|It was the sort of discovery that makes a car collector break out in a cold sweat. In preparation for the season’s most prestigious show, Kim McCullough was in the garage, running through a mental checklist for the 1954 Jaguar XK 120 roadster she and her husband, Mitch, have owned for three years. Entered in the Postwar Preservation class, the car’s historical correctness would be a critical deciding factor for the judges selecting a winner. An electric cooling fan would have to be removed; a dashboard grab handle needed to be reinstalled; dozens more items would be checked against reference books.
Not that there was much to worry about—the car had just one prior owner from new, and he took loving care of it.
But one detail proved amiss. Kim, who wields an impressive capacity for historical detail, was surprised to find the wire wheels were the 60-spoke versions—proper for an XK 150, a later edition of Jaguar’s breakthrough sports car. An urgent back-and-forth with a restoration shop in England turned up the correct 54-spoke wheels, and they were bead-blasted, painted and shipped to the concours site for a just-in-time swap. That effort might seem extraordinary, but when the car show is the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey, California, extraordinary is the minimum expectation. Being invited to compete was a bucket-list dream for Kim, who happens to be Jaguar Land Rover North America’s marketing vice president, and Mitch, a journalist and vintage racer. They weren’t going to let anything slide.
The McCulloughs’ XK had seen competition before, though not in a seaside golf fairway’s rarefied setting. Their first outing was far less genteel: the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile rally through Italy comprising 84 time-trial segments over four days. Then, at the 2016 Radnor Hunt Concours in Pennsylvania, the car took home the Historic Vehicle Association’s This Car Matters Award, and an admirer of the car’s unrestored condition suggested applying for an invitation to Pebble Beach.
Kim did just that, with little expectation of ever being accepted. When the formal invitation letter actually arrived in March, Kim let out a scream that filled her kitchen. By day’s end, the letter had been framed and hung on the garage wall, a tangible milestone in the life of someone who had spent her childhood allowance on Matchbox cars. And, perhaps, it was also a predictable result of growing up in a household where her father’s advertising agency livelihood—the Volkswagen, Porsche and Audi accounts—was a real-world example of what TV later portrayed in “Mad Men.”
Surely, the McCulloughs’ XK 120 was qualified for a spot on the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach links. The Jaguar had been purchased new in Boston by Bernie Yurt, back from the conflict in Korea, where he’d served as a staff sergeant. Yurt traded his stately 1951 Jaguar Mark VII sedan and $3,395 for the rakish sports car’s keys. Yurt, who died in 2008, was a fastidious caretaker of the XK 120, saving not only documents like the original sales contract but also the various labels and tags that came with the new car—even the stickers from the tires and antifreeze. He entered rallies, gave young relatives rides around the neighborhood and, most enduringly, started the New England XK Association in 1968. That club became today’s Jaguar Association of New England, or JANE, considered among the marque’s most active groups.
The XK’s unrestored condition—driven 55,000 miles through the years and lovingly maintained—made it an ideal candidate for Pebble Beach’s Preservation class. Largely original aside from wear items like tires and brake shoes, its paint and leather all but glow with a lovely patina, unmistakably a classic but having aged ever so gracefully.
Modifications made for reliability on the Mille Miglia—the electric fan, for example, had to be reversed. A modern aluminum radiator installed for the rally was swapped for the original brass one, cleaned internally and pressure-tested but not repainted or even cosmetically repaired. A tidy late-model loom for the spark plug wires was replaced by a correct period piece, not as neat in routing but faithful to the 1954 spec. Dependable modern hose clamps were replaced by Cheney reproductions, both pesky to install and prone to failure—but they have the correct appearance, and that matters at a concours.
An alternator that was installed for reliable charging needed to be changed back to a generator, proving a considerable challenge involving countrywide eBay quests for a different water pump (from California) and crank pulley (Mississippi). Other modernized systems, including a stainless-steel exhaust system with fittings for oxygen sensors for tuning, stayed, along with an upgraded fuel filter. Carburetor gaskets were replaced as needed, heeding the British car wisdom, “If there are no leaks, there’s no fluid inside.” In this case, though, the blame goes to ethanol blends. “We’ll run racing fuel in it from now on,” said Long, explaining his plan for preventing a breakdown.
Competing against nine other entries in the Postwar Preservation class (there were eight cars in the Prewar class) meant leaving some things alone. The body tag on the firewall and a Made in England tag on the front frame were both installed slightly crooked at the factory more than 60 years ago—and so they remain today.
Through all the preparations, the question of how to define “preservation” constantly loomed. The class is not a showcase for cars returned to factory-new appearance, nor is it strictly intended solely for grimy barn finds. To some degree, this asks an owner to second-guess what a judge might be basing a decision on. Is a reproduction radiator hose permissible? Would an upgraded ignition coil be grounds for disqualification? There are few guidelines, and Pebble Beach does not have formalized rules or definitions.
To Mitch McCullough, it’s a matter of equipping the car as it would have been in a period when it was used as regular transportation. “I want to experience the car like it was in its era,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t upgrade our XK 120 to a synchro five-speed or disc brakes.”
The week in Monterey went smoothly. The XK performed perfectly on the 70-mile Tour d’Elegance, running cool and cheered by a crowd enthusiastic for a car that clearly had been driven and appreciated. The 54-spoke wheels, fitted with Dunlop bias-ply tires, were mounted when the tour was over.
Sunday morning of the concours began with a predawn drive onto the show field. And the result was as good as any first-timer could hope for: second place in the class to a 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster from Switzerland and ahead of a 1960 Abarth 1000 Record Pininfarina Prototype from Italy.
To the McCulloughs, the fine showing is a fitting credit to Bernie Yurt’s half-century of care for the car. The best tribute, then, will be driving the car regularly when it returns to the East Coast. No doubt it will enjoy more public displays—just don’t look for it to be polished up perfect and placed on a pedestal.