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Anthony Parkinson commissioned an uprated Jaguar XK120; it pretty much looks the same as the original, and sounds similar on start up, but wow does it go! Words: David Lillywhite and Photography: Malcom Griffiths

Several decades ago, Road & Track magazine's Dick O'Kane wrote that the XK120 is 'a machine to challenge all the gods and poets… sometimes.' If you've ever driven one, you'll understand immediately, because it is surely one of th most beautiful cars ever built. But it often frustrates with overheating, cantankerous gearshifting, poor brakes, and a grotesquely uncomfortable cabin. It's like expecting a gorgeous woman to whisper sweet nothings in your ear, only for her to belch instead.
So ever since, owners, enthusiasts and specialists have fallen over themselves to improve upon the basic design. Sure enough, Jaguar moved the dynamics on in leaps and bounds with the XK120 and 150, but neither came close to the sublime 120 for sheer blood-curdlingly good looks.
This is one of those interpretations on the XK120. It hardly strays from the original design, but there are enough clever, subtle detail changes to improve the driving and ownership pleasure two-fold. It was built in Derbyshire by Jaguar specialist Derek Watson, to the order of Anthony Parkinson, the American behind the famed Vicarage Jaguars of the late Eighties and early Nineties. If you want one the same, it will cost you 85,000 (pounds) plus VAT. We'll let Tony explain why he wanted it that badly.

Tony Parkinson's extensively restored XK120 is more comfortable than the original - side vents take heat away from engine and cabin; car is bound for America

Indigo Blue paintwork enhances XK's curves; built to left-hand drive specification in anticipation of the day Tony takes his car to the States; this car has disc brakes all round
  'I love the XK120 - it's a magnificent, stately looking car,' he says. 'But I wondered how I could get more pleasure from one without making it boy racer, keeping the charm and the elegance but making it as quick and exciting as it looks. I stared to build it as a track care, but it turned out to be a) more expensive and b) so nice that it's not a track car any more. It's a car that I could use everyday should I want to.'
   And that's true, because this is one accommodating XK. Jump in and the first thing anyone taller and 5ft 10in. will be relived to discover is that the seats - XK150 racing buckets - have been made to slide just a few inches further back. They're spot-on for a six-footer now, with the back of the sear just nudging under the cockpit rail when the hood's removed. If you're taller, then there's the more drastic option of chopping back a bit of the bodywork.
   Some aspects of the seating just can't be changed though, and you wouldn't want them different. Like when you open the low-slung door, only to be reminded that an XK's floor is almost at knee height, and the seat a good few inches above that; you site stretched out in a typical sports care position albeit a good foot higher than you'd expect. But in this care, the steering wheel isn't uncomfortably close to your chest and thighs, in that curiously vintage driving positions that the 120 is famous for.
   No, in this XK the steering wheel is an inch smaller in diameter than standard (at 16 inches) and two inches further forward. It's hard to see why Jaguar couldn't have achieved this on the standard model, but here the original steering box has been substituted for the lighter, more accurate charms of an XK150 rack-and-pinion set-up. Okay, the wheel's on the wrong side of the car, but we can blame that on Tony's desire to ship the care back to the states later this year.
   So you get yourself comfy, strap yourself in with those super-trick inertia reel harnesses - flick a switch and the inertias lock - and fire up the engine. For all the modern technology here, you still have the perverse pleasure of pressing a starter button to turn the engines. Twisting a key just wouldn't be the same.

WHEN THOSE
ALL-TOO-RARE CHANCES TO BOOT THE THING COME ALONG, BOY DOES IT GO!

   The reward for your fingerwork is a light tappety growl sneaking out through the smart new bonnet louvers. It's the unmistakable sound of the sublime XK motor, thank goodness - you rally mustn't rip the very heart out of even the most modified XK120.
   Of course, this is no ordinary XK engine. It's actually a 4.2-litre from a 420 saloon, running on triple 2in gasflowed SU carburetors and kitted out with lightweight XJ6 short skier pistons, a gasflowed big-valve cylinder head, Piper fast road camshafts and a lightened flywheel for much improved response and revability. K&N air filters and a JP sports exhaust deal with the breathing processes.
   The engine actually sits three-quarters-of-an-inch lower than standard to give clearance to the front carburetor, though you'd never notice. But the power figures prove how different it actually is, with 230bhp and 268lb ft of torque comparing admirably with the original's 160bhp and 195lb ft. This is going to be quite a ride, but only once we've settled one big question: how in the hell does a more powerful engine stay cool in a care already on the cooling limit (as many a Stateside customer found 50 years ago)?
   The answer sits nearly in front of the engine in the shape of an unsettlingly sexy-looking aluminum radiator. A slimline fan clings unobtrusively to its underside (for it's canted back at quite an angle), and a lightweight high-efficiency water pump and an oil-to-water intercooler sandwiched between the oil filter housing and modern spin-on filter help the cause.
   And had you spotted that the usual footwell vents just ahead of the doors are facing the wrong way? That's because they now vent hot air out of the engine bay, aided by a venturi effect that also helps to draw air into the engine bay through the front grille and louvers.

   As for the footwells, they're cooler now, because they're no longer heated by an over-hot engine bay. The vents never did a lot anyway, and there's certainly no sigh of the footwells or the engine overheating, even on our long runs through the Peak District on what has so far proved to be the hottest day of the year.
   Pootling through towns and past A-road speed cameras, mindful of the area's speed-monitoring helicopter too, the XK is a docile as you could ask for. Tony and Derek have been careful not to lose any of the low-down torque of the original engine in their quest for more power, and it always settles back to a neat idle, helped no doubt by the Aldon electronic ignition.
   But when those all-too-rare chances to boot the thing come along, boy does it go! Up to about 3000rpm it feels as 'normal' as an XK engine can feel; above that the full effect of the camshafts comes into play. The revs soar to the 6000rpm redline - and beyond if you're not concentrating - transforming the XK from the nice old sports car to outrageous projectile, seemingly without effort. When Tony tells stores of out-gunning E-types and XK8s on the recent Entente Cordial Jaguar run through France, you know he's not exaggerating.
   In fact, the 0-60 mph acceleration time is estimated to be about six seconds, while the top speed is theoretically well over 150 mph. Of course, aerodynamics come in to play, but with aeroscreens it should just nudge 150, and with the full screen it will be close to 145 mph. It's already been past 130 mph on a relatively tight engine…
   Of course, the E-type managed 150 mph too, albeit in rather false conditions, but the XK's task is made easier by the welcome addition of a modern five-speed gearbox., based around the super-tough Borg-Warner T5. Say goodbye to the infamously slow-changing Moss 'box; it won't be missed by many. Anyway, the gearknob still show the original four-speed, and the only sign of anything amiss is that the gearlever is ever-so-slightly cranked to keep it within the driver's reach.

XK120's Keeping its eye on the gods; interior is more roomy than original - bucket seats are a few inches further back and steering wheel is both 2in further forward and smaller
  It would take a serious purist to object to that gearbox, and it leaves the less experienced, or simply occasional, XK driver to concentrate on the road rather than the gearchanging. And when you're doing that, you'll be amazed at how well the care copes with its new-found power and torque, considering that the suspension has received only detail changes.
   An extra leaf in the semi-elliptic springs, and fine-tuning of the adjustable Spax dampers - telescopic in place of the old lever arms - has eliminated the car's early tendencies to squat down excessively at the back under hard acceleration. Neoprene suspension bushes help no end, and a simple beefing-up of the chassis must contribute. All that Derek's team has done is double upon the number of welds used on the chassis, and used large steel plates to beef up the one known chassis weak spot, where the lever-arm dampers were once mounted.
   The feel from the front wheels is just spot on too, to the extent that you know exactly where you're heading and at what point you're going to stop going that way. The steering rack so much more accurate than the original box, and uprated front coil springs and Koni telescopic dampers with XK150 anti-roll bar work wonders through the corners.
   You can sear through the twisties as if you're in a car half the size, reveling in the power and oblivious to the work going on inside the rear axle as the new limited slip differential doles out the power, without upsetting the handling. Then, when the going gets tough, the tough brakes stop it going, hauling what is quite a heavy machine up with so little drama that after a while you even stop thinking about them.

   It's only when you peer through the wheel spokes that you realize what's going on, with the original's big old Lockheed drums replaced by vented discs and four-pot XJS calipers at the front, sold discs and XJ6 calipers rear, withXK150 handbrake calipers adding a helping hand at standstill. With the assistance of a remote servo, there's little you can do to faze these brakes.
   I know this because I drove from miles, through every kind of terrain, and only one kind of weather - very sunny. It felt as though I was living a charmed life, not just because of the weather, but because I was in an XK120 that required so little effort to drive fast and smoothly in total comfort and with only the occasional glance at the temperature gauge. A modern alternator and sold state Facet fuel pump boost reliability too.
   Longer term, Tony will be able to relax in the knowledge that his car is rust-free, extensively restored and rebuilt, and protected with gallons of rustproofing wax. It's actually the body that will have accounted for most of the car's price tag, not the modifications alone. Look closely for imperfections in the XK150 shade of Indigo Blue, and the only fault you'll spot is a slightly awkward fit to the trailing edge of the bonnet - and that's because we interrupted the final few tweaks for our road test and photographs.

   Best of all, though, is that there's no question of the gung-ho character of the XK120 having been lost in any of its modifications; that just wasn't an option for any of the team involved. They reckon, and it would be hard to disagree, that the standard XK120 is a great car, but that this is how Jaguar would have made it given the time and cash for further development. If only it was possible to hand it back to Road & Track's Dick O'Kane, to confirm that this XK really can now challenge the gods and the poets on a more consistent basis.

Special thanks to:
- Jaguar Specialist Derek Watson - technical consulting
- Malcolm Griffiths - photoshoot
- CARiD.com - restoration & performance parts


Tony Parkinson: Father of the Vicarage

HIGH-CLASS professionally modified classics may be common enough now, but when Tony Parkinson started in business that wasn't the case. He formed the original incarnation of Vicarage Jaguar back in the late Eighties, and later found modest fame on converting them to more usable specifications.
   'It was Vicarage that started all this,' he claims. 'I created the Mk2 convertible in 1989. Then my E-type, the Rocket, became the standard a year or so later. It just seemed that Jaguar had always had brilliant ideas, but bugger-all resources for execution - se we finished the job.'

 


   But by the mid-Nineties, there were legal disputes over the Vicarage name in the UK, and Toney had returned to the States. He still trades there as Vicarage USA. His five-speed gearbox conversions have been going down well over there, but he felt there was a gap.
   Says Tony: 'I'd done Mk2s, I'd done E-types, but I'd never done anything on XKs. Now with this car I might do a bit of gentlemen's racing, probably take it to a show or two, any maybe bust people's chops with it on the road every now and again. I've made it as much of a rocket as an XK120 can be.'

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Vicarage USA
5333 Collins Avenue #502
Miami Beach, FL USA 33140
Tel: +1 772 225 7038
Cell +1 305 987 9107
Fax +1 772 225 7669
Vicarage Holland
Wim vanGinhoven Travertin
39 t'Harde 8084 EG. NL
Tel: 31 05255 2618
Fax 31 05255 3887
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c/o Derek Watson Jaguar Specialist
Bakewell, Derbyshire DE45 1RA
Tel 01629 640776
Fax 01629 640089
Email: jagwat@talk21.com