Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Tom Shaw, courtesy of Justin Hills Classic Auto Restoration (unless indicated)
At home on an English estate’s gravelled driveway, this car could also thunder down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. A natural on the manicured lawns of established concours events, this car could also beautify the most modern of homes. With styling that affirms British elegance, this car also oozes French flamboyance.
While it’s all of these things and more, this car is, first and foremost, the product of the creative mind and talented hands of Justin Hills.
From humble premises on the NSW Mid-North Coast town of Taree, the specialist team at Justin Hills Classic Auto Restoration produce vehicles that are anything but humble.
You may know the business better as Hills & Co. Customs. That name still exists, but the new moniker of Justin Hills Classic Auto Restoration reflects an evolution from custom car creations into the realm of bespoke builds and high-end restorations.
The business hasn’t forgotten its origins, though. And Justin certainly hasn’t forgotten his, which played a big part in the creation featured.
The car you see here was more than five years in the making and had been swimming around in Justin’s head for even longer. But why a Jaguar? To answer that, you have to go back even further, to Justin’s childhood in England.
School runs in a Willow Green (think Holden’s Saltbush Green for the Aussie equivalent) Jaguar XJ6 made an impression on the youngster that remained in the decades that followed, with both an XJ6 and Mk2 Jaguar amongst his past cars.
Early days in customising, a move to Australia and the establishment of Hills & Co. Customs didn’t diminish that affection for Jaguar. If anything, it focussed it. So, a bit over a decade ago, Justin had not only defined the dream XK120-based Jaguar he would one day build, he also knew exactly how he was going to build it.
“Everything that was done on the car was preconceived more than ten years ago,” Justin explained. “I even knew where I was going to cut, as I had done it in my mind so many times.”
The first steps in making that dream a reality was a simple cut-and-paste photo, but the steady stream of work at Hills & Co. kept the vision from progressing much further until late in 2013, when the ideal base vehicle was finally found.
What Justin had found was a 1953 Jaguar XK120 Fixed Head Coupe. Located in Georgia, the car was described by the seller as a 3-owner unit that had been delivered new to California.
“It had no engine, no gearbox - it was just a rolling shell, but that was all I needed,” Justin recalled.
Previous owners had replaced the factory DOHC 3.4-litre six with a V8 and raced it on streets and drag strips in California and Nevada through the 1960s and ’70s.
Its competition past didn’t faze Justin and the rust-free base was perfect for his custom intentions.
“The good thing about race cars is, when they’re not being raced, they’re generally in a garage, so this car has been indoors most of its life. It was the ideal candidate.”
Being LHD was no problem, either, as Justin had always intended to take the finished car back to the US, where he’d enjoyed success with previous projects, including ‘Atom,’ the 1960 Dodge Phoenix custom with which he won the prestigious H.A Bagdasarian Award for the World’s Most Beautiful Custom at the Sacramento Autorama in 2013.
Sleek Black Cat
Given the build of this car had been so comprehensively pre-planned, there were no delays due to elements being pondered or reconsidered.
However, with every panel on the Jaguar’s body being modified, reshaped or replaced, the build was hardly speedy - Justin estimates he and his team spent around 2,000 hours on bodywork and paint.
For example, a 3-inch chop required new metal to be let into the roof to preserve the Jaguar’s profile, while rolling the guards helped achieve a low-slung, coachbuilt look that’s enhanced by airbag suspension.
Inspiration for the body’s styling tweaks came from the extravagant coachbuilt Bugattis and Delahayes produced by French carrossiers like Saoutchik and Figoni et Falaschi in the 1930s.
“I was trying to bring back that Bugatti-esque feeling,” Justin explained. “William Lyons would have got his inspiration from these French Art Deco-style cars as well, and I think that’s what the XK120’s original design was chasing.”
Back when it was still known as SS, Jaguar had shown that Art Deco influence with their SS1 ‘Airline’ saloon from 1934. Had the XK120 been brought to market a decade earlier than its actual 1948 release, it’s certainly conceivable it would have followed the Airline’s styling and resembled Justin’s creation.
Justin adds that another influence in this car's design were the Le Mans racers of the 1950s, hence the XK120 LM (for ‘Le Mans’) name this build carries.
There’s some relevance and heritage here, too, as Jaguar offered a trio of factory-prepared, aluminium-bodied XK120S roadsters for privateers to race at the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours. These units were used to develop the XK120C, C-Type and D-Type that followed and would see Jaguar claim five outright wins at Le Mans.
While the XK120 LM looks competition ready, and it’s certainly lower than a factory XK120, a misconception with this car is that it’s wider and lower, too. Actually, the width is unchanged and it’s only about a half-inch longer, Justin says, explaining that the effect is an optical illusion, due in part to the lower stance and those rolled, fender-free guards.
“It gives the illusion of it being longer and sleeker. But that was the whole essence of Jaguar – low and sleek.”
Like the body styling, the factory black paint was part of Justin’s original vision and its mirror-like finish reflects the preparation that went into the body and the precision that he and his team apply to each build.
Given the influences behind its styling, it’d be wrong to describe the XK120 LM as a restomod. Several modernisations have been made, of course, but it’s all very “analogue,” which explains the choice of powerplant - a 5.3-litre V12 from an '80s-era Jaguar XJ-S - which is hooked up to a Toyota R154 5-speed manual.
Amongst other modifications, the engine was de-stroked to 5.0 litres, but the impetus for this was aural, as Justin explained: “The sound was more important than a few extra horsepower. I needed that crisp, high-revving V12 that was expected from a Le Mans car of the period, so, by de-stroking it, lightening the rods and pistons, adding a small diameter flywheel and clutch, I got the sound I wanted.”
Despite the de-stroking, maximum power from the V12 is still 460bhp (343kW) – a very healthy number and a hefty increase on a factory 3.4-litre XK120’s maximum of 210bhp (156kW).
Modifications included a bespoke fuel injection system, which proved to be this build’s most challenging element.
“The engine was a bit of mountain for me to climb, but I got there,” Justin laughed. “I had to work some stuff out that I wasn’t too familiar with, like the fuel injection, which is primarily hand made. We weren’t sure if it was going to work, but we ran it on a test engine and, to our amazement, it did work. It was really quite a fantastic set-up.”
On the gearbox, Justin says the R154 is a good match for this engine, as it’s particularly suited to high-revving applications (like the 8200rpm this car is capable of), so if you want to drive the XK120 LM hard, the ‘box can handle it.
Allowing that 460bhp to be best utilized, the Truetrac limited slip diff sits in an axle that’s been narrowed to allow wider rear wheels to be fitted without altering the lines of the body.
To pull up that 460bhp, 11-inch Wilwood disc brakes with multi-piston calipers are fitted all round, but the discs are masked behind authentic Jaguar centre-lock wire wheels and complementary Dunlop Classic Racing tyres.
A custom exhaust, dedicated cooling system and bespoke wiring loom were all created specifically for this car, while the airbag suspension can be raised for practicalities like negotiating driveways, but Justin says the car’s optimum visual stance is at 3 1/2 inches, which still allows it to be driven.
Speaking of driving, Justin says it met all his expectations: “It drives way better than an original car - super nice, super direct steering, really responsive, excellent brakes. It’s fantastic to drive.”
While the exterior aesthetic of the XK120 LM never deviated from Justin’s original ideas, the interior did.
The early plan was to fit out the cabin in brown leather, but a flood of hot rods and rat rods running similar vintage leather interiors saw a change in direction.
“I had some leather colour swatches from a company called Jaguar Leather. And as soon as I saw the green, I couldn’t use anything else – job done!” Justin laughed.
Trik Trim did all the upholstery, which included the Vintage Racing compact bucket seats, dash top, boot trim and bespoke luggage.
A Moto Lita steering wheel and authentic Jaguar instruments kept the period Jaguar theme going, but a PE Racing pedal box added a modern touch and continued the Le Mans inspiration.
Aussie Debut, International Exposure
The XK120 LM was still unfinished when it made its public debut at the 2019 Sydney Harbour Concours d’Elegance. That event, held at the historic Lindesay property at Darling Point, saw the project take a new direction.
Barry Fitzgerald, a fellow concours entrant, approached Justin and started asking questions about the car.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Justin recalled. “But my partner Angie said, ‘I think he wants your car!’ ‘I thought, ‘No. he’s just interested, like all car guys’.”
Fitzgerald has an extensive car collection and won Best in Show at the 2012 Motorclassica with a 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental.
“A couple of hours later, Barry came back and said, ‘Is there any chance we can have a sit down and a chat about your car? I think I’d like to buy it.’ Then, all of a sudden, shit got real!” Justin laughed.
A deal was sorted that day, and while the car was now Barry’s, Justin still wanted to showcase his creation overseas, so Barry agreed to finance its travel and concours entries: “That was fantastic, I got to live my dream,” Justin said.
That overseas tour started in August, 2019, at The Quail show (also known as the Pebble Beach concours) in California, where the Jaguar won the Custom Coachwork award. The Salon Privé Concours at Blenheim Palace followed a month later, and while he was in the UK, Justin experienced a personal highlight.
“We got invited to Sir William Lyons’ house at Wappenbury Hall and stayed there for three nights. To go back to where this car originated from, where the first design would have sat in front of, was quite fantastic.”
The Jaguar connection continued when the carmaker’s former Design Director, Ian Callum, made his successor, Julian Thomson, aware of the car. Callum had been following the build since its early days, but Thomson went a step further, inviting Justin to display the XK120 LM within the all-new Jaguar Design Studio in Gaydon, which was another highlight.
A trip to the Zoute Grand Prix historic event in Belgium followed, after which the car returned to London, where it was nominated for the Bespoke Car of the Year at the Historic Motoring Awards.
Coming Home, Moving On
Following that whirlwind tour, Justin and the Jaguar came back to Australia at the end of 2019 with hopes that the international exposure would lead to commissions from overseas customers. Thanks to COVID-19 enveloping the globe a few months later, no such work has come to fruition, but there have been some positives.
“I’ve got a lot of new followers and a lot of people are watching my stuff,” Justin explained. “I think it’s opened up doors for future builds. It hasn’t come yet, but it will come.”
In the meantime, Justin has several customer jobs and two other diverse projects to occupy his time – a 1948 Daimler DE 36 and a 1960s-era Iso Grifo A3/C Bizzarrini racer.
The Bizzarrini will remain largely authentic to its original spec, but its fibreglass body will be replicated in aluminium. On the Daimler, there’s a glint in Justin’s eye when he says the vehicle, which was part of the fleet used for the 1954 Royal Tour of Australia, will be modified to make another Art Deco-style custom.
Justin knows cutting up a prestige classic like this will be controversial, but as the XK120 LM shows, the team at Justin Hills Custom Auto restoration aren’t afraid to push boundaries.
Justin Hills Classic Auto Restoration
You may know Justin as the man behind Hills & Co. Customs. He still wears that hat, but a new company name has been introduced - Justin Hills Classic Auto Restoration.
While Justin himself may be well-known amongst classic car enthusiasts in America and Britain, those communities are unfamiliar with the Hills & Co. brand, so the new name is a common sense move as the business expands into overseas markets.
Services cover the gamut of the restoration spectrum, from sympathetic refurbishment to full concours restorations, as well as the bespoke fabrication and custom car builds that Justin and his team are rightly famous for.
To find out more, view past builds or find out how to commission a custom vehicle or award-winning restoration, go to: justinhills.com.au