Life Cycle of a Jaguar XK120 Roadster

Bob Henderson has owned his 1951 Jaguar XK120 from new. Read his remarkable tale of dodging terrorist bullets, racing exploits and everyday road duties from Malaya via Canada to Scotland

Words Nigel Boothman Photography Andy McCandlish

1951: bought new for £998, raced and shot at

In May 1951 Bob Henderson was just 19. He was living and working in Malaya, as it was then, splitting his time between the rubber trade and a dangerous semi-military existence fighting Communist insurgents. After his flat-out MG TC was overtaken effortlessly by ‘one of those amazing new Jaguars’, he made enquiries.

A Chinese businessman had ordered two, thinking he may get only one, but was surprised to discover that two cars were being shipped. So one was up for sale.

‘I chose the silver one with blue trim,’ says Henderson, who still owns the car today – 62 years on, and counting. Always an inquisitive type, Henderson’s first modification took place not long after purchase. He befriended two gifted Chinese engineers who machined some high-performance camshafts for the XK engine.

This was helpful to Henderson’s first efforts at motor sport, racing at the annual Johore Grand Prix. ‘The Jaguar often did well, though I had to experiment with different brake linings to overcome the fade. In effect the actual race was often between Jaguar brake fade and a single-seater Cooper’s engine reliability!’

Henderson still has the odd trophy, but the XK wasn’t quick enough to outrun bullets. ‘I was driving through an area about 50 miles north-east of Kuala Lumpur, having overtaken a convoy of Malay Regiment troops. I was up to 100mph when the car was hit, and I felt a numbing pain in my elbow. I threw the Jag into reverse and shot back down the road. The convoy had arrived and was already deploying.

‘One terrorist broke cover and I tore after him with my .38 revolver, but he was killed by a Malay Regiment soldier. I had a six-inch gouge on my forearm and a small hole in my hip – both bullets missing the bone.’

The XK wasn’t so lucky. The two bullets had penetrated the aluminium door skin, and had to be filled in by two ‘skilled lads’ at Kuala Lumpur’s Jaguar dealer.

‘I had the car repainted a nice shiny dark blue at the same time,’ says Henderson. ‘The silver paint did not hold a good polish in the tropical sunshine.’

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1955: airport towcar or rally car?

After leaving the Far East, Henderson found himself in Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth, in charge of returning 50 ex-naval De Havilland Mosquitos to airworthy standards for the Israeli Air Force. When the work with Mosquitos ended, Henderson and his new wife emigrated to Canada and naturally took the XK120 with them.

Initial local rallies were disappointing but a much more serious event soon came along: the British Empire Motor Club’s International Winter Rally. It was of the traditional type with concentration points – Montreal and Toronto – making for something like 68 hours of motoring, virtually non-stop. Henderson tackled all the driving himself. Such fatigue, along with sheet ice on a shaded corner, sent the XK120 off the road and into a lake.

‘The car stopped sinking with the ice around top-of-the-wing height, and no water flooded in. The lake had somehow partially drained after the ice had formed and we were resting on a dry lake bed.’

After being dragged out, Henderson and his co-pilot finished free of penalties and won the event. But the hard use led to a second repaint, this time a pale blue.

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1969: worn out, laid up, forgotten?

In 1960, Henderson was given UK and European rights to distribute the innovative Fish carburettor. Henderson’s smaller version, for British and European cars, was called the Minnowfish. It was and remains a cult design, especially for VW and Mini fans, but it proved effective on all water-cooled engines. His Jaguar runs on one to this day.

By 1969 the car had been used as a parts hauler, daily transport and demonstrator for thousands of miles, including a run-in with the then Technical Editor of Autocar and engine designer, Harry Mundy, in 1959/60. ‘When I took the car to the magazine’s office and he heard that I’d replaced two SUs with one Fish carb, blanking off the other hole, he refused even to come outside and see it,’ says Henderson. ‘He couldn’t see that whatever was lost in volumetric efficiency was made up for in thermal efficiency, thanks to the superior fuel vapourisation it achieved.’

Henderson was doing so many miles that when offered a Jaguar MkVII for £2 (not a misprint) he fancied swapping the engine and overdrive ’box into his XK for relaxed 100mph motorway cruising. But having taken the car to bits and modified the gearbox crossmember, life got in the way and the swap was never completed.

Business became so busy that when the Hendersons moved to Argyll in 1969 the Jaguar was transported as a non-runner and consigned to a corner of the garage. Over the years, it almost disappeared under heaps of miscellaneous spares while Henderson’s tuning business expanded into being a motor manufacturer. The Argyll Turbo was a mid-engined supercar built from scratch at his own premises, and it wasn’t until efforts on this project finally wound down in the Nineties that he got round to unearthing the Jaguar.

Thankfully, it hadn’t deteriorated too badly and Henderson began ‘crawling about underneath’, as he puts it. One thing had been bothering him since the Sixties, though, ‘The pale metallic blue paint was the same as a shade that appeared on some Fords. It suddenly didn’t look so good to me. In 2000, I changed it back to silver.’

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2005: on the road again, disc brakes and turbo

In 2005 the Jaguar received its first MoT in nearly 40 years. After some enjoyable miles, the Henderson tendency to modify re-emerged. One major change was to the brakes. Retro-fitting disc brakes to an XK120 isn’t possible unless you change to wire wheels with a different offset to give room for the calipers, requiring a swap from the original ENV back axle to a Salisbury unit that will accept wires. Henderson didn’t fancy that.

‘I’d been following someone in a modern BMW along the road down the side of Loch Fyne, doing a decent speed, when I realised he didn’t know the road as well as I did. He braked in the middle of a corner and I had to swerve round him to avoid running into him. I thought it was time to do something about the brakes.’

Henderson created a thick steel back plate to mount a four-piston caliper on each front sub-axle, boring and counter-boring the plates for a perfect fit. ‘Drill the mounting holes one 32nd of an inch out of position, and you foul the wheel,’ he says. ‘I took it to a test station to see what difference it made, and the braking power was equal to a Mercedes Sprinter van.’

In one of Henderson’s garages is the XK’s next engine – he has decided to turbocharge the old Jaguar. The XK engine will run a turbo that blows through a Minnowfish carb, running a low boost of 5-7psi to avoid the need for low-compression pistons. Henderson expects an uplift of some 40% in rear wheel horsepower – it’s what he usually gets.

Anyone who’s tried to follow him down his local roads might think the XK is fast enough already, but a car only becomes interwoven with someone’s life for so long if it fascinates its owner. With 225bhp and brakes to match, MOW 523 should keep Bob happy for another 62 years.

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