William Lyons (1901 - 1985)

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William Lyons

William Lyons
William Lyons

The Swallow Side Car & Coach Building Co

Back in 1922, one William Lyons, an enterprising 20-year-old who lived in Blackpool, England, formed the Swallow Side Car & Coach Building Co. He hired four helpers and began building motorcycle sidecars of his own design. Since his products were both better and cheaper than the competition, Lyons' business flourished. Within a few years, he was building special bodies for the baby Austin Seven.

This beautiful little combination, which sold for a scant £25 more than the stock Austin Seven, became so popular that Lyons' small factory could no longer contain all the men and machinery necessary to keep up with the orders. So, late in 1928, the entire Swallow company was gathered up and moved to Coventry, then considered the Detroit of England.

The SS Sports Cars

But Lyons was ambitious; he wanted to build his own cars. So he went to the Standard Motor Car Co. and worked out a deal whereby they would supply him with engines and chassis and he would put his own custom bodies on them. This resulted in the production of the SS I and SS II sports cars, which made their bow in the London Motor Show in 1931.

The two cars, powered by the Standard six and four-cylinder engines, created a sensation. Costing just a bit over £1,500, they had the look of cars twice to three times the price. British auto enthusiasts were so taken with the elegant lines and details of Mr. Lyon's masterpieces, not to mention the extremely attractive prices, that orders were soon pouring in.

S.S. Cars Ltd

By 1933, Lyons had re-formed his company under the name S.S. Cars Ltd. He now employed some 1,000 workers. And still he wasn't satisfied. He kept improving his cars, building new and bigger engines, which made for better performance, and modifying the body lines. In 1934, he came out with the SS 90, which featured a hotted-up version of the preceding SS L-head engine. With a top speed of 90 mph, this was the first of the light-bodied, short-wheelbased sports cars that were the real forefathers of the later Jaguar XK-120 models. In 1935, the company name was changed to SS Jaguar and the first real Jaguar car, a new sedan model, was released.

This car, like its forerunners, was priced amazingly low - under £1,700 - and made a big hit. The company was expanding rapidly and so was the public demand for the cars, but Lyons still hadn't reached his goal, which was to produce a popularly priced sports car that would do 100 mph. So he kept up his experimentation with new engines. The Jaguar line in 1936 included engines that displaced from 1(1/2) to 3(1/2) litres. And then in 1937 the magic barrier was crossed. The SS 100 Jaguar appeared. Built on the SS 90 chassis, and having the same general body lines, it was equipped with a new power plant that drove it at a genuine speed of 100 mph.

The SS 100

Lyons was encouraged by this fine performance from a 2(1/2)-litre engine, so he put his engineers to work again and soon they came up with a 3(1/2)-litre engine that boosted the top speed of the SS 100 to 105 mph. This, needless to say, was truly remarkable performance for a 1937 production car with an unblown engine and price-tag of under £2,000. That price tag, of course, was the key to Jaguar success. From the very first model, the company was doing the near-impossible: producing cars in the best classic British tradition, fitting them with all sorts of luxury appointments, and selling them at ridiculously low prices.

The Poor Man's Bentley

The SS Jaguar cars looked like custom cars; they had wire wheels, large chromed headlamps, leather upholstery, wooden dashboards, and graceful sweeping bodies built so low that they could practically drive under most of the other cars of their day. They seemed almost too good to believe, so, of course, they had their critics. Some of the owners of the real luxury cars - Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Daimler, etc. - resented the fact that cars "mass produced" on an assembly line closely resembled their own hand-built chariots. To them, it seemed almost immoral to thus rob them of their exclusive "snob appeal." Among these Bitterness Boys, the Jaguar was derisively called the "Poor Man's Bentley."

The Prototype XK 120

To their credit, and arguably adding to their success, Jaguar simply ignored the left-handed compliments and continued to produce a line of classic sports cars, sedans, and convertibles with engines ranging from 1(1/2) to 3(1/2) litres litres. Then, in 1939, Lyons decided that it was time for a change in body styling. So he took a stock Jaguar 100 chassis and assigned panel beaters to shape fender and body designs to fit it. Various shapes were hammered out of the bare metal. Lyons made changes as they occurred to him, without the use of designers or drawing boards. After considerable changes and experimentation, the prototype of the XK-120 was completed.

The Jaguar Mark IV

Unfortunately, the war broke out shortly afterwards and all production was converted to the military. When the war finally ended, six long and horrible years later, Jaguar immediately came out with a line of Mark IV convertibles and sedans. They were identical to Jags produced before the war. By this time, the company name had been changed to Jaguar Cars, Ltd., the "SS" being dropped because of the fact that it reminded too many people of the Nazi Secret Police.

While final experiments and tests continued on the XK engine and body, Jaguar filled the gap by coming out with a new series called the Mark V. These cars were available with 2(1/2) or 3(1/2) litre L-head engines and featured disk wheels, built-in headlamps, fender skirts, and torsion-bar front suspension. Mark Vs, in sedan and convertible form, were exported in large numbers to the United States and more or less paved the way for the fabulous XK by making the American public Jag conscious.

And then, at the London Motor Show in 1948, the XK-120 made its debut. Any doubts as to its potential were soon dispelled when the car raised the world's production-car speed record to 132.6 mph at Jabbeke, Belgium, and then went on to win most of the top road races all over the world. The twin-overhead-cam 3(1/2)-litre engine proved so wonderfully efficient that it was put into a brand-new, radically different sedan, the Mark VII, pushing it at a speed in excess of 120 mph. The Mark V series was dropped. Thus ended an era in Jaguar styling.

After that halcyon perion the company that Bill Lyons started continued to produce some of the fastest and most respected automobiles in the world. For a time it seemed they could do no wrong. Entering international motorsport competition, factory-manned teams scored overwhelming victories in the 1951 Le Mans and 1953 Le Mans races. The XK-120-C competition Jag became the terror of the road-racing world. Of course, the story continues, however we have it well covered in the articles listed below.

Also see: The History of Jaguar | Swallow Sidecars - The William Lyons Story | Jaguar - A Racing Pedigree
Jaguar XK120
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