At 21 years of age William Lyons, destined to become the honored Sir William, elder statesman of the British our industry and known to close associates simply as ‘Bill/ joined forces with William Walmsley, who had been building motorcycle sidecars with some success in Stockport, Cheshire. They formed the Swallow Sidecar Company in Blackpool in 1922, producing sidecars of great refinement and elegance. The economy end of the infant car-manufacturing business prospered at that time, and as people like Herbert Austin began to build extremely basic and cheap motor cars to replace the demand for motorcycles, so Swallow moved into coachbuilding. By 1926 this side of their affairs had prospered to the extent that the company was renamed the Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company, the change being swiftly followed by a move to larger premises in Coventry.
With the move came the first car they could truly call their own. Based on a Standard chassis and engine, the SSI was a low, swoopy sedan of immense grace exceedingly small price – £300. It was followed by the even cheaper SS2, which cost a mere £200. Greater success followed, and in 1934 the company changed its name again, this time for the last-but-one time, becoming SS Cars Limited.
It was shortly after the change that SS gained the experience and genius of Harry Weslake, who designed an ohv conversion for the Standard engine they were still using and gave it a vast power increase. Because of its claimed 90mph top speed the car was designated SS90, and was a sportscar of considerable by the model which followed it, however, the classic SS100 being easily capable of a 100mph top speed.
By now William Lyons was designing for the company, and his touch with car design was every bit as delicate and elegant as Walmslcy’s had been with those original sidecars. The SS100 was the absolute pinnacle of the prewar SS cars, with a full-fendered sweep to its lines which set off the squarish front perfectly, lending elegance to brute strength to make the ideal combination for a sportscar. The mechanics of the vehicle were hardly at the forefront of contemporary technology, however, and independent suspension was yet to be a feature of SS design. Powerplant was still an old Standard pushrod engine with headwork by Weslake; low weight and good breathing gave the performance, while handling was definitely of the very basic tail-out and tire-squeal variety.
But it was from this heritage that the legendary postwar XK series cars were born as the company changed names for the last time. Designed for Jaguar Cars by Claude Baily, Bill Heynes and Walter Hassan -reputedly on the back of a cigarette packet as the engineers sat on a factory roof and watched Birmingham being bombed flat during the war- the new engine was destined to become the stock Jaguar powerplant for the next 30 years, thanks to its efficient, smooth and powerful character. Once again it benefited from the skills of Harry Weslake, who provided a light-alloy cylinder head with dual cams and angled valves in a hemispherical combustion chamber. Two SU carburetors fed the 3.5-liter straight six, and it produced 160hp in stock form.
It was William Lyons who felt that this engine deserved a worthier home than good sedan cars, and that in any case the old traditions demanded a sportscar; most of the design work was his, and the result created a sensation when it first appeared in 1948. The low-slung body was mounted on a fairly standard box-frame chassis, independent front suspension was by torsion bars and the solid rear axle was carried on leaf springs. It had huge 12-inch diameter drum brakes and needed them; in what Jaguar claimed was stock trim (although there was more than one skeptic) but minus windshield and soft top, an XK120 was timed at 132mph over the flying mile.
The soft-top was followed by a closed coup£ in 1951, and there was to follow a series of Le Mans wins which established Jaguar as one of the greatest names in motor sport for the period. This giant reputation, allied to a $4000 sticker price, ensured vast export sales for Jaguar, and 90 percent of factory output was exported, mostly to America, where its challenge was eventually taken up by the Corvette. In 1954 the XK120 was replaced by the shortlived XK140, but by this time the circuit racers were already laying down the formula for the future.
The racing C-type and D-type Jaguars made their own legends in the hands of people like Stirling Moss, and the string of successes Jaguar enjoyed totally established the supremacy of disk brakes over drum brakes if they achieved nothing else. Introduced on the C-type in 1952 they made the roadgoing range with the 1957 XK150, probably the best-looking Jaguar ever made. Unitary construction, doing away with the hefty chassis, had been a feature of the 2.4-liter Jaguar sedans from 1955 onwards, and most of these lessons were applied to the XKE/on its introduction in 1961.
This retained the 3.8-liter powerplant from the XK150, introduced electric cooling fans, borrowed the IRS setup which had first seen action on the Briggs Cunningham experimental Le Mans car of 1960, and featured the sleekest body shape yet seen anywhere in the world. It also delivered numbing performance; 150mph top speed, 0-100mph in less than 16 seconds and 0-125mph in less than 30 seconds. Available as a roadster or a two-seat coupe, the XKE cost a mere $2800 at a time when no Ferrari could be bought for less than $8000 (although exchange rates have changed considerably since then, and it is probably fairer to say that the XKE then was $4800 and the Ferrari $14,000).
In 1964 the XKE grew a 4.2-liter engine and then in 1971 it was fitted with the 5.3 liter V12 which is now the stock Jaguar powerplant for their current sports tourer, the XJS, and the endurance racers which are creeping back onto race circuits under the guiding hand of Tom Walkinshaw. The XKE was finally phased out in 1975, and though the race cars are in high demand – try buying a D-type for less than $100 000 the XKE perhaps even more highly prized than the 120, 140 or , 150 models.
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