Saturday 9 - Sunday 10, June 2018, 9.00am - 5.00pm
May 11th 2018
How different the world was when the Jaguar XK120 was launched 70 years ago. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, 1948 was a year of large-scale rebuilding, of invention, of hope. Few Britons could afford a motor car, yet more than half-a-million people crowded Earls Court for the first post-war British Motor Show, where Jaguar’s new open-top two-seater was the star.
While the XK120 wowed the crowds, other notable cars were also unveiled that year. These included the Land Rover, Morris Minor, Citroën 2CV, and the car that launched another legendary sportscar-maker, the Porsche 356. Not that the automotive industry was unfailingly visionary: in this year, too, Ford Motor Company turned down the opportunity to take over Volkswagen free-of-charge after Ford chairman Ernest Breech advised Henry Ford II that the German car maker wasn’t worth a dime.
Car sales and consumerism received a jump-start in 1948 when US President Harry S. Truman signed-off the Marshall Plan, authorising $13bn in US aid (equivalent to about $115bn today) to help reconstruct war-wrecked economies across Western Europe. Shop windows tempted passers-by with newfangled wonders such as hairspray, cat litter, Velcro, and the long-playing 33⅓ rpm vinyl record. New, too, was the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine, the world’s first stored-programme computer, but this went mostly unnoticed. There was far greater excitement about the Hoover Company opening a factory in Wales to mass-produce washing machines.
For consumers with grander aspirations, Aerocar International was developing a flying automobile which the company predicted was the transport of the future. It was certainly true that this could be a quicker way of getting around. While a top speed of 120 mph made the XK120 the world’s fastest production car, the first section of British motorway wouldn’t open for another 11 years, and proof of the potential of air travel was seen when an F-86A Sabre jet fighter streaked across the skies at 670.981 mph.
Looking higher - much higher - an RAF de Havilland Vampire set a new world altitude record at 59,446 feet (18,119 metres) - but as that year’s newspaper headlines exclaimed again and again, civilian and military planes too often came crashing back to earth. One lucky survivor was British philosopher Betrand Russell, who in October ’48 escaped from a Short Sandringham flying boat which crash-landed into the icy waters of a Norwegian fjord. Russell had insisted, on boarding the plane, on sitting in the smoking section at the rear - and because 19 people sitting ahead of him in the non-smoking section drowned in the accident, he made the philosophical reflection that smoking had saved his life.
Being injured or ill, however, was about to get more bearable: Clement Attllee’s Labour government had just introduced the most radical of its post-war social initiatives, the National Health Service, pledging good health care for rich and poor. And hospitals were less likely to receive convicted criminals who’d been birched or flogged, because corporal punishment had just been abolished. But 1948 wasn’t entirely a time of enlightenment: in the year that the passenger liner Empire Windrush brought 492 Jamaican immigrants to Tilbury docks in East London, and American professor Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, racism and homophobia were still so widespread they were institutionalised. One contradiction typical of 1948 was the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at much the same time that South Africa introduced apartheid rule.
This was also the year when the Soviet Union dragged Czechoslovakia, kicking and screaming, behind the Iron Curtain, and when Soviet forces in East Germany blocked the Western Allies’ road and rail access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. The Allies’ response, the Berlin Airlift, succeeded in supplying fuel and food to West Berliners and eleven months later broke the Soviet blockade, but this was merely an opening salvo in a Cold War that would soon hasten the invention of rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads from one continent to another.
Before the Cold War got hotter, so too did Jaguars. The XK120 was quickly followed by the even faster XK140 and XK150, the racing C-types and D-types, and those five famous 1950s victories at Le Mans. In retrospect, 1948 started the most glamorous and glorious era in Jaguar’s history - which makes 2018 a 70th anniversary year well worth celebrating.
By Phillip Bingham