Blackpool, the hometown of William Lyons, founder of Jaguar, is prominently listed in most English travel guides as a thriving coastal resort. Among its attractions are the Pleasure Beach and the "Golden Mile" of hotels, restaurants, arcades, and ballrooms, all under the shadow of Blackpool Tower, a smaller version of that famous metal tower in Paris.
But the guides make no mention of the seaside town's automotive history, and that seems a shame; two of England's best-known nameplates, Jaguar and TVR, were born there, far from the country's industrial heart.
TVR, which for a time was the largest all-English carmaker -- at least until BMW sold its interest in Rover to a UK-based consortium -- remains in this pleasure city on the country's northwest coast. What led TVR founder Trevor Wilkinson to choose the place is unknown, and irrelevant to this story.
William Lyons's reasons for making a start there are known and are as simple as can be: He was born and raised in Blackpool, and when the time came for him to strike out into business, opportunity awaited him virtually across the street from his parents' home.
Lyons's father owned a music store which, though it allowed the family to live in reasonable comfort, seems to have held little attraction for young William. After completing his studies (he later described himself as an "undistinguished" pupil) in 1918, 17-year-old William was apprenticed to Crossley Motors, in Manchester.
He soon left Crossley and returned to Blackpool, where he worked for a time in his father's store and gave serious thought to entering the then-thriving gramophone business. In time, he landed a position as a salesman for the local Sunbeam dealer.
During those days, Lyons's own choice for transport was a motorcycle. He owned several, including a Sunbeam, an Indian, and a Harley-Davidson. Brief ownership of four-wheelers -- in the form of an obscure and unreliable light car called the Buckingham -- left him unsatisfied with what he could afford, and it was quickly back to bikes for the young salesman.
Sometime in 1921, new neighbors moved into a house down the street from the Lyons's digs. The Walmsleys were well-off thanks to the family coal business. Their son, William, had served king and country during World War I, and was spending the first few years thereafter refurbishing surplus military motorcycles and selling them to his friends. Skilled with both metal and wood, he had recently completed a novel sidecar for his own bike, and this caught William Lyons's eye soon after the Walmsleys settled in.
Lyons found that Walmsley, aided by his fiancée, sister, and the occasional friend, was building copies of the bullet-shaped sidecar to sell to people he knew. One of the replicas, which Walmsley dubbed "Swallows," was soon attached to Lyons's current motorcycle. The purchase, it must be said, was made for reasons of both business and pleasure; Lyons saw the loosely organized operation as a his chance to build a viable commercial enterprise.
Initially, Walmsley was unreceptive to Lyons's proposal that they form a partnership. Given their very different personalities -- Lyons was aggressive and eager to succeed, while Walmsley was easygoing and unambitious -- it was all too apparent that this could not be a marriage of equals.
Nonetheless, pressured by his wife and his father, Walmsley finally gave in to Lyons's entreaties. Both men's fathers agreed to guarantee a credit line of £1,000 at a local bank. Now the Swallow Sidecar Company was really in business, with one caveat: Lyons was not yet 21 (Walmsley was 30) and so could not legally represent the company during its first several months!
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Swallow Sidecar Company
The Swallow Sidecar Company "factory" was moved out of the shed behind the Walmsley home into more suitable premises. Since the firm was building only bodies and was buying its frames from outside suppliers, the actual move was surely accomplished quite rapidly.
One larger building was rented, soon to be followed by two more. Lyons decided that Swallow should be turning out 10 sidecars per week to start; Walmsley, who had thought of building perhaps one per week, finally agreed, and took his place in the shop with the first new employees as Lyons began his selling efforts.
Swallow sidecars were stylish, well-made, and priced aggressively. From the first Model 1 with its unusual but easy-to-fabricate octagonal cross-section body (which gave it something of the appearance of a miniature Zeppelin) to the more conventional Model 15, they sold well, in part due to their innate good qualities, but also because Lyons publicized them tirelessly. At this time, both Lyons and Walmsley were still riding motorcycle/sidecar "combinations;" each had a Brough-Superior "SS100."
After four years, business was good enough to justify yet another move, this time to a large structure on the north side of town owned by Walmsley's father. Lyons, as was his wont, took out newspaper ads to publicize the change of address.
In them, he made his own ambitions clear: The name shown in the ads and painted on the new building was "Swallow Sidecar & Coach Building Co." Services listed included repairs, painting, upholstering, and the manufacture of tops and side curtains. It was a step, he felt, in the right direction.
One complete car body had already been built at Swallow, but Lyons had nothing to do with it. Walmsley had acquired an Austro-Daimler that had been severely damaged in a fire, and he set a couple of Swallow employees to work rebodying it.
A second body, mounted on a Talbot-Darracq chassis, was completed not long after Swallow occupied its new premises. This body was built under the supervision of Cyril Holland, one of those rare craftsmen capable of handling every aspect of the body-building process, from making detailed drawings, to making the wooden understructure, to forming the metal panels.
While Holland was laboring on the Talbot, Lyons was well aware of the popularity of the Austin Seven -- the small car some were calling "England's Model T" -- and was certainly thinking about building a custom body for it.
While this was not an original idea (a few enterprising coach-builders had already followed up on the notion that economy-minded enthusiasts might shell out a few extra quid for a snappier Seven), Lyons had the craftsmen and the space needed to come up with one of his own. And he had Holland, who had been sketching ideas for a two-seat "sports" body without any particular end result in mind. Lyons saw the drawings and told him to make up a full set scaled to fit the dimensions of the diminutive Seven.
To move this process from the drawing board to the road, a chassis would have to be bought, which presented a problem: At that time, Austin frowned on its dealers selling bare chassis. Lyons convinced Parker's, a dealership serving Bolton and Manchester, to sell him a chassis on the promise it would have the first dealer franchise for Swallow conversions. One duly arrived -- at a cost of £114.50 -- and work began in early 1927, with the first public announcement made that May.
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To modern eyes, the first 1927 Austin-Swallow may look rather strange. It is tall and narrow (as was the standard Seven) on its spindly wheels. But it was decidedly more sporting in appearance than Herbert Austin's original, and attracted immediate attention.
It had more than the body shape to recommend it: The seats were upholstered in leather, the instruments (such as they were) were mounted in a polished mahogany dashboard, and a choice of hard- or soft-tops was offered. A Swallow conversion virtually doubled the price of a bare Seven chassis, from £99 to £190.
Despite the need for a few changes (the cycle fenders on the prototype and the early hinged hardtops broke away from their mounts and were replaced by more conventional fender-cum-running boards and bolt-on fixings, respectively), the Austin-Swallow was a hit. In August 1927, a Swallow body for the large Morris Cowley was announced.
The company did have one major problem, however, and Lyons's publicity and dealer-signing efforts were making it worse: The Blackpool factory was simply too small to allow output to keep up with orders, and the location away from industrial centers made deliveries of raw materials and chassis expensive.
Matters came to a head when Lyons signed a contract to deliver 20 Austin-Swallows per week to Henly's of London, which ordered 500 chassis from Austin to get him started. Henly's also asked for a two-door sedan version of the car. William Walmsley must have been wondering what he had let himself in for, as he reportedly considered the Henly's deal "quite mad."
His reaction to Swallow's move to Coventry in November 1928 is unrecorded. But the move was made (to a building formerly used to fill artillery shells with explosives) and production was increased to some 50 cars per week.
Lyons, unsure of Herbert Austin's continued willingness to make bare Seven chassis available, began to look at other cars suitable for the Swallow treatment. The Morris connection had not worked out, due in part to the emergence of the Morris-based MG, but Lyons arranged with the Glasgow Fiat dealer to rebody some obsolete and slow-selling Fiat 509As in 1929. Perhaps as many as 100 of these were built.
A like number of Swift-Swallows were built in 1930 and perhaps 500 Wolseley-Swallows were produced the same year.
These production numbers, when added to the regular flow of Austin-Swallows and sidecars, show just how far Lyons and Swallow had come in a relatively short span of years. And it should be noted that the various chassis being bodied were sufficiently dissimilar in size and shape to require unique panels. If there were familial design features (and there were), there was no interchangeability.
Style was not the only reason for Swallow's success; price had much to do with it as well. There were, after all, dozens of companies offering custom coachwork in England at the time, but the Swallow bodies were, thanks to quantity production and Lyons's tendency to squeeze the maximum out of every pence that came in, less expensive than most. At the same time, they were among the best in terms of body engineering and build quality.
It was characteristic of Lyons that, despite his parsimonious ways, employees were paid well. They were treated well too, though Lyons was not the kind of man who went through the factory slapping backs and making small-talk with his workers. Just the opposite, in fact; the very formal boss tended to address all by their surnames and discourage undue familiarity. Walmsley was said to be more personable. Nonetheless, a significant number of employees enjoyed long careers with Lyons.
An important connection was made when the first Standard-Swallow, a four-cylinder car, was displayed at London's Olympia Motor Show in 1929. Initially, the new body was not to Lyons's liking, as the shape of the cowl -- high and thin to match the form of the Standard radiator -- was awkward.
By the time production began, the cowl was redesigned and a Swallow-designed radiator shell was attached. In this form it caught the eye of Standard's chairman, Captain John Black, whose own in-house designers quickly came up with a similar radiator for their own cars. Come 1931, Swallow would also be producing its distinctive bodies for the six-cylinder Standard Ensign.
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Swallow in the 1930s
Business was booming for Swallow in the 1930s. The busy factory, now stocked with experienced workers producing Austin-, Wolseley-, and Standard-Swallows and sidecars, was about to get even busier, as Lyons pushed for yet another design.
He had been making sketches and the most promising of these were turned over to an outside artist who worked with Cyril Holland to produce a prototype. Its shape was frankly inspired to a significant degree by the long hood and low roof of the L-29 Cord.
Some compromises were made in roof height at the time, though this was not enough to suit everyone: While Lyons was at home recuperating from an operation, Walmsley had the prototype car's roof raised by several inches, a move that pleased Lyons not at all.
Captain Black proved most cooperative. He agreed that Standard would furnish complete current-production chassis units for Standard-Swallows, as well as a much-modified six-cylinder chassis for the new car. Changes to the latter included new engine mounts that carried the engine farther back in the frame.
The agreement was amended to give Swallow exclusive use of the modified chassis after a small sum was paid to Standard covering the cost of unique tooling needed to produce the new frames.
No longer a Standard-Swallow, the new car introduced at the 1931 Olympia show was simply called SS1. Over the years, there has been much speculation about the name; did it stand for Standard Swallow, Super Sports, or something else? No one knows for sure.
For 1933, there was a "second-series" SS1. Its frame had been lengthened slightly and was under-slung at the rear. These modifications, plus a few subtle alterations to the fenders, improved the SS1's appearance.
In the first year of production, only the coupe -- powered by either a 2.1- or 2.6-liter inline-six engine -- was offered, at £310 and £320, respectively. It was joined in 1933 by a four-seat sports tourer (priced £15 more than the first-year cars). A two-door sedan -- essentially a coupe with rear side windows -- was introduced in 1934.
Three additional variations, the drophead coupe (convertible), "Airline" sedan, and short-wheelbase SS90 two-seat roadster, were produced during the 1935-1936 period. Lyons considered the fastback "Airline" a failure in design terms (it was slightly awkward-looking from the rear) but it sold fairly well.
A second line, the SS2, was also revealed in 1931. Smaller and less powerful -- it had a 1.0-liter inline four under its short hood -- the SS2 was considerably less expensive (£210 at introduction) than the SS1. Only three models (a coupe, four-seat sedan, and four-seat open tourer) were produced at times during the SS2's five-year life span, with the more commodious versions arriving only after the SS2's chassis was lengthened for 1934. A four-speed transmission was added in 1932 and the longer "series 2" cars had a choice of 1.3- and 1.6-liter L-head fours.
While the factory was still turning out Swallow sidecars, the Austin-Swallow had been dropped in 1932. The Standard-and Wolseley-Swallows went out of production the next year. In late 1934, William Walmsley, heavily involved with his model railroad hobby and tired of conflicts with Lyons, had had enough; he resigned from the company on amicable terms. Lyons then proceeded to take the company public in January 1935.
As one William left, another arrived. The newcomer was Bill Heynes, appointed by Lyons to the new post of Chief Engineer. One of his first tasks was development of yet another new car for the company that now filled all four buildings in the industrial block where it had started with one. This time, Lyons's sights were set on making his way into the lower end of the Rolls-Royce/Bentley market with a sleek four-door sedan.
The new car caused an immediate sensation among members of the press and the buying public when revealed at the 1935 Olympia Show. As well it should; Lyons was no longer interested in rebodying other makers' chassis and so commissioned Heynes to design a new frame built exclusively for SS.
Even the power-plant was modified. Brilliant engine-head designer Harry Weslake came up with an ohv conversion for Standard's 2.7-liter engine, which Captain Black cheerfully produced for Lyons's exclusive use. Only the base 1.5-liter version would have side valves under the hood.
Production of the SS1, SS2, and SS90 (the last not amounting to more than two dozen cars anyway) was wound down to make way for the new sedans. The ohv Weslake/Standard engine also found its way into a pair of open cars. One was an updated version of the four-seat tourer mounted on the new Heynes-designed chassis. The other was a true sports car that was destined to be a milestone in William Lyons's carmaking career: the SS100.
Essentially the SS90 with the new engine, larger brakes, hydraulic shock absorbers, and revised steering, the SS100 could shoot from zero to 60 mph in 12.8 seconds and hit a top speed in excess of 90 mph.
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For the new cars, a new name: Jaguar. Lyons had wanted something more evocative than SS (in 1935, the letters had not yet acquired their other unsavory connotation) for the 1935-1940 Jaguar, and had asked for a list from the Nelson Advertising Agency. Nelson responded with a list of birds, fishes, and mammals; Lyons's immediate choice was Jaguar.
Curiously, the new name was incorporated into the existing winged SS badge (officially, the cars were "SS Jaguars" at this point) which bore some resemblance to the later Ford Thunderbird nameplates. The cat's-head badge and famous pouncing-cat radiator mascot -- the latter designed by artist F. Gordon Crosby and referred to as the "leaper" by English Jaguarphiles -- came later.
If the SS Jaguars' appearance, performance (with the possible exception of the 1.5-liter models), and name weren't enough to attract customers, the prices were the clincher. From a mere £285 for the "1 1/2-liter" sedan, to £385 for the 2.7-liter sedan (always advertised as a "2 1/2-liter" model), to £395 for the SS100, the SS Jaguars were far less expensive than their competition -- sometimes by half -- and equal to most in quality. Sales were brisk, making 1935 the company's most profitable year yet.
Lyons poured much of the income back into the products, making the necessary -- but initially costly -- change from the old coachbuilt convention of steel panels over wooden frames to all-steel construction for the 1937 models. This move, which would ultimately cut production costs dramatically, nearly drove SS Jaguar into bankruptcy.
Stamped body panels were provided by several companies, and when the early pieces were set up on jigs to be welded into units, they didn't line up. The work necessary to salvage the panels -- and corrective measures taken by suppliers -- slowed production to a crawl, and sent profits plummeting.
But customers were still eager to buy when the problems were at last corrected. The 1938-1939 season was very good for SS Jaguar; the entry-level 1 1/2-liter, now with an ohv engine, was the top seller, but sedans and SS100s with 2 1/2-liter and 3 1/2-liter engines were turned out in substantial numbers as well. (The open four-seater was retired after 1937, but new convertible coupes with any of the three engines chokes were offered.)
The new-for-1938 3 1/2-liter engine put out 125 bhp. With it, SS100s could reach 60 mph in 10.4 seconds with a top speed that now matched the car's name.
Everything was looking up for Lyons's company and no one would have thought it odd if the proprietor had decided to ease up a bit. But 1939 was not a good year for relaxing. Even before Germany's invasion of Poland triggered World War II that September, the British government had gotten SS Jaguar into war work.
Although a few hundred civilian cars were completed for 1940, the firm took up contracts to service a variety of aircraft and manufacture trailers, truck canopies, and parts for new aircraft. Among SS Jaguar's most successful wartime products were motorcycle sidecars.
William Lyons made several moves in anticipation of war's end. Top priority was given to a name change: SS Cars, Ltd., became Jaguar Cars, Ltd., in 1945. He had already sold off the Swallow sidecar business the year before; it was carried on by others for a time, though the heyday of motorcycle "combinations" for civilian and military use had passed.
Neither funding nor materials for tooling up new designs were available in 1945, so when car production resumed, the prewar sedan lineup was continued, followed in 1947 by convertibles powered by a choice of the two largest engines. Lyons had wisely purchased the tooling for the ohv sixes from Standard's Captain Black during the war; this eventually led to a small rift between the two men, but assured Jaguar a steady supply of powerplants.
Just over the horizon in 1948 lay a new engine, first pondered by Lyons and his engineers during their wartime fire watches at the Coventry works, but not actually designed by Bill Heynes, Wally Hassan, and Claude Bailey until 1946. With its arrival, and the subsequent debut of the XK120, the transformation from sidecar constructor and coachbuilder to one of England's major auto manufacturers was complete.
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