Automotive History: Jaguar and Sir William Lyons – One Man’s Passion For Gracefulness, Beauty And Speed


(first posted 10/18/2014)    In the history of our favourite industry, many great names, perhaps most, can be traced back to the drive, ambition and ingenuity of one person, who would often keep his (and it was always his) name over the door. Ford, Chrysler, Duesenberg, Austin, Morris, Citroen, Benz, Honda, Ferrari. But the name of Sir William Lyons is perhaps overlooked and now less familiar than many others, unfairly, since he gave us one of the greatest brands Britain has ever produced and which has survived – Jaguar.

Sir William Lyons

Lyons was born in 1901, in Blackpool, then as now a traditional sea side resort on the northwest coast of England, well away from the heart of motor industry. His father owned a musical instrument shop, and Lyons was apprenticed to Crossley Motors in Manchester, where he also studied at the technical school. He left Crossley in 1919 to work as a salesman at the Sunbeam dealers Brown and Mallalieu in Blackpool.

Willam-Walmsley. william Lyons

In 1921, he met William Walmsley, who was converting army-surplus motorcycles for civilian use and making sidecars to go with them; Lyons admired the sidecars and bought one. Subsequently, Lyons and Walmsley obtained from their fathers a substantial £500 bank guarantee to go into business together. Their plans were delayed as Lyons was under the minimum age to hold a company directorship, but on his 21st birthday he formed a formal business partnership with Walmsley, called Swallow Sidecars with a staff of “three men and a boy”. It is clear, however, that Lyons was always the dominant and driving partner in the business – indeed by 1930 the personal relationship had broken down.


The first product was therefore not a car but a motorcycle sidecar, shown above with Walmsley and Lyons himself. Through the 1920s, Swallow built sidecar bodies and, from 1926, premium bodies on the chassis of cars such as the Austin 7, which the Blackpool factory produced at the rate of 12 per week. The Austin 7, Britain’s first high volume small car, was offered by Austin with a standard body but many were supplied as a chassis which was then sold with a premium body by an independent coachbuilder, of which Swallow was probably the highest profile.


Swallow gradually made a subtle transition from building a body on an Austin to building a Swallow car, using the chassis from another manufacturer. A subtle difference, but the perception was important. By 1928, following several moves to larger premises in Blackpool, in 1928 Lyons moved the company, including the plant and the people (and his own family) to Coventry, the heart of Britain’s motor industry; in 1929 models based on chassis from Standard and Fiat chassis were offered, one of which was the Standard Swallow.

SS1 tourer Foleshill
In 1931, Lyons was able to build a sports car based, on the Standard chassis, and sold as the SS1. The range increased as the 1930s progressed, moving progressively upmarket. One often unreported fact of the 1930s is that although there was a grim depression in Europe for several years, the strongest elements of the motor industry managed largely to survive, and in cases prosper, and emerge stronger at the end, as overall the market for and the affordability of cars grew. By 1933, the company was formally renamed SS Cars, the side car and small car business hived off and the company went public in 1934, as a builder of sports cars and sports saloons based on the Standard chassis. William Walmsley sold out at this time, leaving William Lyons as the undisputed master of a publicly quoted company at the age of 32.

There is an unresolved debate about the name SS – was it an abbreviation of Swallow Sidecars, Swallow Swift or Standard Swallow? Sir John Black, Chairman of Standard who had an exclusive agreement with SS to use Standard chassis and engines, claimed the latter, to gather a sprinkling of the SS magic, by association. Lyons was almost building his core team at this time; the best known of these are probably Walter (Wally) Hassan, leading engine design with Bill Heynes, who also led the vehicle engineering.


In 1935, the first performance saloon car, the SS Jaguar 2 ½ litre saloon, was launched. It was powered by a 2.5 L engine, developed from a side valve engine produced by Standard but fitted with an OHV cylinder head conversion designed by Hassan and Heynes, lifting the power from 70bhp to 100bhp. Lyons launched the car at a formal black tie event at the Mayfair Hotel in London, asking the invited guests to write their expectation of the selling price before revealing the £395 figure. The guests’ average was reportedly closer to £750, and the link between Jaguar, performance and value for money was first made.

1937 Jaguar_SS100

SS followed this up with the SS100 – truly the first high performance Jaguar sports car. It was named for its claimed maximum speed of 100mph and was the first pure sports car to carry the Jaguar name and the leaper mascot. The styling was by Lyons himself. It was offered in very limited numbers with fewer than 400 cars being produced by 1939, as a roadster or as a one-off elegant coupe; a pristine example is now a million dollar car.


By 1938, power was up to 125bhp from a 3 ½ litre engine, which reliably achieved the required 100 mph. The car was based around a shortened version of the SS Jaguar saloon, although production was actually very limited, with fewer than 400 cars being produced by 1939.


The name Jaguar (always pronounced Jag-you-ar, in the UK, rather than the Americanised Jag-wah) was chosen personally by Lyons. He wanted an animal name and picked Jaguar from a range suggested by his marketing and publicity team, reportedly liking the link to the Armstrong-Siddeley Jaguar aero-engine of the Great War.


After the Second World War the company, for obvious reasons, changed its name, selecting just “Jaguar Cars” and in 1948, at that famous London Motor Show, showed the world perhaps the most exciting car of the immediate post war period – the Jaguar XK120. What is perhaps a little less well known is that the car was actually intended as just a test bed and showcase for Jaguar’s other great motor show launch – the XK engine, designed by Bill Heynes and Walter Hassan, with some of the initial design work having been done under wraps during the war.

In a parallel to the Morris Minor’s initial concept being defined during war time fire watching, Heynes and Hassan did a lot of initial work on the XK engine, including persuading Lyons of the need for it, during fire watching at Jaguar’s factory in Holbrook, Coventry.

XK in XK140

The XK engine was a straight six, twin overhead cam (when many makers were proudly showing OHV engines), originally with 3.4 liters, and ultimately in a range of capacities from 2.4 litre to 4.2 litre, It powered every Jaguar sports car from 1948 to 1971 and every saloon from 1951 to 1971, when the Jaguar V12 was added to the XJ and E Type ranges, and continued to power every 6 cylinder Jaguar until 1986, and was only finally retired in 1992, after service in the Daimler DS420 limousine.  Derivatives were also used in some military vehicle applications. A quite remarkable engine, and achieved using some equipment that had been designed and built for the manufacture of military ordinance in the Great War.

1952 XK120 roadster

The XK120, of course, had looks to die for. It was styled by a team led by Lyons himself and the earliest car bodies were built in aluminium around ash wood framing. From 1950, as demand rose and Jaguar realised what the full demand for the car was, a pressed steel body replaced much of the aluminium body, though the aluminium doors, bonnet and boot lid remained.

jaguar le mans badge

In 1951, the XK120 won the Le Mans 24 Hours. A fixed head coupe came in 1953, using the same 3.4 litre, 160bhp XK engine. During the 1950s the car grew wider to become the XK140 (3.4 litre, 190bhp, 1954) and finally the XK150 (ultimately 3.8 litre, 250hbp and 135 mph from 1957), as Jaguar learnt from using the XK engine to win Le Mans 5 times in the 1950s.


However, the 1955 race at Le Mans is linked with more tragic events in Jaguar’s history. Not only was the company’s victory overshadowed by the horrific accident of the Mercedes-Benz of Pierre Levegh, it also marked the accident that killed John Lyons, Sir William’s only son, whilst driving to Le Mans for the event. How the history of Jaguar changed that day is difficult to quantify, but it certainly did.


The second Le Mans winner was the C-Type (C for competition) based on the XK120. The other three were with the Jaguar D-Type, the first monocoque construction Jaguar sports car, styled by aircraft aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, with a focus on a minimised cross sectional area and a distinctive fin behind the driver’s head for further reductions in drag and increased stability. The XK engine was fitted with dry sump lubrication to achieve the low bonnet line.

Jaguar D type replica

Fewer than 90 D-Types were built, including the road going XKSS version, fitted with a second seat, passenger-side door, side windows, full-width framed windscreen and windscreen wipers, trimmed interior, folding hood, and bumpers—making them eligible for production sports car races in America. Sadly, a fire in the Brown’s Lane factory in February 1957 destroyed uncompleted cars and also, crucially, many of the necessary jigs and tooling for car as well as uncompleted cars, effectively ending production. Hence, the example here is a replica!


The D-Type’s styling clearly heralded the style of the immortal (there can be no other word) Jaguar E-Type, known as the XK-E in some markets, and perhaps the most recognisable sports car in the world, with a timeless style and appeal, and like the D-Type, linked to a similar application of aerodynamic principles. The first cars had a 3.8 litre XK engine, and could do 150mph, or at least the Press Office cars could, just.

e type group

During the 1960s, the E-Type gradually evolved – a 4.2 litre XK engine in 1964, the 2+2 coupe was added in 1966 with an automatic transmission option and there was a more thorough revision in 1968, with series 2 cars. This is the car that defined, and still defines, the glamorous 1960s’ sports car, to everyone, in a direct parallel to the Mini’s definition of 1960s’ small car.

It had an independent rear suspension that was designed in a month, and which served Jaguar for over 25 years; it spoke to the optimism of the decade ahead, of the social and cultural changes that were expected; it said mechanical things could be beautiful and capable; its recognition and appeal has endured to a level beyond any other Jaguar, perhaps any other British car; it was, and still is, cool, perhaps the coolest car ever. It was the car Enzo Ferrari called “the most beautiful car in the world”. And compared to Enzo’s cars, it had the performance to match and the price to make him weep.


The original roadster was supplemented by a Coupe version, with the distinctive side hinged tailgate in 1964 and the 3.8 litre XK grew to the full 4.2 litre in 1965, with a significant increase in torque rather than horsepower. There was also a less elegant 2+2 Coupe with a 9 inch longer wheelbase and raised roof line, which also had an option of automatic transmission.

1967 Jaguar E type Coupe

I know you want one, simply because everyone does. Mine will be a series II Coupe.

Jaguar MK V

Meanwhile, Jaguar was developing a much wider saloon car range. From 1948, the main Jaguar saloon has evolved from the Mk V, which had the pre-war Standard based engine but a new independent wishbone and torsion bar front suspension and a pressed steel body. This was much an interim model, replaced by the Mk VII (there was no Mk VI, to avoid a clash with Bentley nomenclature) in 1951, with the XK3.4 litre 160bhp engine.


In the MKVII, which was essentially a rebodied Mk V with a much more contemporary full width style, the XK engine made its first appearance in a saloon in 160 bhp, 3.4 litre form, offering over 100mph. The car had a wheelbase of 120inches and a length of 196 inches, so this was a large car in Europe, if not quite full size in North America.

E type series II interior

Of course, all these saloons had Jaguar’s traditional British wood and leather interior, complete with burr walnut and picnic tables. One of Jaguar’s great strengths has long been an ability to almost match a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, in terms of material and craftsmanship, at a price that doesn’t. What is sometimes less noticed is that the sports cars, including the E-Type, did not have so much wood and leather in the interiors but had much more typical sports car matt black and chrome finishes, a style that endures into today’s F-Type.

Jaguar Mk IX_1

The Mk VII evolved into the visually very similar Mk VIII, of 1956, and IX of 1959. These cars had typical 1950s changes, such as larger and single piece windscreens, larger lamps, new grilles and some more power – 190bhp for the MK VIII and 220 bhp for the Mk IX, which also had powered recirculating ball steering and four wheel disc brakes. But Jaguar now also had a range of two saloon models.

Lyons and Heynes 1955

From 1955, Jaguar had also offered the much smaller 2.4 and 3.4 litre saloons, known now as the Mk 1 saloons (seen above with Lyons, Walter Hassan and an Austin Swallow), in recognition of their successor, the famous Jaguar Mk 2 saloon of 1959 that did so much to bring Jaguar to a place in the market where the car could be realistically aspired to.

You can consider the MK 2 as filling the role of the BMW 5 series in 1960s Britain, alongside the 3 series equivalent offered in the Rover 2000. Still using the XK engine and with Jaguar’s first monocoque, with a rear suspension based on that in the D-Type,  using inverted semi-elliptic springs cantilevered into the main body frame with the rear quarter section carrying the axle and acting as trailing arms. This was the car that brought Jaguar into competition with brands such as Rover, emphasising the image Jaguar had for being less conservative than Rover, a Wolseley, a Humber or an Austin Westminster, may be a bit bling, a bit flash, even (horror of horrors) being of new money.

1968 1966 jaguar mk2.2

The Mk 2 was distinguished by larger windows, a new interior and the revised rear suspension. It is now also remembered as being the car of choice for a 1960s bank job, and also quite likely to be the police car chasing itself afterwards. The televised Inspector Morse had one, even if the character originally had a Lancia in the novels.

1968 Daimler250 v8

This car was also the basis for the Daimler 2.5 V8 (later known as the V8-250) which used the compact Daimler designed V8 engine from the Daimler SP250 (née Dart) sports car. Jaguar had purchased the British Daimler company in 1961, for the production capacity, and indeed the famous Brown’s Lane plant had been leased from Daimler since 1950.

Daimler Fleetline in Coventry

Jaguar also purchased the bankrupt Guy truck and bus builder in 1960, and so by 1961, Jaguar was a truck builder, under the Guy brand, and the country’s second biggest builder of buses, under the Daimler brand.


Indeed, the next range of Guy trucks was known as Big J series.

1963 Jaguar mkX

In 1961, Jaguar launched the Mk X which, by European standards, can only be described as huge, and was aimed primarily at the US market. This used either a 3.8 or 4.2 litre version of the XK engine and was Jaguar’s first full size monocoque. Size wise, this car was 202” long with a 120” wheelbase and a width of 76”, so for Europe it was sufficiently large to be effectively limited in many places. It did, however, bring independent rear suspension to Jaguar saloons for the first time, using a design very similar to that in the E type.

1965 Jaguar S type

Style wise, this car was also the basis for the first Jaguar S Type, from 1963. This was an amalgam of Mark 2 and Mark X engineering – the rear suspension design of the Mk X was added to the Mk 2 with revised, longer rear body work and either 3.4 or 3.8 litre XK engines. In 1966, came the 420 – essentially an S Type with a revised nose to visually match the Mk X and a 4.2 litre XK engine. The Mk X was renamed the 420G at the same time.

1970Jaguar XJ6 series 1 4.2

So, by 1966, the Jaguar saloon range was complex, with essentially 3 cars (Mk 2, 420 and 420G), 2 of which (the MK 2 and 420) came in Daimler versions as well, and in which the most modern (the 420G) was not the biggest seller, and parts of the others dated back to the 1950s. But Sir William Lyons had a plan, based on one car, and what a car it was – the 1968 Jaguar XJ6, and the follow up of the 1972 XJ12, with the Jaguar 5.3 litre V12 engine.   I have previously covered the XJ12 in CC, and while not everyone seemed convinced by my conclusion that it was the best car in the world in the 1970s,  I’m sticking to my view.


The engine itself was 5.3 litre, with a single chain driven overhead camshaft on each bank, and an emphasis on low to mid range torque and power, as befitted a luxury car, rather than a high power, high rev set up. It first appeared in the 1971 E-Type Series 3, with Lucas fuel injection, producing around 250bhp.

The XJ6 was effectively a distillation of all the good things Jaguar had achieved in the previous 20 years – it used the XK engine, the rear suspension was based on the Mk X and E-Type configurations, the front suspension from the Mk 1 of 1955, all round Girling disc brakes, great styling finessed by William Lyons himself, the full traditional English wood and leather interior, and stunning value for money.

It was 25% cheaper than the BMW 2800 or Mercedes-Benz 280SE, the 2.8 litre version was cheaper than the Rover 3.5 litre, a 1950s car with the Rover (ex-Buick) engine; it had the best ride of any car other than a Citroen DS, and without that car’s roll and pitch issues; it was more refined than David Niven; it looked as good as any saloon has, ever, especially after the 1979 series III facelift.

Daimler Double Six Coupe_2

The XJ6 and XJ12 were the last Jaguars to be completed solely under Lyons’ watch. In 1966, Jaguar had merged with BMC – perhaps a surprising match, that maybe offered more to Jaguar than it did to BMC, apart from the trucks and buses, and Lyons retired from Jaguar in 1972, to tend to his private farming interests. The 1970s were not a happy time for Jaguar, or indeed the British motor industry. By 1974, British Leyland had failed financially and come under Government ownership.

1977 jaguar xjs print ad magazine advertisement vintage

Jaguar’s new products in the 1970s were limited to the 2 door XJ-C coupe version of the XJ saloon and the Jaguar XJ-S sports coupe, based on a shortened version of the XJ12 platform.

Perhaps the best Jaguar of the 1970s was the last one – the series III XJ saloon, in which Lyons’ styling was tweaked by Pininfarina, so you can imagine the standard of the results.

William Lyons car group

But, as Lyons retired in 1972 and handed over the reins to British Leyland and some of his chosen colleagues, you sense he could look back and reflect on a progression from a bank loan guaranteed by his father, through sidecars, going public, building some of the most beautiful cars Britain has built, producing the remarkable and advanced XK engine winning Le Mans 5 times and ultimately the first mass produced V12 engine in the best car in world with a certain satisfaction.



His name may not be over the door in Coventry, but Sir William Lyons is certainly still there.