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Cars are a bit like people: full of vigour and va-va-voom in the first flushes of youth, then knuckling down and working hard through to middle age, before things start to go wrong on the downwards slope, with a corresponding decline in perceived value.
Yet when this natural life cycle is applied to vehicles, it opens up a world of opportunity for those with slimmer wallets, creating bargains of cars that, when new, would have remained well out of reach.
One such shallow-pocketed gentleman was a young Richard Littlewood, fresh out of the Royal Navy and earning a glamorous living supplying edible oils and fats wholesale to the food trade in Manchester.
“I’d never really fancied a modern car,” he says, “and luckily my love for vintage machinery allowed me to own a few interesting vehicles. My friends just accepted that was what I was into.”
“My local garage had heard of a Daimler Dart on which some chap was defaulting. It was going to be repossessed and I thought I’d quite like it, but somehow he coughed up.”
In an alternate reality, Edward Turner’s 2.5-litre V8 might have entranced Littlewood and it would be an SP250 starring today, but after this narrow escape he instead bought an Austin-Healey 100/6.
Yet it was the disparity between that car’s 102bhp and his uncle’s Jaguar that would be the deciding factor in his next choice.
“He was a doctor in Bridlington. I remember visiting and being asked if I’d like to accompany him on a house call, in his XK150 drophead coupé.
“Once finished, he let me drive it on the way home; I was instantly impressed, it had so much more steam than the 100/6 – you just put your foot down and off it went.”
The Healey immediately went up for sale, and in early 1967 the hunt for an XK began.
Several were considered and disregarded, including the cheapest – a fixed-head coupé XK150 priced at £66, which was “lopsided and sounded a bit rough” – before he found the 3.4-litre 2418 DA.
Like many groovy young things, previous owner Rodney Hazzard had coveted the decade’s go-to choice: the svelte Jaguar E-type.
This new big cat on the scene superseded the XK series, committing Jaguar’s glorious Le Mans-winning heritage to rapidly fading memory.
Unveiled at the 1948 London Motor Show, Jaguar’s light-alloy bodied XK120 heralded an exciting new direction for the company.
A development of its flagship MkVII saloon – with identical mechanicals, on a shortened chassis – the rakish roadster fired the public imagination.
Here was a performance car featuring an exotic double-overhead-camshaft, alloy-head/iron-block, twin-carburetted XK engine – putting out 160bhp, and later 190bhp in 3.4-litre SE form – with striking styling, hitherto unseen levels of comfort and all for a bargain £998 plus Purchase Tax.
The Jaguar sports car ethos of performance allied to affordability was set.
Never intended to be mass produced, XK120s sold in their thousands, becoming the go-to sports chariot for Hollywood ‘royalty’ such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.
Fixed-head coupé and drophead coupé models followed, but the biggest impact on the model’s aura came from the success of its racing derivative.
Essentially a mechanically tweaked XK120 with an aerodynamic body and custom tubular chassis, the Type ‘C’ roared to victory at Le Mans in 1951 in the hands of Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead.
After further success two years later, Type ‘C’ begat Type ‘D’ – a further development of the underlying XK mechanicals, with a new body – resulting in three consecutive triumphs at La Sarthe from 1955-’57.
That same year the final roadgoing iteration, the XK150, replaced the earlier 140.
In came revised, somewhat more sober styling, all-wheel Dunlop disc brakes – a first for a production Jaguar – and further power increases for the redoubtable XK engine, now with 265bhp in top 3.8-litre ‘S’ form.
Increased heft was offset by significantly improved handling characteristics, but even at the start of production the venerable old beast was beginning to look its age.
Those patrician lines, anchored firmly in the late 1940s, seem an unusual choice for a young blade.
“It was a question of taste,” explains Littlewood. “The E-type never really appealed – I much preferred the look of this. Also, I couldn’t possibly have afforded the newer car – they were around £1500 and in such demand. I paid just £300 for the XK.”
His previous brief ownership of an automatic MkVIII informed his choice of the similarly endowed XK.
“It was great for the commute in Manchester traffic. However, back then I had a tendency to floor it whenever the opportunity arose – that was just my age, though, I’m much better with auto ’boxes now.”
Despite the car having been resprayed the year prior to purchase, it quickly became clear that the body looked better than it actually was.
“Filler would shake loose from the doors, but when buying it I had been much more interested in the car’s performance.”
The XK remained his daily driver until 1969, by which time Littlewood – by then living in Birmingham – was given a Ford Cortina 1600 as a company vehicle.
“The XK became my hobby car – a good thing, too, because the engine had become noisy and the gearbox troublesome – despite it being a replacement, after I hit a roadworks ramp at high speed while going up Dunmail Raise in the Lake District, which caused some expensive noises on landing.”
Age was rapidly catching up with the car, but salvation came by way of an old Jaguar MkIX.
“I knew of an example with a good engine and manual gearbox with overdrive. The owner had taken it off the road due to leaking fuel tanks that he couldn’t afford to replace, so we agreed a price and I towed it back to the house I then shared with three motor traders.”
He continues: “Over the next few weeks they removed my car’s engine and transmission, and fitted those from the MkIX. The gearbox slotted straight in. We retained the 3.54 axle, giving 30mph per 1000rpm in overdrive top, which was good for long motorway trips.
“The saloon’s green leather seats were then adapted and used to furnish our communal sitting room with a rather luxurious suite! The extra power from the 3.8-litre engine was welcome, too.”
Littlewood married his partner Sue in 1971, and by ’76 they had moved to Elford in Staffordshire and had two sons. The XK remained drivable but was, in his own words, “looking rather tatty”.
It continued to receive occasional use until being laid up, with a little bit of oil in the bores, in 1976: “We had an old farmhouse to renovate, and there was lots to do.”
In 1982, Littlewood decided to restore the car. He repainted the chassis after removing the body, then new copper brake pipes, shock absorbers and suspension bushes were fitted.
“The engine and transmission were good, so I didn’t disturb them other than to replace the oil and filters. However, the bodywork was beyond my capabilities.”
The father-in-law of a friend agreed to take on the job, having retired from GBS Motors of Tamworth, as long as there was “no rush”.
Using a new inner rear tub from Bill Lawrence of Hythe and fresh rear wings from XK Engineering, the body was made solid again – two new-old-stock doors had earlier replaced the filler-filled originals.
It was a slow process, though, with the car finally repainted in 1988.
“We got it home and fitted a new wiring loom. When we started to put back the trim, all the leather was good but the carpets and door panels looked so worn against the immaculate body that we simply had to replace them.
“It was running again by July 1989, passed its MoT in early 1990… and was put up for sale two years later.”
Of course, the fact that we’re able to enjoy the car today is an indicator that it wasn’t sold after all, and instead it entered the second phase of Littlewood’s ownership.
“When I put it on the market I immediately had five people interested, but suddenly realised that I wasn’t going to sell it. With the car by then very good – reliable, solid and once again a pleasure to drive – I felt the need to extend my ownership.”
After completing a Norwich Union run, the XK150 becoming a fixture on the annual Euroclassic epics: “By the time we got down to the start, went on the tour and took the rest of the fortnight toddling our way back, we had put 3000 miles or more on the clock.”
On the most memorable of these, the Jaguar broke a spring at Snetterton.
“The RAC towed us to a local garage,” recalls Littlewood, “which welded the spring and put on a couple of U-bolts. As we came off the ferry to mainland Europe it went again so we did the whole tour, 7-800 miles, with just the U-bolts holding it on.”
Littlewood admits to considering changing the XK for another classic: “But when you start to think about what you can get, you realise that it does everything; we’ve done over 400 miles a day many times.
“It’s comfortable, it’s fast and it more than keeps up with modern traffic. It’s also relatively easy to work on, so I’ve always done my own servicing.”
A common question to owners is whether anyone else has ever driven their car, to which the reply is often “no”. Not so here.
“Oh yes, my wife has driven it… around the Nürburgring.” Never has a dramatic pause been used to better effect, and it sums up the use the car has enjoyed.
His only wobble came a few years ago, when a chap with a 3.4 S in the same colour moved to the next village and he saw it parked outside the pub.
“I can remember thinking ‘someone’s had the temerity to nick my car, and then stop for a pint’. Since my Cortina 1600, I’ve had Japanese, Swedish and French company cars, but this has endured through it all.”
Today the XK presents as an older restoration, still in hearty condition and wearing the subtle reminders of a life well lived.
Most obvious of these is the big, now largely redundant auto transmission hump, in which is housed the MkIX’s manual ’box.
You can imagine a modern=day valuer sucking through his teeth, before going on to explain the effect on the price…
Yet this car is the antithesis to the identikit restorations that adorn concours lawns. Its non-matching numbers are a nod to the methods owners used to ensure that their vehicles remained on the road – when donor vehicles were the answer to a rebuild that didn’t make financial sense.
The paintwork has a few minor chips and blemishes as per a well-used classic, but is generally in good condition – testament to the quality of the late-’80s work. It’s a roguish reminder of post-war British beefcake roadsters.
Slip into that elegant interior and the U-bolt on the rear seats raises a smile as Littlewood explains its dual purpose: secure connection for a suitcase’s padlock (when the boot was full of spares) and a fixing for attaching the dog’s harness when it joins him for a blast.
The XK engine, since rebuilt, fires with a gruff bellow. Slot the Moss ’box carefully into first, pull away and there’s a profusion of accompanying axle whine.
This is overlaid with exhaust bark and induction noise as the engine gets into its stride. There’s no need to rev it hard, because there’s stacks of low-down torque.
Press hard into a corner and its 1448kg weight makes itself clear – it’s never been a svelte B-road blaster – but as a tourer it remains a car that’s ideal for a long-range European jaunt.
The disc braking is of its time, as one of the first production systems, but when new the stopping power must have put the frighteners up non-disc believers. Overall, it’s a lovely car to drive.
To think that a cheap, secondhand sports car – purchased on a whim due to a young man’s budget constraints, desire for performance and attraction to old metal – would still be going strong over half a century later is a tribute to the car that Jaguar built.
Here’s to the XK150’s next 50 years and beyond.
Images: Tony Baker
This was originally published in our July 2018 magazine