The individual most closely associated with Jaguar cars is Sir William Lyons, one of the founders of the company that eventually morphed in to Jaguar. Born in September of 1901, when most of his peers were attending high school, Lyons had an engineering apprenticeship at Crossley Motors and studied at the technical school there.
At the age of 18, he got a job selling Sunbeam cars. Two years later, in 1921, he met his eventual partner William Walmsley. Walmsley had fashioned an enterprise for himself converting World War I army surplus motorcycles for civilian use. He was also manufacturing motorcycle sidecars. Lyons liked what he saw and decided to go into business with Walmsley—once he turned 21.
In September of 1922, the pair formed Swallow Sidecar Company in Blackpool, England.
In the early days of the automotive business, cars could be bought without a body. Wealthy customers could get an engine and a chassis sent to a coachbuilder who did the body and the interior of the car. In 1926, Lyons and Walmsley went into the coachbuilding business, but with a twist. Where previously coachbuilders were contracted to do extremely expensive cars, Lyons and Walmsley started out doing custom bodies for inexpensive cars.
Changing the name of the company to the Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company, their first model was based on the popularly priced Austin Seven—a car considered by many to be the Model T of Europe. Decked out in a two-tone paint job and featuring the flowing lines of considerably more expensive cars, the two-door Austin Seven Swallow was a hit. The duo followed the success of the Seven Swallow with a four-door version called the Seven Swallow Saloon.
The strategy was a very shrewd one. Austin Sevens were the most popular car in England at the time, but they all looked alike. Offering custom bodies at a very reasonable price gave the newly rechristened Swallow Coachbuilding Company an exceptional start. Demand was so strong, Lyons and Walmsley decided to move production to Coventry—the Detroit of England. By 1929, business was so good; they showed cars at the London Auto Show.
Further, they moved on to producing bodies for other models, based on Standard, Swift and Fiat chassis. The other big event in the development of the company that year was the emergence of the first Standard Swallow sports car. Lyons commissioned a custom chassis from Standard and fitted it with a long, sleek, boat tailed body.
By 1934, this aspect of the business warranted another name change. The Swallow Coachbuilding Company became S.S. (Standard Swallow) Cars Ltd. Walmsley, content with the success they’d achieved, wasn’t comfortable taking further risks to grow the company. He left and went into business making trailers. In 1935, the first Jaguar appeared. Called the SS Jaguar, the car was a 2.5-liter sedan.
Some ten years earlier in Germany, the Schutzstaffel (protective echelon) of Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler was formed. The SS ultimately grew to become Hitler’s private army. After the war, those two letters had a rather gruesome association for Europeans so Lyons dropped the initials from his cars. They became known simply as Jaguars.
The first Jaguar model offered after the war to attain considerable renown was the Jaguar XK 120. First shown at the 1948 London Motor Show. Interestingly, it was originally intended to be just a concept car to show off the new 160-horsepower XK engine. The sensuously curvaceous Jaguar inspired so much enthusiasm among show goers; Lyons quickly put it into production.
The model’s nomenclature was a function of the fact the Jaguar automobile had a top speed of 120 miles per hour. This gave it the distinction of being the fastest production car available at that time. As the engine steadily became more powerful, the XK 120 evolved into the XK 140, then the XK 150, and eventually into the most iconic model in the history of Jaguar, the 1961 Jaguar E-Type (also known as the Jaguar XK-E).
Jaguar’s double overhead cam inline six-cylinder XK engine “drove” much of the postwar success of the company. Powerful, smooth and exceptionally robust, the XK transformed every car it was put into—sedans and sports cars alike. Variants of the XK engine were still in production until 1992.
By 1965, things were looking really good at Jaguar. Its models were both well received and highly respected. However, Sir William had a rather significant flaw in his construction process. Ironically (given his start as a coachbuilder), he’d contracted the production of Jaguar’s monocoque bodies to the Pressed Steel Company. When the Austin-Morris combine called British Motor Corporation (BMC) took over Pressed Steel, Jaguar was relegated to second tier status; giving Lyons production problems. When BMC offered to buy Lyons out altogether, he sold. BMC then changed its name to British Motor Holdings (BMH), which became the new owner of Jaguar.
BMH, experiencing management and financial difficulties, was subsequently pushed into a merger with the then prosperous Leyland Motor Corporation Limited, the manufacturer of Rover and Triumph cars, as well as Leyland buses and trucks. With the merger, the new company became known as British Leyland. Unfortunately, the problems BMH brought with it soon overtook Leyland as well.
The British government nationalized the company in 1975.
This did not bode well for Jaguar, which needed to be on the cutting edge of research and development if it were to effectively compete with the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. New product development pretty much stopped under British Leyland. In 1984, Jaguar was released to find private financial backing. The chairman of Jaguar at the time, Sir John Egan, is credited with turning the company around. His efforts essentially multiplied the value of the marque by a factor of five.
Ford purchased Jaguar in 1989, and proceeded to invest a great deal of money into fixing the problems that had plagued the reliability of the company’s products. Ford also expanded Jaguar’s range of product offerings. But it didn’t work out. The return on investment just wasn’t there. Ford sold Jaguar to its current owner—Tata Motors—in 2008; having never made a profit on the brand.