David Gandy grew up in what he calls a ‘Jag family’. Now he has a baby of his own: an XK120 Lightweight roadster, remade into the car of his dreams. Adam Hay-Nicholls joined him for a test-drive on the French Riviera.
There are, one may assume, many reasons to be envious of David Gandy. But none more so than his Jaguar XK120 Lightweight roadster.
Britain’s best known male model is, by his own admission, feeling overwhelmed. We are poolside at a chic Saint Tropez hotel, where the unmistakable shape of one of the 1950’s most iconic sports cars lies beneath a sheet, silhouetted under studio lighting like a Hollywood dame of the same vintage, resting between love scenes.
He removes the cover, revealing a svelte black body and tan leather interior with lattice-patterned seats; a motorcar of such sensual perfection that onlookers are at a loss for words. If Hèrmes made a vibrator, it might look something like this.
Gandy has spent the last eleven months working with Jaguar Land Rover Classic Works to create the automobile of his dreams, something he likens to being fitted for a Savile Row suit. They sourced a 1954 XK120 chassis in California and, together, have rebuilt it from the ground up; a 2,700 hour job, surgically restoring it back to its former glory and subtly introducing some small technical and aesthetic improvements. The Coventry workshop is, he says, “my happy place.”
David’s passion for fashion is paltry compared to his ardour for fast cars and hand-beaten bodywork. ‘Handsome’ is the epithet that best describes the Gandy garage. This is the 39-year-old’s third such project. He started with a 1960 Mercedes 190SL, which has since quadrupled in value, followed by a 1964 Porsche 356 Coupe a few years ago, another sound investment. “Collecting and building cars is an addiction,” says David, whose first car was a rather less enviable Ford Fiesta 1.1 Ghia. “I’m looking for cars that haven’t really been discovered yet. People ask why I do it; it’s about holding onto history. We’re looking after these cars for the next generation. It’s also about getting them out on the road and driving them, and letting everyone enjoy them.”
It’s the XK120 which is closest to the roots of what begat Gandy’s obsession with cars. “I remember, when I was eight, Jaguar won Le Mans ‘88 with the Silk Cut XJR-9LM. Four years later they introduced the XJ220, which was the fastest production car in the world at the time (a record the XK120 held on its launch in 1948). We were already a Jag family; my dad had an XJ, so did my grandparents. I grew up in the back of a Jag; I think my love of the brand stems from there.”
The swashbuckling adventures of gentlemen racers and dandyish drivers has long appealed; the Bentley boys, who toasted their Le Mans wins by driving their car into the Savoy Grill and placing her at the dining table, are a particular inspiration, as too are the likes of Rob Walker, who would undertake night stints at the 24-hour race in a dark blue pinstripe suit before switching to a more informal Prince of Wales check for the daytime stints. ‘Gentleman’ was the occupation listed in his passport. Gandy looks up to “Englishmen causing a bit of havoc,” and underdogs beating those who, perhaps, take themselves too seriously. The XK120 has its own Le Mans heritage, and Gandy’s has been set-up to race. He has a competition licence and will enter this car in the Mille Miglia and other classic events.
As much of the US base car as possible has been retained. “It was unloved and hadn’t been driven in years, but the chassis was good, it had never been crashed, and it had all the original numbers”. The 3.4 litre in-line six-cylinder engine is original, but has been tweaked to deliver an additional 45 horsepower, totalling 225bhp, and to provide enhanced durability. That rebuild took five and a half months alone. It has been mated to a fast-shifting four-speed transmission and all-new dual-pipe exhaust. There are disc brakes at the front with four-pot callipers, and drum brakes at the rear. The suspension features fully adjustable dampers so the handling can be fine-tuned for racing. “We’re keeping to the original formula, but improving it in areas where modern innovations benefit,” says David. In addition, the steering’s been swapped from left to right.
The technology is skinned in aluminium and coated in four coats of solid black paint. The tiny twin aero screens nod to its feather-weight. The body colour contrasts beautifully with the aged saddle leather. The unique woven seats were Gandy’s idea, inspired, he says, by Balenciaga designs, and their craftsmanship is astounding. The steering wheel is also custom and smaller than usual to accommodate the owner’s long legs and muscular frame.
Gandy had seen all the individual parts of the car in the workshop, but our Saint Tropez unveiling was the first time he’d seen all the constituents together. “I didn’t say much that evening,” he admitted to The Rake a week later, “I was just too amazed, overwhelmed, I couldn’t believe it was mine. And I just wanted to jump in and drive it.”
The reason we were down on the Riviera was to test it. To head to the hills and take the perilous turns of the Gorges du Verdon and Route Napoléon. Jaguar Classic could have put it on a track, or the M40, but better to shake it down on roads as thrilling and charismatic as the wheels, “to get to know all its little quirks,” says David, and a couple appear as soon as he’s swung out of the Hôtel Sezz. An oil pressure and clutch issue means work needs doing, and as Gandy can see we’re itching to get behind the wheel he rustles up a couple of marvellous back-ups; an E-Type Fixed Head Coupe and a 3.8 Mk II, both beyond mint and courtesy of Jaguar Classic.
Passing along France’s answer to the Grand Canyon, the D23 is a narrow balcony road along the border of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Var, carved out of the cliffs. It skirts the crystalline green Verdon river, a sheer 700-metre drop below. This makes the MK II’s heavy steering and somewhat alien handling rather nail-biting. There are craggy rock overhangs, cambered corners, blind curves, and hairpin turns. “With a classic you have to recalibrate your brain to properly drive,” Gandy explains from the passenger seat. “Modern cars have computers working everything out for you, it’s like a video game, but with this you have to get the gear sequencing right, blipping the throttle and double de-clutching. Getting that right around a sequence of corners is like hitting a good golf swing, or batting a six. You know from the noise if you got it right or wrong.”
Once we reach the Route Napoléon, which stretches from the foothills of the Alps to Antibes, we are reacquainted with the XK120 – still with a dicky clutch but with the oil pressure sorted – and make a break for Monaco to the south east.
Gandy enjoys the connection his car gives him to old school drivers of the 1950s and 60s. “You’re doing 70mph and being hit by this thunderous… well, everything basically. There’s hardly any windscreen, you’ve got gusts of wind, stones flying up, you’re choking on the fumes of the trucks you pass. You’re fighting the elements. You’re controlling something that’s in some ways out of control. How Stirling Moss managed to drive cars like this twice as fast I will never understand.”
On reaching Monte Carlo we prepare for an evening at the casino, DG jumping into his DJ. He looks every inch the matinée idol, which is fitting given the XK’s famous customers; Clark Gable owned the very first XK120. Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart were enthusiasts. Currently, Harrison Ford has one.
This car is a star in its own right. The owner is smitten and won’t be selling. “The Jag is the car that’s always going to be a keeper,” says Gandy. “I’ve been personally involved in other cars, but there’s something special about this one. It’s something I’ll get years of pleasure from”. It’s most gracious of him to share in the excitement.