950 Jaguar XK120, which was extensively raced in New Zealand during the 1960s. With no roll-over protection it’s little wonder drivers of this era preferred to be thrown clear in an accident rather than be trapped inside. Hence, you’ll find no seat-belts in this 70-year-old Jag, while your only driver aids are your right and left feet, plus the gorgeous wood-framed Moto-Lita steering wheel. Proper racing heroes piloted such cars, knowing even a brief lapse in concentration, minor mistake, or dash of bad luck could prove fatal.

As Matt Noble – the XK120’s long-time owner – gets the sleek Jag up to speed, it’s rural Queensland’s freezing winter morning air that feels most likely to accelerate our trip to the grave. With only one, tiny, aero screen for the driver, the passenger gets the full force of the icy chill, and at anything over 60km/h the conversation turns into an exchange of shouting. It doesn’t matter. This is made of simple wooden boards, there’s nothing in the way of carpeting or door cards, and the old red colour on the firewall clashes against the body’s British Racing Green. Why?

Because that was how it raced in the 1960s, and Matt says he’s tried to keep things as original as possible.

It’s why he says it’s been rebuilt, not restored. And despite more than one significant, body-bending accident (before Matt’s ownership), the driving sensation isn’t far off what its first Kiwi owner enjoyed from 1950, then what racer David Silcock experienced in the 1960s, competing successfully in the modified production sports car class across New Zealand.

“The Driving Sensation Isn’t Far Off What Its First Kiwi Owner Enjoyed From 1950, Then What Racer David Silcock Experienced In The 1960s.”

These XK120s were truly advanced immediately post-war. Revealed in 1948, the early aluminium-bodies versions could top 120mph, making them the fastest production cars in the world. They were even quicker with the windscreen removed, as seen on Matt’s example. Under the bonnet was Jaguar’s new XK engine; an inline six-cylinder DOHC that began here with a displacement of 3.4-litres and was used in anything from Le Mans-winning D-Types, E-Types, XJ6 luxury sedans and right through – 44 years later – to the Daimler DS420 limousine. Highlighting their vintage, XK120s featured independent torsion beam front suspension, semi-elliptic leaf springs out back, recirculating ball steering and 12-inch drum brakes. “You have to treat it nice and slow – it keeps you very occupied,” Matt says. “You can’t afford to lose concentration as it’ll probably bite you.”

To damage this beauty would be unthinkable, not least because 2019 was the first year Matt and wife Carolyn drove it since taking it off the road in 1985. Kids, work, house builds and moving countries slowed rebuilding time. He’d bought it in 1982 from the Chequered Flag in Auckland, it being one of the cars he’d been maintaining and testing at the garage when not working on aircraft for the New Zealand Air Force. While still at school Matt and his mates were often messing around with cars – VWs, Sunbeam Alpines, Triumph TRs and Morris Minors – “swapping engines to make them go faster,” he remembers. A love of sports cars, especially British ones, has remained.

“I love the XK120’s styling, and I’d jacked this one up, messed around with it and got it going,” he says. “It had been imported to New Zealand new in 1950, and probably used as a road car until David Silcock raced it in the 1960s. Before I had it someone had piled it into a tree. There was big damage; the whole car had been pushed back about ¾ of an inch. I’d just sold a Porsche 911T for $15,000, and bought the Jaguar for $10,000. It was in average condition, brakes weren’t good, wheels were bent, but we drove it for a few years before I jacked it up to drop the diff. I thought ‘you’re not supposed to see light through the corner of the sill’ and that’s when it began.”

Once stripped, Matt discovered the B-pillar was practically detached from the body itself, and the left side was out of kilter after at least one big hit. He removed the original engine (it’s earmarked for Matt’s Jaguar D-Type replica project) which had been enlarged to 3.8-litres for racing with a D-Type crank, and tried to closely replicate it with a 1963 motor from a Jaguar Mark X sedan – a 3.8-litre XK. “It was originally fitted with triple Weber 45 DCOE carburettors, but I couldn’t get triple carbs on this car because of its rigid steering column and box. I’ve fitted a pair of 2-inch SU HS8s instead, which are much easier to tune.”

Because of chassis damage – it was cracked completely around on one side – Matt removed the plating welded previously to the front of the chassis and repaired it properly by grafting on a Jaguar Mk7’s front section, modified to suit the XK120. He sandblasted the chassis once it was straight, and painted it in an enamel with a hardener to deal with the chassis flex on these old cars. He pulled the differential apart to reveal a cone-type LSD which had been fitted for racing, and rebuilt the original steering column and box. “I toyed with rack and pinion, but I’d be getting away from original,” Matt says.

“The brakes are different. You have to stop. Silcock had put XK150 brake discs on for racing, so I’ve mirrored what he did, plus added braided brake lines so they don’t swell up like balloons when you have to stop in a hurry.” Browsing Matt’s photos of the body rebuild is mind-blowing. “The front wing was basically filler to get the shape,” he says. “I threw the headlight pod away and began totally recrafting the front end. It took 18 separate pieces of steel in the front curve alone. The driver’s side was in relatively good condition, so I built up a frame, took a lot of station marks along it every six inches, made aluminium cut outs, turned them around and stuck them on the passenger side. Then I formed a piece of steel to get exactly the same shape. It took forever.”

Matt used a home-made English wheel to help craft from steel the Jag’s sexy curves. “I found a lot of the things I did were better tolerances than the factory, due to the amount of hand building,” he says. He crafted the front end, sills, a door, new firewall, boot and fuel tank. He used pop rivets before spot welding – mirroring the original techniques. The bonnet is the original 1950 piece, albeit with louvres and scoop added all those decades ago for racing. Despite the Jag originally being Old English white, its period racing colour was green and so it remained for the respray – the same BRG as used by Jaguar C-Types in the 1950s. The seats and dashboard are original and in remarkable condition, while the rear end remains with cart springs – although five leaf rather than the original nine.

Finally, after some 35 years, Matt had his first shakedown test last year. “It was elation,” he says. “After some adjustments I drove it to town on a freezing morning. But I was buzzing so much it didn’t really matter.” The throttle response is instant and the throttle pedal incredibly sensitive, but that classic XK engine just pulls It cruises at low revs without fuss, but the gearbox needs a masterful, sensitive touch to execute clean changes. The 70-year-old XK120 went down a storm at the first car show it attended, but Matt has loftier goals. “I’d love to drive it to from Queensland to Motorclassica in Melbourne,” he says. “There’s not a lot of room in it so I’d have to plan the trip well, it’d be hard work, but it should be reliable and lots of fun.” It’d be an epic trip, but totally in keeping with the Right Stuff that’s always been required to pilot these stunning Jaguar sports cars.

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