From the sleek XK120 two-seater and Mark 1 saloon to the sexy E-Type sportscar, JAGUAR designed and built many of the best-loved British cars of the mid-20th century. The flair of its dynamic founder William Lyons made the Jaguar marque synonymous with seductively designed and sharply priced cars.
When Jaguar Cars prepared to unveil its new sports car at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show, the founder, Sir William Lyons (1901-1985), insisted that an early production model was driven there all the way from the Coventry factory. The new E-Type only just got to Geneva in time. The suspense ensured that Jaguar’s sexy new sports car was a media sensation even before it was unveiled.
Such stunts were typical of Lyons, who combined a salesman’s flair with an instinctive ability to anticipate what motorists wanted and the determination to deliver it at the right price. The E-Type was typical. With the promise of a top speed of 150mph (with a fair wind) and a price tag of £2,097 for a roadster – half the price of an Aston Martin – Jaguar billed it as Britain’s affordable answer to a flashy Italian Ferrari.
Snapped up by celebrities such as the footballer George Best and George Harrison of the Beatles, the E-Type was among the most successful British cars of the 1960s and is still seen as a glamorous symbol of the era. It was one in a succession of successful cars that enabled Lyons to transform Swallow Sidecars, a tiny motorcycle sidecar manufacturer in the English seaside town of Blackpool, into Jaguar, one of the world’s most prestigious marques.
Born in 1901 in Blackpool, where his father ran a music store, Lyons became obsessed by motorcycles as a teenager. At the age of 20 he bought a stylish aluminium Swallow sidecar made by a neighbour William Walmsley to add to his Norton motorcycle. The following year - 1922 - Lyons suggested that they went into business together and found a workshop for them to move to from the garage of Walmsley’s parents’ home. Swallow Sidecars flourished and in 1927 they diversified by adding their own bodywork to the chassis of an Austin Motors’ Austin Seven, the first affordable car to be made in Britain.
They then started to build stylish cars by adding flamboyant bodywork to cheap chassis bought from Austin, Wolseley, Morris and Fiat. By 1928 orders were so brisk that they moved Swallow from Blackpool to the Foleshill Factory in Coventry, in the heart of the British motoring industry. In 1931 Lyons persuaded the Standard Motor Company to manufacture engines and chassis to their specifications and they produced their own branded cars, the SS1 and SS2. Three years later he bought out Walmsley’s share of the business, and renamed Swallow the S.S. Company.
Realising that the next logical step was for S.S. to develop its own engines, Lyons assembled a talented team to do so. He already employed a talented coach builder to oversee the bodywork in Cyril Holland, and hired a brilliant design engineer William Heynes. In 1935 the S.S. Company introduced a sleek, low-slung car which its advertising agency christened the SS Jaguar. The following year Bill Rankin, the company’s public relations officer and a keen amateur sculptor, designed a mascot for the car’s radiator in the form of a leaping Jaguar. An unimpressed Lyons said that it looked: “like a cat shot off a fence”.
During World War II the factory switched to military production of jeeps, sidecars and aircraft components. Lyons arranged for him and Heynes to be on fire watch duty together to plan how to rebuild the business in peacetime. As the initials SS were reminiscent of the Nazi regime, Lyons changed the company’s name to Jaguar Cars after the war and pursued his dream of producing a luxury saloon capable of being driven faster than 100mph.
In October 1948 Lyons unveiled the Jaguar XK120 – or Super Sports – at the Earls Court Motor Show in London. To the war-weary British public in an era of rationing and the Utility Scheme, the pure lines and voluptuous curves of the two-seater sports car were breathtaking. Equally impressive was the luxurious interior with a walnut-trim dashboard and thick-pile carpet, and the six cylinder engine designed by Heynes and Wally Hassan with a hemispherical head, twin overhead camshafts and top speed of 126 mph. Lyons oversaw every detail of the car’s design, down to the stylishly skinny cross-ply tyres. Sought after by movie stars, like Clark Gable, Jaguar sold over 12,000 models of the XK120 from 1949 to 1954.
By the early 1950s Lyons was investing heavily in motor racing, knowing that success there would enhance Jaguar’s appeal to ordinary motorists. Determined to win at Le Mans, he hired Malcolm Sayer (1916-1970), a gifted design engineer who had worked in the aviation industry for the Bristol Aeroplane Company, to develop the C-Type racing car. Believing that aerodynamic efficiency was of the utmost importance to a car, Sayer employed many of the techniques he had learnt at Bristol, including wind tunnel and smoke tests, to his work at Jaguar and based his designs on mathematical principles. The C-Type won at Le Mans in 1951 and 1953, and Sayer was given the go-ahead to develop a second racing car, the D-Type. It won at Le Mans three times in four years, but tragedy struck when Lyons’ son John died in a car crash on his way to the 1955 race. Lyons decided to withdraw from motor racing and to concentrate on road cars.
He began with saloons, to take advantage of the growing demand for stylish family cars among the newly prosperous industrialists of the 1950s. In 1955 Jaguar launched the Mark 1, modelled on the de luxe Mark VII. The body shell broke new ground for the company. As a unitary construction, it had a stiffer base, while being lighter than the traditional separate chassis and body build. The front and rear of the car reflected Jaguar’s established design language, yet the side profile was completely new. The interior included modifications which would form the pattern for future Jaguars. The seats were deeper and wider, while the dashboard dials and gauges were moved from the centre to face the driver. A status symbol for upwardly mobile Britons in the late 1950s and popular as the villain’s car in gangster films and television crime shows, the Mark I was to be updated as the Mark II in 1959 and as the Mark II 240/340 in 1967.
The appeal of the Jaguar marque was still rooted in sleek sports and racing cars, and Malcolm Sayer drew heavily on this in the long low lines, graceful curves and seemingly endless bonnet of the E-Type, which also sported Grand Prix detailing in its built-in headlights and baby radiator grille. Lyons’ own favourite E-Type was the fixed-head coupe developed by the gifted US-born sheet metal craftsman Bob Blake. The body was of monocoque construction with a front subframe for the engine. Four wheel disc brakes were fitted with a revolutionary independent rear suspension in a cradle mounted on the body by rubber blocks. Just a month after the launch of the original E-Type open-top roadster in Geneva, Graham Hill entered the E-Type for its first race at Oulton Park – and won. Jaguar was to make 72,500 E-types from 1961 to 1974.
During the 1960s the company became embroiled in mergers and acquisitions. Lyons bought the Daimler marque in 1960, principally to secure access to its factory and skilled workforce in Coventry. In 1966 Jaguar merged with the British Motor Corporation and, two years later, became part of British Leyland. That year it launched the XJ6, developed by a team led by William Heynes. Quieter and less flamboyant in style than the E-Type, the XJ6 and Heynes’ powerful XK engine proved to be exceptionally popular. Lyons then focussed on the next step, the development of the yet more powerful V12 engine under Walter Hassan, which was launched in 1971.
Lyons announced his retirement in 1972 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the year that he had founded the company with William Walmsley. Having built Jaguar from scratch, Lyons had moulded the company in his image and fired it with his ambition, yet had the good sense to hire and reward gifted designers and engineers such as Sayer and Heynes. He continued to offer advice throughout his retirement, notably on the development of the XJ coupé. Yet Jaguar floundered without Lyons, losing its identity and commitment to quality in the travails of British Leyland. Jaguar was privatised in 1984, the year before Lyons’ death, and sold five years later to the Ford Motor Company, thereby ensuring the survival of one of Britain’s most famous motoring marques under US ownership.
© Design Museum, 2007
1901 Birth of William Lyons in Blackpool, Lancashire.
1921 Lyons buys an aluminium sidecar made by his neighbour William Walmsley. The following year they go into business as Swallow Sidecars.
1927 Swallow starts to make cars by constructing the bodywork to add to an Austin Seven chassis.
1928 The company moves from Blackpool to Coventry to be closer to its suppliers in the heartland of the British motor industry.
1931 Swallow strikes a deal with the Standard Motor Company to supply engines and customised chassis for the SS1 and SS2.
1934 Lyons buys Walmsley’s share of the business and changes its name to the S.S. Company.
1935 Launch of the SS Jaguar luxury saloon developed by William Heynes.
1939 With the outbreak of World War II, SS switches to military production.
1945 When the war ends, the company changes its name to Jaguar and resumes production of cars.
1948 The voluptuous XK120 – the Jaguar Super Sports – causes a sensation at the Earls Court Motor Show in London with a top speed of 126 mph, luxurious styling and a powerful engine.
1950 Lyons hires Malcolm Sayer, a gifted aerodynamicist, to design the C-Type racing car, which wins Le Mans in 1951 and 1953.
1954 After the success of the C-Type, Sayer designs the D-Type, which wins Le Mans three times.
1955 Launch of the Jaguar Mark I luxury saloon, a unitary construction, with deep seats and racing-style dials facing the driver.
1959 The Mark I saloon is updated as the Mark II.
1960 Jaguar buys the Daimler car company to secure its production facilities and skilled workforce in Coventry.
1961 Launch of Jaguar’s E-Type sports car as an open-top two-seater with a top speed of 150 mph and a price of £2,097, half the price of an Aston Martin.
1966 Jaguar becomes part of the British Motor Corporation.
1967 The Mark II saloon is updated as the Mark II 240/340.
1968 Launch of the XJ6 sports car with William Heynes’ powerful XK engine.
1971 Launch of the V12 engine developed by Walter Hassan.
1972 William Lyons retires from Jaguar.
1984 After a difficult period under British Leyland’s ownership, Jaguar is privatised.
1985 Death of William Lyons.
1989 Jaguar is bought by the Ford Motor Company.
2008 Jaguar is now owned by India’s Tata Motors, who acquired it from Ford in June.
2011 Fifty Years of the E-type display in the Design Museum Tank
© Design Museum, 2011
Philip Porter, Paul Skilleter, Sir William Lyons: The Official Biography, Haynes Group, 2001
Eric Dymock, Jaguar File, Dove Publishing, 2004
Martin Buckley, Jaguar: Fifty Years of Speed and Style, Haynes Group, 2002
Nigel Thorley, Jaguar E-Type, Haynes Group, 2001
Jeff Daniels, Jaguar: The Engineering Story, Haynes Group, 2004
Jonathan Wood, Jaguar E-Type: The Complete Story, The Crowood Press, 1998
Nigel Thorley, Jaguar: All the Cars, Haynes Group, 2003
Visit Jaguar’s website at jaguar.com
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