Leslie George Johnson
In Jaguar circles, Leslie Johnson is generally known as one of the four drivers, and the one who came up with the idea, of the XK120 FHC – LWK 707 – that was driven round the track at Montlhéry at over 100 mph, 24 hours a day for a whole week in August 1952. More importantly he was the first driver to race the new Jaguar XK120, winning races both at home and in the US and drove for Jaguar on many other occasions up to 1953.
This article only deals with his time and efforts with Jaguar, the rest of his career is well documented elsewhere.
Leslie Johnson was born on 22 March 1912 in Walthamstow, North East London, at that time one of London’s poorest districts, and he spent his early years there. His father, a cabinet maker, died soon after starting his own business. Johnson, left with a mother and younger brother to support even though he was still in his teens, took charge of the firm. The employees responded to his management style with a loyalty and dedication which, allied to Johnson’s astute business brain, helped create the successful furniture manufacturing business that funded his entry into motor sport.
His competition career started in the 1930s when he rallied a BMW 328 but this stopped with the outbreak of war.
Among his close friends was Jaguar founder William Lyons (to whom he lent his BMW 328 for detailed mechanical investigation during the post-war planning and design of the XK120).
When competition resumed after World War II, he progressed from rallies to hill climbs, sports car racing and single-seaters. Although a prodigiously gifted driver he never made a full commitment to racing, business interests remained his primary focus.
Highlights of his Jaguar Driving Career
Johnson’s involvement in motor sport began and ended with rallying, and he was a member of the Rootes factory team but also rallied an XK120 before progressing to sports car racing. Johnson’s early races were with his BMW 328 and a Talbot-Lago T150C before going on to Aston Martins and Jaguars. He achieved Aston Martin’s first postwar international victory in 1948, and then the first successes for the XK120 in both England and America.
His name is closely associated with Jaguar, particularly the XK120. The extraordinary competition history of his white car, road-registered as JWK 651, made it the world’s most valuable XK120 when it sold at auction in 2001 for £230,000 ($350,000).
Race Results (Year, Date, Race, Result – DNF = Did Not Finish)
- 1948: 11 July – Spa 24 Hours – Winner,
- Prototype Aston Martin shared with John Horsfall. Aston Martin’s first postwar victory.
- 1949: 26 June – Johnson’s first Le Mans race – DNF
- Aston Martin DB2, co-driver Charles Brackenbury.
- Retired from fifth place after six laps; overheating caused by water pump failure.
- 1949: 20 August – Daily Express International Sports Car Race, Silverstone – Winner
- The XK120’s first race, after an early collision with a spinning Jowett Javelin had dropped him to fifth.
- 1950: 3 January – Palm Beach Shores, Florida, SCCA Sports Car Race – 4th overall, 3rd in class
- The XK120’s first American race
- He was granted an American racing licence for the event, as his entry was not sanctioned by the RAC, and the Jaguar was unmodified from standard specification.
- Jim McCraw wrote, “In rain and high winds, the Jaguar finished fourth in a race that included three giants of American sports-car racing – Briggs Cunningham in a Cadillac-Healey, second; Phil Walters in a Healey.
- Sam Collier finished eighth in another XK120, and Bill Spear DNF’d with no brakes in the third XK120.”
- The success launched Jaguar in the US market.
- 1950: 23 April – Mille Miglia – 5th
- Jaguar XK120. The best-ever result by an Englishman driving a British car, in this instance a production model beaten only by lightweight competition cars entered by Alfa Romeo and Ferrari.
- 1950: 25 June – Le Mans – DNF
- Jaguar XK120. The clutch failed after 21 hours while lying third and catching the leader at a rate that would have seen the Jaguar in the lead before the full 24 hours had elapsed.
- An effort that convinced William Lyons it was worth investing in success at Le Mans.
- Explaining the clutch failure, Jim McCraw wrote: “Leslie Johnson ran as high as second during the middle portion of the race, but, in order to save brake wear, he kept downshifting the transmission at high speeds and eventually blew the clutch, which prompted the substitution of a solid-disc clutch plate from then on.”
- 1950: 26 August – Silverstone 1 hour Sports Car Race – 5th in class
- Jaguar XK120
- 1950: 16 September – Dundrod RAC Tourist Trophy – 3rd in the race – 7th on handicap
- Jaguar XK120
- 1950: Record Breaking Run at Autodrome de Montlhéry
- 107.46 mph for 24 hours.
- Including stops for fuel and tyres, in Johnson’s Jaguar XK120 roadster JWK 651 with Stirling Moss as co-driver.
- The first time a production car had averaged over 100 mph for 24 hours.
- Johnson and Moss, driving in three-hour shifts, covered 2,579.16 miles, with a best lap of 126.2 mph.
1951: 29 April – Mille Miglia – DNF
- Jaguar XK120 JWK 651 partnered with John Lea
- 1951: 5 May – Silverstone Sports Car Race – 5th
- Jaguar XK120
- 1951: 24 June – Le Mans – DNF
- Jaguar C-Type with Clemente Biondetti as co-driver.
- Retired from third place after 50 laps; no oil pressure.
- 1951: Record Breaking Run at Autodrome de Montlhéry
- 131.83 miles in one hour.
- With a best lap of 134.43 mph; Johnson drove solo in the XK120.
- “No mean feat…driving at almost twice today’s maximum (UK) speed limit into a steep turn, assaulted by the g-force induced by 30 degree banking twice every minute, using Forties technology, leaf spring suspension and narrow crossply tyres.
- Johnson remarked that the car felt so good it could have gone on for another week, an off-the-cuff comment that sowed the seed for another idea. “Flat out for a week.”
- 1952: 5 April – RAC Rally – 3rd
- Jaguar XK120 but was later disqualified after a protest for running without rear spats, despite the scrutineers having noted and agreed their removal.
- 1952: Record Breaking Run at Autodrome de Montlhéry
- 100.31 mph for 7 days and 7 nights (see full details below).
- Jaguar XK120 coupé LWK 707; co-drivers Stirling Moss, Bert Hadley and Jack Fairman.
- 1953: 26 April – Mille Miglia – DNF
- Jaguar C-Type.
- 1954: 25 January – Team Prize, Monte Carlo Rally – Winner
- With Stirling Moss and Sheila van Damm co-driving a Sunbeam-Talbot Mark IIAs.
- During the rally Johnson suffered a heart attack.
- Norman Garrad, who was in the car with Johnson and navigator John Cutts, said: “It was altogether typical of Johnson that he somehow persuaded his colleagues . . . to get to the end of the event before committing him to hospital in Monaco.” He recalled that they arrived in Monte Carlo with Johnson “absolutely unconscious”, and that he nearly died that night in the hospital.
1952 Montlhéry XK120 24/7 Record Run In Detail
Following his efforts in the 1950 Le Mans 24 hour race with his XK120, Jaguar developed the XK120C (C-Type) to race at Le Mans in 1951 – winning first time out. For 1952 Jaguar modified the cars to try and gain some extra speed but all three C-Types failed with overheating problems.
Leslie Johnson decided another record attempt at Montlhéry would be good publicity and suggested they go ‘flat out for the week’. He persuaded William Heynes to release a car from the Experimental Department – a bronze coloured XK120 FHC. This was the second right-hand drive coupé made, LWK 707 and was fitted with long range fuel tanks to minimise the number of stops, an additional windscreen wiper to improve visibility when high on the banking and a two way radio.
Stirling Moss recalled:
“…in mid-summer Leslie Johnson had another of his ideas. Having averaged 100 mph for 24 hours at Montlhéry he now talked Jaguar into attempting 100 mph for a week!…We again drove in three-hour spells. The speedbowl lap was under a minute at 120mph, so it was quite a strain. After each straight we hit the banking high up near the lip, then plunged off, twice every fifty seconds, night and day. In each spell we would cover about 2,000 laps. It was impossible to keep one’s mind occupied on a job like that. We had a two-way radio which helped keep boredom at bay. We talked all the time, called each other names, even told stories. One dare not let the mind wander, because we were running within four feet of the banking lip at around 120 mph. One had to concentrate on something. I worked out how many million revs the engine made in a day, how many times the wheels turned, things like that.
The weather did not help; hot by day, cold at night. Night driving was a strain too, because we couldn’t afford the drain on the battery of extra lights. The headlights had to be set very high to let us see the top of the banking when we were on it, and this meant that on the short straights we could see nothing at all because the beams were playing in the air.
We hit several hares, rabbits and birds, and Leslie swore at one point that he’d seen a huge ten-foot tall figure in a long cloak, wearing a tall pointed hat, striding toward him along the verge. Next time round the figure had gone…it worried the life out of him for the rest of his stint. In fact I (Stirling Moss) had donned a Shell fuel funnel, pulled a tarpaulin around me and sat on Jack Fairman’s shoulders as he strode along the verge. After Leslie had whizzed by we ran away and hid…All very childish, but good fun in the circumstances. Leslie then had an extraordinary idea to get his own back during one of my stints. I came whistling off the banking to find him sitting with Jack Fairman in the middle of the track, playing cards!
Then he took the pit signal board and put it out on the track, so that my natural line past the pits took me between it and the timekeeper’s hut. He was lounging beside the hut so I waved to him as I shot though the gap. Next time round the board had been moved closer to the hut. The gap was narrower, but I couldn’t leave the fast line so I shot through it again. Next time round, he’d moved the board closer still. Each lap he narrowed the gap which made me concentrate harder to pass through it. Eventually he gave in, and the board went back to its proper position, hung on the tent. At least it passed the time…”
Montlhéry’s concrete surface was rough, and the Jaguar broke a spring when it was already well into the run. No spare was carried on board. Regulations stipulated that an outside replacement would make the car ineligible for any further records beyond those already achieved before the repair.
Johnson drove nine hours to save the other drivers from added risk while the speed had to be maintained on the broken spring.
When finally he stopped to have it replaced, the car had taken the following records:
- World and Class C, 72-hour records at 105.55 mph
- World and Class C, four-day records at 101.17 mph
- Class C, 10,000 kilometre record at 107.031 mph
- World and Class C, 15,000 kilometre records at 101.95 mph
- World and Class C, 10,000-mile records at 100.65 mph
After the repair the car went on to complete the full seven days and nights, covering a total of 16,851.73 miles at an average speed of 100.31 mph.
Retirement and Early Death
Johnson’s worsening heart condition forced permanent retirement from competition in 1954.
Alongside his racing, his business ventures included the acquisition of British racing car manufacturer English Racing Automobiles (ERA) in 1947. He raced ERAs from 1947 to 1950 and sold the company in 1952. He also initiated and negotiated Stirling Moss’s first commercial sponsorship deal, with Shell.
Leslie Johnson died on 8 June 1959, aged 47, at Foxcote House, the family’s home in the village of Foxcote, Gloucestershire, England.
Source: Wikipedia with additional material from Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust
© Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust