A rare Jaguar sports car bought new for about £1,700 by one of Birmingham’s most colourful figures – who once flew a Spitfire upside down over the Town Hall – is expected to fetch up to £100,000 at auction.
The 1954 Jaguar XK120SE Coupe is the last of its type produced and was one of only 195 fixed head examples of this model with right hand drive. It was bought new by Alexander Adolphus Dumfries Henshaw, better known as Alex Henshaw, who between 1940 and 1946 was the chief Spitfire test pilot at Vickers’ Castle Bromwich works in Birmingham.
According to Jaguar, the original retail price for the car was £1,694 and 10 pence.
In1954 that sum represented about three years wages for the average Birmingham worker – the Office For National Statistics in London said the average manual wage in 1954 was nine pounds seventeen shillings and eight pence, or less than £10-a-week.
It was also possible to buy a decent house in Birmingham in 1954 for what Mr Henshaw paid that year for his Jaguar, as the average home then cost less than £2,000.
Alex Henshaw was still only in his late 20s when he became chief Spitfire test pilot in Birmingham. There he oversaw a team of 25 pilots and flew more than 2,300 Spitfires, as well as other planes.
He is thought to be the only pilot to barrel-roll a four engined Lancaster bomber – a feat considered impossible until he did it – and also once memorably flew a Spitfire at low level down Birmingham’s Broad Street, flipping it upside down over the Town Hall.
Henshaw learned to fly when he was 20 and took part in air racing, competing against more famous pilots such as Geoffrey de Havilland, a relative of Hollywood actress and Gone With The Wind star Olivia de Havilland. In 1933, he competed in the blue riband of air racing, The King’s Cup, winning the Siddeley Trophy. He also won the inaugural London-Isle Of Man race in 1937,before winning The King’s Cup in 1938,in the fastest ever time at an average speed of 236.25 mph.
In 1939, he set a new world record for a solo flight from Gravesend, Kent, to Cape Town, South Africa, a round trip of 12,754 miles which he completed in four days, 10 hours and 16 minutes. At the end of this gruelling feat, he was so exhausted that he had to be helped out of the cockpit.
He later wrote a book about the adventure, titled Flight Of The Mew Gull, and also wrote Sigh For A Merlin about his days in Birmingham at the Castle Bromwich aircraft factory.
After the Second World War, he joined his prosperous family’s farming and holiday business in Lincolnshire and in 1953 was awarded the Queen’s Commendation For Bravery for his rescue work in the 1953 floods. The following year he splashed out on the Jaguar, which will now be auctioned by Bonhams at Goodwood, in Sussex, tomorrow.
It was comparatively inexpensive to run a Jaguar in 1954 as a gallon of petrol then cost just four shillings and fivepence halfpenny, or about 22p in modern money.
Auctioneers Bonhams said: “Told by the post-war Government to ‘export or die’, the British motor industry responded valiantly, none more so than Jaguar Cars, soon to become the UK’s biggest US dollar earner, thanks in no small measure to the success of its sensational XK120 sports car.
“Delays in the gestation of its MKV11 saloon led to Jaguar exploring an alternative method of bringing the new XK 3.4-litre six-cylinder engine to public attention. The result was the fabulous XK120 – the 120 referred to the car’s top speed. Launched at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show, the roadster caused a sensation.
“Conceived in wartime, the XK engine embodied the best of modern design, boasting twin overhead camshafts running in an aluminium-alloy cylinder head, seven main bearings and a maximum output of 160 bhp. When installed in the lightweight XK120, the result was a car with phenomenal power-to-weight ratio and blistering performance.”