MDU 524: The record-setting Jaguar that outpaced the world

Photography by Stan Papior

It’s 8:18 a.m. 

On this serene October morning, a green Jaguar enters the empty A5 motorway west of Brussels. 

Quickly, the driver shifts up, chases the 3.4-liter, six-cylinder engine through its paces and climbs toward the rev limit: 5800, 6000, soon 6200 rpm. 

On this straight road near the little town of Jabbeke, the British sports car reaches 120 mph, 140, now 160. At the end, 172.4 mph is recorded, a world record for series passenger cars. The car is a Jaguar XK120, the driver one Norman Dewis, and the date is October 20, 1953. 

At the time, this record put an end to years of high-speed tests conducted in the west of Belgium, having started shortly after World War II. As early as 1938, the country had started building motorways with the intention of creating a connection between Ostend by the sea and the Belgian capital of Brussels. The first 20 miles completed connected Jabbeke in the West with the village of Aalter. 

The A5, as it was called then, proved ideal for high-speed testing. It was slightly elevated against its surroundings, sat arrow straight and passed no buildings. At the time, Britain didn’t have motorways of its own yet, and Germany–well, people weren’t too keen yet to visit the former enemy despite its impressive motorway network.

From the end of the 1940s to the early 1950, records were constantly broken in Jabbeke. The first one of note was set by Donald Healey, of later Austin-Healey fame, who recorded 104.7 mph in his 2.4-liter Riley Saloon. Lieutenant-Colonel Goldie Gardner made a name for himself piloting the experimental MG EX135 to 159 mph and later 176.694 mph, but this was far removed from a standard production model. 

The final point was made by Jaguar with an almost standard XK120, VIN 660986, U.K. registration MDU 524, which was driven in March 1953 to 140.789 mph. A world record. 

And that wasn’t even a brand-new car, as Jaguar works driver Maurice Gatsonides had piloted the 1952 XK a year before at the Coupe des Alpes rally. Fame didn’t last long, though: On October 2, 1953, the young and unknown Spanish Pegaso brand snatched the title, with Celso Fernandez achieving an astonishing 151.06 mph behind the wheel of a Pegaso Z-102. 

And while nobody said it, the Spanish defeat cut deep. In an interview given to American journalist Ken Gross during the 2014 showing of MDU 524 at the Quail concours in California, Norman Dewis explained, “Lyons came to me and said, ‘I see you’ve lost your record. What are you going to do about it?’ There’s nothing I can do; we’ve only got the XK120,’ I replied. He said, ‘I thought you’d be more interested in it than that.’” 

Already the next morning, chief engineer Bill Heynes gathered a team consisting of aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, chassis engineer Bob Knight and engine developer Jack Emerson. 

Sayer had prepared a list of changes needed to reduce drag, rolling resistance and weight. The windscreen, side lights, front and rear bumpers and passenger seat had to go. 

The team added a shield covering the entire underside of the car and a metal cover for the passenger side. A partial blanking plate covered the radiator, which was tilted backward slightly, a feature later introduced in the XK140 series production car. 

Most notable, though, was a Perspex bubble from a Slingsby glider completely encapsuling the driver. A planned full cover for the front wheel arches was not realized as it would have hampered the turning circle even more. 

The bubble was supposed to help deliver 6 to 8 mph more top speed, but it brought on its own problems. As Dewis, who was only about 5-foot-3, said to Ken Gross, “The first time I sat in the car, the Perspex bubble didn’t fit. It was actually sitting on the top of my head, about 4 inches from the roadster’s body. I said, ‘That’s not bloody good, is it?’” 

Tall drivers need not apply. Current car owner Kurt Engelhorn also has to remove the seat cushion to fit beneath the bubble.

When Heynes removed the seat cushion altogether, Dewis refused to sit on the flat wooden floor. Even with a 2-inch Sorbo mat in its place, Dewis says, “I could just about see over the scuttle.” A 14-inch steering wheel was put in place of the original 18-inch one to aid movement and improve the view slightly. As a result of the various changes, the weight was reduced to 2711 pounds, about 280 less than a standard XK120

Now it was down to engine man Jack Emerson to give the car more oomph. As Ken Gross describes, Emerson built a 3.4-liter six based on a C-type with lightweight 9:1 pistons, oversized 2-inch H8 SU carburetors, high-lift camshafts, a chopped flywheel, a C-type oil pump with a modified sump, twin electric fuel pumps, a close-ratio gearbox and a 2.92:1 rear end. Output, depending on the source, is rumoured to have been as much as 228 horsepower. 

Before shipping out to Ostend on SS Prince Albert, the XK’s tank was filled with commercial-grade petrol and sealed by the British RAC. In his interview, Dewis recalled, “On Monday [October, 17 1953] we arrived at Jabbeke. They closed the road, and I did one or two runs to warm up the car.” 

Traffic was moved to one side of the A5 while the record runs were conducted on the other. “The surface was aligned sections of concrete, rubberized in strips, so you could hear the slap, slap, slap of the tyres.”

On the morning of Tuesday, October 20, Dewis found himself at the beginning of a 5-mile stretch of closed Belgian motorway wearing only a cloth helmet and goggles–no crash helmet, no seatbelts. Two miles were dedicated to getting up to the maximum speed, followed by 1 measured mile and 2 miles run-out. 

At the end, only a 2-minute stop was allowed–with a quick check of the Dunlop slicks pumped up to 80 psi–and off to the return run. The record speed was taken as the median of both runs. Emerson had warned Dewis not to exceed 6000 rpm under any circumstances. 

On the run-up to the checkered board signalling the beginning of the measured mile, Dewis realized how well the car behaved. Oil pressure? Water temperature? Both as they should be. 

Dewis was running 6000 rpm but there was still a pull: “I’m at 6000 and I’m thinking, ‘Should I lift or should I let it go?’ I hit that marker board at 6300 rpm and it went very smoothly. But when I came in, they were all standing there, arms folded. Nobody smiling. Nobody talking. Lofty says, ‘You’ve got a problem with the car? You’re not as quick as you were in April.’” Everyone keeps up the charade for a few minutes until Lofty reveals, “You know what you’ve done? You’ve done one hundred bloody seventy-two point four. You’ve shattered it!”

After the tests, Jaguar used the world record extensively in PR and advertising but never showed the actual car again–not at a motor show or even a dealer. But Dewis explains why: “Sir William was always tight with the money, so the car was then put back in its original production state–windscreen back on, headlights back in, the underbody stuff out–and was then sold to a man called Albert Powell.” 

Powell, who was one of the founders of the Jaguar Drivers’ Club, had the car for a few years. In the early 2000s, American Jeff Lothman discovered MDU 524 in the U.K., acquired it and commissioned a full restoration at U.K. specialist firm JD Classics. JD’s Derek Hood was able to draw on Dewis’ extensive and detailed memory when, for example, recreating the destroyed Perspex bubble and the passenger-side cover. 

After its completion, MDU 524 won many accolades and was seen at the world’s concours events, from Monterey in California to Villa d’Este at Italy’s Lake Como to Hampton Court Palace in Britain and even the 21 Gun Salute Concours in Delhi. But it had never returned to Jabbeke, the place where its fame began. That was reason enough for Classic Motorsports to encourage current owner Kurt Engelhorn to bring the Jaguar out to the Belgian coast. 

The car didn’t need much convincing, as Engelhorn is the proverbial car enthusiast and, among many other things, initiator of the renaissance of the Swiss Alpine competition Bernina Gran Turismo. The affable German, who is no stranger to classic racing events around the world, strongly believes that his classic cars should be shown and used as intended. And so, MDU 524 was displayed at the St. Moritz Automobile Week’s newest sprint event, the Kilomètre Lancé in September 2021, where the almost 70-year-old race car was driven in anger. 

You can’t underestimate the importance of that record in its day,” Engelhorn explains. “Even today, 172 mph is no mean feat, but in the 1950s Ferraris were pulling about 135 mph and even the 300 SL Gullwing made it to ‘just’ about 160 mph. Norman’s 172 mph was in a whole different league.”

At the end of October, almost 68 years to the day after Norman Dewis’ legendary record, a nondescript 7.5-ton truck rolls up in Jabbeke, a small town of 14,000 inhabitants. When the driver opens the truck’s rear lid and MDU 524’s familiar yet strange rear end comes into view, the surrounding team quickly realizes the importance of this car for the village, the region and the marque. 

“The people of Jabbeke know of the Jaguar, not least because of the memorial plaque erected in 1999 at the start of the route to remember the run,” explains the town’s communications manager, Sarah De Deckere. 

With its very dark-green, almost black, hue and that face robbed of the bright headlights, which were replaced with air intake grilles, the XK appears quite sinister, an impression exaggerated by the throaty exhaust burble emanating directly under the passenger-side sill. 

For Engelhorn to fit under the bubble, he has to remove the cushion, just like Dewis did. Apart from that and the missing passenger seat, much is familiar to XK fans. The leather-clad dash has all the familiar instruments, the main difference being the small, 14-inch steering wheel the car retains. “Luckily,” adds Engelhorn with a sigh as he slots himself into the narrow seat. 

One press of the button and the 3.4-liter six awakens loud and clear. Engelhorn gives it time to warm up. Our first stop is local Snellegem Castle, a mismatching yet oddly attractive backdrop. 

“We can’t access the original route,” says De Deckere, the PR manager. “It’s not like it was in the old days. The E40, as it’s called now, is under government control.” 

But Mayor Daniël Vanhessche quickly sets the local police in motion to escort us on the next local route, an undoubtedly more beautiful location. Quickly, the news of the “return of the Jaguar” spreads, with more and more locals turning up with phones, taking pictures and videos. 

The conditions might be different, but the history remains: This is the Jaguar that outpaced the world to reach 172 mph.

Engelhorn is happy with the legendary Jaguar’s performance. As we switch positions to do shoots from the back of the car–“Again, no more than 50 kph”–he floors it and within seconds races along the local route at 130 kph, the camera car trying to keep up followed by two police cars with flashing lights.

And even though we hit barely half of its original record speed, Dewis would have enjoyed this.

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SSpro New Reader
1/28/24 12:24 p.m.

The XK140 of 1955 incorporated many of the improvements from these time trials, including the optional C Type head. Only 10,000 XK140's were made from 1955-early 1957, and an unknown lesser amount with the C Type "MC" mods. These were amazing super cars in their day and available now at strangely reasonable prices given their provenance.

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