jaguar - a short history

the central bowling club in bloomfield road, blackpool, hardly seems the most relevant place to begin tracing the history of jaguar cars. it's seen better times, the lanes looking as if they could use some oil and the scoring screens at least a generation out of date. wind the clock back to 1922 and it was on a premises now occupied by the bowling club that bill lyons and william walmsley set up shop, building motorcycle sidecars and attaching them to reconditioned bikes. business was good, and although lyons was just 21 years old, a team of eight employees was never allowed to idle.

jaguar - a short history

As the business thrived, larger and larger premises were required and the Swallow Sidecar Company began to occupy successively bigger industrial units around Blackpool. The nature of the work changed too and, by 1927, the company was renamed the Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company, taking the popular Austin Seven and rebodying it to create the Austin Seven Swallow, a roadster that retailed for the princely sum of £175.

Sourcing the skilled labour to produce this sort of work proved tough for Lyons and Walmsley and, in 1928, the business moved from Blackpool to a disused ammunition plant in Foleshill, Coventry. A huge order from Henlys for 500 Austin Swallows prompted the move, as the old Blackpool plant could only manage an output of two cars a day. Capacity increased to 50 cars a week and costs were slashed, as there was now no need to transport the bare chassis from the Midlands plants all the way up to Blackpool.

Lyons welcomed the bulging order books but remained dissatisfied with a mere coachbuilding role. The first steps to becoming a fully fledged car manufacturer were taken when Lyons commissioned the Standard Motor Company to build a chassis to Swallow's design, but fitted with Standard engines. The S.S.1 coupe debuted at the 1931 London Motor Show, and with its low, sleek lines it gave an early glimpse of what would later be recognised as a Jaguar shape. Retailing for just £310, it also proved a commercial hit and spawned the subsequent S.S 90 and SS100 models.

The Second World War inevitably put the evolution of the nascent Jaguar brand on hold while the Foleshill factory was pressed into service making three types of trailers, as well as various aircraft ancillaries for planes such as the Spitfire, the Lancaster and the Mosquito. By the end of the conflict, Foleshill was building entire Gloster Meteor fuselages. The war also spelt the end of the SS model designation which, by 1945, had picked up some rather unsavoury connotations.

The Jaguar brand officially came into being in April 1945, although a dig through the paperwork shows that Lyons had registered the name as far back as 1937. The war wasn't all bad for Jaguar as the Germans had managed to bomb six of the shops at Foleshill and these were rebuilt bigger and better than before. Immediately after the war, production concentrated on the solid if unspectacular Mark IV and V saloon models but it wasn't until the Geneva Motor Show in 1948 that we got a taste of what Jaguar was truly about.

By any measure, the XK120 was - and is - a stunning car. Lyons always said he drew the XK 120 with a few quick strokes of the pen, although its basic shape is clearly derivative of the SS100's. Whatever the truth, it was a triumph; a waspish roadster with sweeping fenders and achingly graceful lines. The mechanicals were a little less exotic, featuring a truncated saloon chassis, independent torsion-bar front suspension, a live rear axle, recirculating-ball steering and drum brakes. The engine, however, was designed by William Heynes and was greeted with gasps of amazement. A 3.4-litre inline-six with an high tech twin cam head and hemispherical combustion chambers, it could have passed for the powerplant of a car that carried a far higher price tag than the £1263 Jaguar was asking for the XK. The 120 part of its name denoted its top speed in miles per hour and it could crack ten seconds to 60mph from standstill making it comfortably the world's fastest production car.

The XK120 started a model family that spawned the XK140 and XK150 models that, if anything, ran a little too long until the end of the Fifties. Jaguar had by now moved from Foleshill to its famous Browns Lane factory but this improved factory hadn't prevented modern rivals such as the BMW 507 and the Mercedes 300SL thoroughly eclipsing Jaguar in terms of outright glamour. All that was to change as Jaguar again rewrote the rules with the launch of what would become its most iconic vehicle, the E-type.

Geneva was again the launch venue and the response to the new Jaguar was euphoric. Road and Track magazine's reporter returned to the US, subtitling his launch report "The Ultimate Crumpet Collector" and the priapic E-type was just that, a car that needed the Sixties to enter full swing in order to triumphantly strut its stuff. Enzo Ferrari took one look at the E-type and pronounced it "the most beautiful car ever made." Effectively a productionised version of Jaguar's Le Mans winning D-type race, the E-type made headlines with its 150mph exploits on the Jabbeke straight in Belgium, although later admissions by Jaguar insiders highlighted the fact that the car that set the speed records may not have been entirely identical to the car you got when depositing £2,256 with your local Jaguar dealer. Powered by a 3.8-litre engine developing 265bhp, it could sprint to 60mph in 7.1 seconds, a statistics that, along with the somewhat contentious 150mph maximum, made all of its key rivals look slow and overpriced. It was also a massive commercial success, acting as an important halo model for the brand and production ran for 14 years with more than 70,000 units sold.

The 1960s were a pivotal point in Jaguar's history. The company's ambition grew and it acquired Daimler cars as well as a number of regional engineering companies that would give Jaguar closer control over its manufacturing and supply chain. In 1966 the Jaguar group merged with B.M.C. to form British Motor Holdings. The merger seemed to answer many of Jaguar's needs. Bill Lyons was looking to retire but didn't have a successor from within, his only son John having been killed in a car accident in 1955. Also, all of Jaguar's bodyshells were built by Pressed Steel, a BMC company. It seemed to make all sorts of sense to remove the threat of being held to ransom by a competitor.

Only two years later a subsequent merger with the Leyland Group created British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) which was also home to the Mini, Land Rover and Rover brands. In 1968 Jaguar launched another model destined for iconic status, but this time it was a saloon, the XJ6. Six years later, production of the E-type ended and its successor, the XJ-based XJ-S coupe, was launched straight into teeth of the mid-'70s the fuel crisis. It also suffered a number of high profile reliability issues. After the lithe E-type, the more brutal styling of the XJ-S proved divisive. Financial difficulties and the publication of the Ryder Report led to effective nationalisation in 1975 and the company became British Leyland, Ltd (later simply BL plc). In the 1970s the Jaguar and Daimler marques formed part of BL's specialist car division, or Jaguar Rover Triumph Ltd, until a restructure in the early 1980s saw most of the BL volume car manufacturing side become the Austin Rover Group, a group of which Jaguar was not a part. In 1984, Jaguar was floated off as a separate company on the stock market one of the Thatcher government's many privatisations. These marked the dog days of Jaguar with a demotivated workforce turning out poorly built products that would hurt the company's reputation for some years to come.

Salvation was to come from the Ford Motor Company had begun buying shares in Jaguar in 1989 and the company was put on the road to recovery. In 1999 Jaguar became part of Ford's Premier Automotive Group alongside recent acquisitions Volvo, Aston Martin and, a year later, Land Rover. Massively improved vehicles such as the S-TYPE, the XK and the XJ8 were already landing in dealers by 1998. Ford bundled together the Jaguar and Land Rover sales and marketing functions in 2000 and despite the development of superb vehicles such as the aluminium-bodied XJ and the beautiful XF, there were also misses, like Jaguar's attempt to mine the seam of big volumes with the Ford Mondeo-based X-TYPE. It seemed that Jaguar couldn't shake off its residue of commercial ineptitude, even under Ford, and when Ford sold the business in 2008, it revealed that Jaguar had lost money every single year under its stewardship. An abortive Formula One entry hadn't exactly staunched the cash haemorrhage.

Still, Ford passed on jaguar to its subsequent purchaser, TATA Holdings in excellent shape. With the rapturously received XF fresh in dealers, the rejuvenated XK coupe and convertible line and plans already well in train for a jaw-dropping replacement for the traditionally-styled XJ flagship saloon, Jaguar was in the rudest health for years. With production moved to Halewood and Castle Bromwich, the old Browns Lane facility was reserved for producing veneers and minor technical parts. Looking at the astonishing XJ saloon, a car that has proved more than capable of taking on the world's best and beating them fair and square, it's clear that although much has changed since the early days in Blackpool, the company's original spirit hasn't altered one jot. The Seventies may have knocked the stuffing out of Jaguar, and the bankroll may now flow from New Delhi but the attitude is back and there's a palpably British ingenuity and style shot through every product. I think old Bill would have approved.