Phillip Karam’s restoration of his 1954 XK120 SE OTS
JCNA’s Jaguar Journal featured this article about the vehicle restoration in the May-June 2013 Issue
Left: Fully restored and beautiful, this XK is not a garage dweller or trailer queen. Right: The proud owner/restorer with the result of his efforts - show quality inside and out.
After owning several ‘open air’ sports cars over the years, I never thought that I would have a desire for one again. They all suffered from unit-body sag (measured by how much the doors sag and pinch the ‘B’ posts). My 1965 Mustang convertible, my Austin Healey 100-6, my Triumph GT6, as well as my previous XKE roadsters, all had the same ailment.
The road salt winters, as well as cottage road runs, did not help, nor did the fact that these were ‘modestly used’ when I acquired them.I resigned myself to only acquiring 2 door ‘coups’ for my collection over the early years.
A 1952 XK120 FHC, a 1958 XK150 FHC, a 1962 XKE FHC, as well as a 1976 XJS coupe, seemed to satisfy my appetite at the time for my collection. I began to appreciate the graceful and sensuous lines as well as the structural integrity of the coupes.
Then it happened. In 1997, I spotted a 1954 XK120 SE OTS in the local newspaper for sale. (That was prior to surfing the internet) The price at the time was manageable at $16,000. Since this era of cars had a solid rail frame, I could now have an ‘open air’ car without the worry of any ‘sag’ occurring.
As it turned out, the owner confided that the clutch was slipping, as well as the engine would overheat. Of course it had its share of rust, as it was 43 years old by this time. I purchased the car for $13,000.
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Story and Photos: Phillip Karam, Ottawa, Canada
Left: No doubt the XK120 is ready for a fashion show - be it clothes or cars! Right: The Lord Mayor of London, Andrew Burns, and his wife obviously liked the Jaguar - wonder if she can drive a stick?
Top: The XK120 looks perfectly at home on display at the prestigious Meadowbrook Concours in Michigan. Middle left: A front closeup, including theat pesky, rust-prone parking light on the top of the fender. Middle Right: From the rear the body looks just as good, everything lined up properly. Bottom Left: The 1952 coupe was the first of Phil Karam’s ‘keeper’ Jaguars. He alls the roofinle and spats ‘so sensuous’. Bottom Right: This shot shows off the striking blue/red colour scheme. Phil Karam spends planty of time in the drivers seat.
However, the best part is, that no one got to do any bodywork patching on the car. I say this because everything on the car was still original, and no one had been ahead of me to ‘patch’ and filler any of the metal panels. I was able to see and study every metal piece as it was originally made and fastened to the car. This was most important to me, as I wanted to replicate the car to its original fabricated design and condition.
Of course when any replacement metal part was being fabricated, I would do so with one gauge thicker than original, and I would cut well back any of the rusted sections. I would use ‘satin finish’ protective coated metal for all of my metalwork. The use of a ‘English Wheel” was very useful in the forming of some of the fabricated pieces. I would attach some of the parts with an open jaw spot welder, if that is the way it was originally done.
Whenever rusted pieces were cut out, I would cut back far enough to where there was the original gauge thickness of the metal. The newly formed pieces were ‘butt welded’ with oxy-acetylene, and ‘hammer-welded’. MIG welding leaves the metal hardened and will crack when bent or worked with. Lap welding is too quick and sloppy. Proper ‘butt welding’ is what was used at the time and it is becoming a lost art. If you look at the underside of a XK120 front fender, you will see that seven pieces were formed and then butt welded together to form the fender. It was not possible to stamp out a fender with one ‘hit’.
This brings me to the parking/turn signal light pod on each fender. As every XK120, XK140, XK150, as well as the Mk V, VII, VIII, and Mk2 will show. Mine were also rusted out.
After cutting out the pod and fender, the size of a football, I would then form the fender patch to the exacting size of the cut-out piece. Using the English Wheel, the top of the fender patch was formed. I tried to keep my gap at 1/32”. A new light-pod was spot welded to the formed patch. The pod and formed patch was then butt welded to the fender.
Again, wanting to replicate the same technique and craftsmanship that was done in the era, I preceded to lead-fill the light-pod surround to the fender. I only got 4” around the light-pod in the process of leading the pod to the fender when I realized what was happening to every Jaguar with a rotting, or bulging light pod. The residual acid flux that is used in the process through capillary action, had sucked into the joint and remained under the light pod. Later in life, the corrosive dried acid flux, when meeting with water, or moisture, would eat away at the lap joint of the pod and first bulge, and then rot away the light pod.
The next time that you spot one of these cars, take a close look. Seven out of ten cars will show this degradation.
Upon realizing what was happening, and after my lead work was completed, I would flush out the inside of the light pod cavity with a baking soda solution in order to neutralize any acid flux that was in the light pod. Later I would pack the inside of the light pod with cup grease in order to prevent any water from penetrating and sitting inside. I even drilled a drain hole in the case water ever entered.
Over the past 10 years, in traveling to the Scottsdale auctions, I have probably seen 150 of the XK120, XK140, XK150 models. Only about 10% would have complete symmetry and unbuldged light pods. Take a closer look the next time you see one.
When it came time to the engine overheating, this task was quite challenging and interesting, however at the end very rewarding.
I was given most of the previous owners work orders and receipts. The second owner had a complete engine rebuild back in 1971. Two years later he replaced the head gasket, water pump, and was suppose to have reworked the head. The next month he sold (dumped) the car, no doubt because the engine was still overheating.
The third owner, although keeping the car for 24 years, replaced the water pump, thermostat, rad caps, radiator, more often than one could imagine. Even as much as installing an electric fan for the radiator. All to no avail.
When I purchased the car, the rad cap was loosened, and I was told to keep an eye on it.
I had decided to pull the head. To my surprise, I found two of the tin corrugated head gaskets in place. It seems that the ‘mechanic ?’ thought that if one was good, then two would be better! The car had this overheating problem for 26 years, and no one seemed capable of diagnosing and resolving the overheating issue
At first glance, it appeared that the head was machined down .030” and stamped as such. Upon very close examination, I was able to detect a ‘scar’ in the head with ‘carbon trace’ embedded in the arched scar. This arched scar would start at one of the cylinders and continue to one of the water jacket openings. It seemed that when the head was machined back in 1971, the machining process, using a ‘broach machine scarred the aluminum head, allowing compressed gasses to leak into the water cavity, hence the symptoms of overheating.
Changing the radiator, water pump, thermostat, radiator cap, or even adding a second head gasket, would do nothing to resolving the problem. The engine never did overheat.
Releasing the rad cap allowed the last owner to drive the car for 26 years.
I proceeded to have the head milled. We took .005” off and eliminated the scar.
Top: Eddie Irvine looks serious as he prepares for a few fast laps. Bottom: Quite a contrast in styling between the 120 and the 2000 XKR but both came from the same roots and share the same purpose - speed and performance!
By now the head had .035” removed. I never figured what the increased compression would be, however never caring for the tin can head gaskets, I was able to source a composite gasket from England for the 3.4 liter engine.
Now, the composite gasket measured .060” thick, and I figured that when compressed, it would be .050” thick, compared to the .015” thick tin gasket. The extra .035” thickness made up for the .035” that was shaved off the head, so now I was back to my original 8:1 compression engine.
As an added benefit, the new composite gasket allowed for better sealing around the water jacket openings in the head that started to show some corrosion.
Note: Change your anti-freeze coolant more frequently in order to retard the acidic corrosion to your aluminum head.
Shortly after my total restoration was completed, Jaguar had announced that it was returning to Formula 1 Racing. In June of 2000 the “Jaguar Racing Team” completed in the Canadian Grand Prix F1 at the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit in Montreal Quebec.
I was asked to bring my opalescent silver blue XK120 S.E. to a Department of Transport test track in Blainville Quebec, not far from the race track.
Two other Ottawa Jaguar members also brought their favorites.
Here we were introduced to the Jaguar race drivers Eddie Irvine and Johnny Hebert. Jaguar Canada had been promoting “Jaguar returns to racing”, and had invited the press to see not only the F1 race drivers, but to also showcase the new ‘S-Type’ and ‘XKR’. Both drivers had a ‘hoot’ in looping around the heavily banked test track in my XK120, to the awe of the many journalists.
As ‘pay-back’, after everyone had left, and there was only a handful around to watch over and protect the Jaguar demonstrator models, the 3 ‘Ottawa boys’ took the XKR out for a ‘spin’ on the banked oval. Two of us got to make the buzzer speed limiter to kick in at 155 MPH !
My XK120 SE has been shown at the Meadowbrook Concours in 2005, as well as the many Ottawa Jaguar Concours de Elegance shows.
Phillip Karam, Ottawa Canada
last updated January 27, 2020
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