The Jaguar SS 100 is extravagant, indeed outrageous. It assaults the eye, commanding attention, its dissonances refusing to be ignored. How solid the long, muscular body, crouched between the wheels like a lioness poised to spring; yet how ethereal the four fenders, swooping gracefully around this latent fury like taunting swallows.

Jaguar Image Gallery

Jaguar SS 100
Only 308 Jaguar SS 100s were
produced over three years. See more Jaguar pictures.

The Jaguar SS 100, a compelling commingling of power with grace, of the bestial with the beauteous. Extreme discords, uniting in exquisite harmony.

It was with this car that Jaguar founder William Lyons made his company. Not in numbers, no, but surely in image, in mystique. It appeared at the time SS Cars was adopting the name Jaguar, and what a splendid great predatory feline this car looked to be.

Yet had it claws? Was there sinew below the skin? If not, this dazzling coach maker's confection would fade into darkness. Promise is not enough in the performance business.

But the Jaguar SS 100 amply fulfilled its promise. If not the greatest sports car of its age, it was good enough to be seen as a full-blooded one, and is thus the progenitor of every sporting Jaguar built since.

With the Jaguar SS 100, Lyons compounded the explosive formula that would catapult his firm to success through the next half-century and beyond.

Lyons and his early partner, William Walmsley, had started as automakers by "packaging," a 1920s British term for replacing original factory bodywork with more stylish shapes, brighter colors, and more sumptuous trim. Thus offering what we might now call "image enhancement," they found a substantial market immediately, and their business grew rapidly.

But Lyons had farther sight. Out of his personal ambition, and probably also out of sheer survival instinct, came his decision that Swallow Cars, Ltd., would have to move on from packaging, becoming one day a true "tires-up" automobile manufacturer.

He took the first step down that long and winding road in 1931, when he persuaded his major supplier, the Standard Motor Car Co., Ltd., to make up some modified chassis for Swallow's exclusive use under a new car he would call the SS1.

The main alteration to Standard's Essex frame was at the rear, where the leaf springs were located outboard of the chassis rails, rather than under. With the adoption of flat, rather than arched, springs front and rear, this allowed Swallow's new body to be carried dramatically low-the roofline was a startling 13 inches lower than the standard Standard's. As one enchanted newspaper writer put it, "Two short people can shake hands over the top." Obviously a new experience in saloon-car motoring.

Power naturally came from Standard's inline six, a side-valve unit of insipid performance but robust, seven-main-bearing construction. This was offered as a basic 2,054-cc unit (125.3 cubic inches) and a slightly more potent 2,551.4-cc version (155.7 cubic inches) in respective models called Sixteen and Twenty. These names reflected taxable horsepower, which was lower than actual. Not that actual horsepower was high, but the engines mounted well back under a long, long "bonnet" for the look of power.

Longer-and-lower is a fetish usually ascribed to Detroit in later years, but it was in fact Lyons' aim with this new model. He meant to attract attention, to make a statement.

For more on Jaguar and other great cars, see:

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  • Jaguar Cars: Check out more information on the great sporting cats.
  • How Sports Cars Work: Get the lowdown on hundreds of fantastic sports cars from the 1940s to today.
  • Classic Cars: Learn about the world's most coveted automobiles in these illustrated profiles.
  • Ferrari: Learn about every significant Ferrari road car and racing car.
  • New Jaguars: Reviews, ratings, prices, and specifications on the current Jaguar lineup from the auto editors of Consumer Guide.
  • Used Jaguars: Reviews, recalls, trouble spots, and more on pre-owned Jaguars starting with the 1990 model year. From the auto editors of Consumer Guide.