Jaguar SS 100


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.

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Jaguar SS1

With the Jaguar SS1, William Lyons succeeded in his goal to attract attention. Though the first Jaguar SS1 of model year 1932 was completed in haste and actually displeased Lyons, it was a hit with the press and a success with the public, which bought all 500 of his theatrical oeuvres.

1933 Jaguar SS1
The low-slung 1933 Jaguar SS1 grabbed attention
with its impossibly long hood.

By the standards of its day, the Jaguar SS1 was considered to have good road manners -- "taut and correct," was one judgment. It also had interior room and outward visibility that surprised people who had formed preconceptions from the exterior appearance.

The Jaguar SS1 was well-finished inside, of course, with leather and wood trim, comprehensive instrumentation that included an electric clock, and the lady's vanity set with mirror that had been a special Swallow feature from the beginning of its bodymaking.

Performance, however, didn't really match the implied promise of the styling. Even the larger Twenty engine produced only about 55 horsepower. Admittedly, speed doesn't seem to have been a vital concern to most SS1 customers, as the smaller (and less heavily taxed) 45-horse Sixteen engine proved more popular.

For 1933, the SS1 design was substantially revised. For one thing, Standard pumped up both engines a little by means of higher compression and better carburetion. The 2.6 engine now produced about 62 horsepower.

More significant were Lyons' chassis and body alterations. He got Standard to widen the track by two inches, to 51,which would give both more interior room and more stable handling. He had the chassis itself changed again. It was made stronger, its rails were run under the rear axle for lower body height, and the wheelbase was lengthened by a substantial seven inches, to 119.

Though the revamped second-series SS1 remained more of a 2+2 than a sedan, its deeper, longer cab gave more room to rear passengers. It also brought the original car's enormously long hood into better aesthetic balance.

Lyons seized the opportunity to redraw the side windows, so they now harmonized with the body's beltline. He also lightened the rather heavy, Germanic character of the original car by deleting the "helmet," or cycle-type, front fenders in favor of long "clamshells."

These swept gracefully back and down through newly added running boards to unite with the rear fenders, giving the profile a unity it had lacked. While at it, he reshaped the radiator shell and grille, deleted a brace bar between the headlights, and slanted the many louvers in the sides of the engine hood to match the door openings.

Altogether, the effect was of a much more refined, self-possessed, mature automobile, and became known as the Jaguar SS 1 second series.

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Jaguar SS1 Second Series

The Jaguar SS1 second series sold even better than the original had, prompting the eventual development of three additional body styles, all two-doors.

1934 Jaguar SS1 second series
The second-series Jaguar SS1 for 1934 had a top
speed of 80 mph, quite good for the period.

The initial second-series Jaguar SS1 Coupe, which kept its backseaters pretty much in the dark, was joined by a "four-light" Saloon that gave them their own side windows.

There was also a more faddish "Airline" version of this body, a square-roofed fastback whose windowline drooped down to a rounded tail. Customers who craved fully topless motoring could opt for a convertible, which bowed as the Open Four-Seater Sports. Later sold simply as the Tourer, it was the genesis of the Jaguar SS sports car.

Although the company didn't really intend the convertible for serious sporting use, it became quite popular with customers who enjoyed "driving tests," something like modern gymkhanas, and long-distance "trials," or rallies.

Perhaps to the annoyance of some critics, who never could understand "how they do it at the price" and assumed shoddy materials and workmanship under the surface gloss, the SS1 proved itself sturdy and reliable over the often atrocious European road surfaces of the 1930s.

Keeping faith with its fans, SS Cars further upgraded the basic Jaguar SS1 for the 1934 season. The body stayed substantially the same, but the chassis' central X-member was, moved forward slightly for more rear foot room, and the track was widened by another two inches, to 53.

The biggest news was up front, where engines were larger, though not by much. The smaller unit grew by a mere 89 cc (5.4 cubic inches) to 2,143 (130.7
cubic inches); the more historically important 2,551.4 expanded to 2,661.9 cc (162.4 cubic inches) via a longer stroke (106 mm versus 101.6) on an unchanged bore (73 mm). Breathing was again improved.

Previously, a single carburetor on the right side fed intake valves on the left through a block passage between the middle cylinders; now, the carb was more efficiently mounted on the valves-side. With all this, the new 2.7 delivered about 75 horsepower, enough to push the SS1 to over 80 mph.

Additional improvements included adding a water pump, to circulate coolant more positively than was possible with the old thermo-syphon system, and sweeping the exhaust manifold forward on its way down from the engine, to keep heat from the cabin.

That engine work was carried out by Standard, but clearly Lyons was serious about making a good car. His SS1 was a definite success. During five years of production, 1932 through 1936, sales of all three series and all four body styles totaled more than 4,200.

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Jaguar SS 90

Seeds for the Jaguar SS 90 were sown in 1934. It was one of the third-series 1934 SS1 chassis, fitted with the 2.7 engine, that William Walmsley chose as the basis for his final contribution to the company he was shortly to leave. This was an open four-seat Tourer shortened in both body and chassis to become a "proper" two-seater.

1936 Jaguar SS 100 side view
The Jaguar SS 90 was visually indistinguishable
from its successor, the SS 100 pictured here.

Little information seems to have survived about this one-off project, but in appearance it must have strongly foreshadowed the later Jaguar SS 90/SS 100. The greatest known difference is that Walmsley's sports car carried its spare tire in a lay-down position in a notably long tail.

That car was apparently finished in March 1934. So were Lyons and Walmsley, just about, but the one William evidently saw merit in the other's toy. Late that year, even as the 12-year partnership was being dissolved, a second two-seater was built. Finished in December, this is the car regarded as the definitive prototype of the SS 90.

As would the production cars to follow, the prototype SS 90 rode a regular SS1 chassis with 15 inches cut from its middle. The X-member was removed at the same time, shortened a little, then welded back in with there maining structure.

Atop this modified frame was mounted a body that resembled the Tourer's but which was, in fact, a new piece of work and lurked lower between tall "racing" wire wheels. The radiator shell and the huge, multi-louvered engine hood were both squarer and seemed to bulge with unspeakable power.

Giant Lucas headlamps stood on great, manly chromed braces. In delightful contrast, four of the most delicate fenders ever drawn seemed more mist than metal.

Unique to this prototype SS 90 was the tail treatment. A truncated cone of body metal that concealed the gas tank, it finished in a cutout carrying the spare wheel at a steep forward cant. Apparently to open some space for luggage and a folding top, all succeeding SS 90s had more rearward, fully exposed "slab" tanks and vertically mounted spares.

What was thereby lost to aesthetics was regained up front, where the side louvers and hood rear edge, initially vertical, were slanted back to match the for-ward edge of the door and the windshield. The "coach-built" body construction itself was conventional for the time, a framing of well-seasoned ash supporting aluminum panels. The fenders, or "wings" in the particularly apt British term, were aluminum as well.

The new wheelbase was 104 inches, which reduced the much longer SS1's ocean-linerish turning circle of 38 feet to a still not very nimble 35. The track measurements, front and rear, remained at 54 inches. Customers had a choice of tire sizes, either 5.25 or 5.5 Dunlop "90"s mounted on big 18-inch rims.

Conventional in most respects for the time, the beam axle/leaf spring suspension did offer one feature of special interest to anyone who supposes new ground was broken some 50 years later: these 1935 shock absorbers, though non-hydraulic, were Andre Telecontrols, adjustable from the cockpit.

Only the larger Standard engine was offered in the SS 90, the "2/2-Litre" that actually displaced nearer 2.7. Compared to its tune in the SS1, it had a higher compression ratio-all the way out to 7.0:1-and a sportier camshaft profile, two carburetors instead of one, and a new cast-aluminum oil sump with greater capacity.

The last was significant, because this engine still had a reputation for marginal cooling, and its connecting rods were still Dural aluminum alloy. Elevated running temperatures would open the rod clearances enough to lower oil pressure.

By adding a cast-aluminum oil sump with greater capacity, SS Cars was tacitly endorsing the use of its new sports car as, yes, a sports car.

In point of fact, William Lyons himself endorsed the idea overtly at least once. Bringing one of the early SS 90s to show off at an SS owners' club meet in his old hometown of Blackpool, he proceeded to set best time of the day in a driving test. So this definitely was the fastest Lyons car yet.

In absolute terms, though, the SS 90 wasn't very fast. No independent tests seem to have been carried out, so any performance numbers are anecdotal, but at best the engine put out no more than 80 horsepower, so the car was capable of only approaching a genuine 90 mph.

Brisk enough, probably, given the roads, tires, suspensions and brakes of the day. But it fell short of generating the aura William Lyons by now had in mind.

The car went on sale in March 1935, but apparently the factory was already working on its successor. Only 22 production SS 90s were turned out before the Jaguar SS 100 was ready to take over.

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Jaguar SS 100 Design

The Jaguar SS 100 entered its final development during the latter part of 1935. Compared to its predecessor, the Jaguar SS 90, engine improvements were the big news.

Jaguar SS 100 rear
Rakish, fast, and affordable, the Jaguar SS 100
was a smashing commercial success.

Thanks to work done by consultant Harry Weslake for the new SS Jaguar sedan, introduced at the same time, the Jaguar SS 100 arrived with an overhead-valve cylinder head. The twin carburetors, now SUs instead of the older RAGS, were still on the left side, but the exhaust manifold had been moved to the right to make an efficient cross-flow design.

Even for the day, this was not startling technology, for the head was cast in iron and operated the valves through pushrods. But Weslake's genius had somehow conjured up startling results. Lyons had asked him to raise the output of the side-valve 2.7-liter from 75 horsepower to about 90. With his overhead valve head, Weslake raised it beyond 100; on the dynamometer, the test engine showed 105 horsepower at 4,500 rpm. The production unit was almost as good: 104 at 4,600.

Though little changed from the SS 90 in basic dimensions and basic chassis design, the Jaguar SS 100 arrived with a somewhat different steering mechanism and much bigger brakes operated by rod, rather than cable.

Suspension was revised, too, with some parts adopted from the new sedan. Curiously, front shock absorbers were now a combination of Hartford friction and Luvax hydraulic shocks, but only the latter were used at the rear. Tires were the same size, but the wire wheels were now supplied by Dunlop instead of Rudge-Whitworth, and had different hubs.

Visually, the biggest alteration from the SS 90 to the Jaguar SS 100 occurred at the rear, where the gas tank's back wall now slanted forward, and thus so did the spare wheel. However, someone standing toward the nose of the car could easily notice a difference in the front wings, where the leading edges had a more florid droop. There were also some bumper, grille and, of course, badging differences.

The SS Jaguar 100 went on sale in March 1936, and was an immediate hit. It was a faster car, also a better car, and it listed for a still-remarkably low 395 British pounds. The sporting public responded. Over the next two years, well over 100 "100"s were sold, and many did well in various sorts of speed and endurance events, including international rallies.

According to a contemporary road test in The Motor, Britain's second-oldest automotive journal (after The Autocar), a 2.7-liter SS 100 could do 0-60 mph in 12.8 seconds. At the time, that was quick enough to shut down most locally made opposition. Similarly, the quarter-mile time of 18.6 seconds was considered "outstanding."

As for top speed, the magazine timed its car at 96 mph. Another publication got a little less, but even with the full-sized windshield in its upright position the car could hit 90. In normal motoring, 75 was regarded as an easy cruising speed.

The Jaguar SS 100 got more speed for 1938. In conjunction with developing its new "all-steel" sedan, Jaguar bored and stroked the sturdy old Standard six-cylinder engine to 82x110 mm.

This brought its capacity up to 3,485.5 cc (212.7 cubic inches), a resounding 31 percent more and nearly 75 percent over the old 2.1-liter with the same basic block. To handle the extra stress, the chrome-iron crankcase was made stiffer; to handle the extra gas flow, the overhead valve head was revised to have six individual exhaust ports.

Steel connecting rods were adopted, finally, to cure the old hot-oil pressure problem. On a compression ratio of 7.2:1, horsepower was said to be 125 at 4,500. Inevitably, price went up too, but only to a still-very-competitive 445 British pounds.

It was well worth it. Genuinely much quicker than the 2.7-liter model, the "3-1/2-Litre" SS 100 amazed the enthusiast press of the day. Zero-to-60 mph acceleration times dropped below 11 seconds (to 10.4, said The Motor) and, at least with the main windshield folded down flat, the "100" proved to be a 100-mph car by one or two mph.

These figures may not look very impressive today, but to better them in Great Britain during the late 1930s, one had to buy a much more expensive car -- or maybe a 998-cc Vincent-HRD motorcycle.

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Jaguar SS 100 Road Test

The Jaguar SS 100 was fast enough that it took a good-performing motorcyle to outpace it. In fact, driving the SS 100 had points of similarity to riding a big bike.

Although the Jaguar SS 100 came with a folding top (or "hood"), and while this allegedly could be set up inside 60 seconds, Britons who ran sports cars in those days took pride in taking as much of their motoring alfresco as was humanly endurable.

1936 Jaguar SS 100 cockpit
Driving the 1936 Jaguar SS 100 meant looking out
over a 49-inch-long hood and winglike fenders.

In this and other ways, this first great Jaguar -- considered quite modern at the time of its introduction -- now seems to hark back to very early times indeed.

It's easy to climb aboard a Jaguar SS 100. The rear-hinged door opens very wide, and the pillowy leather seat is not slung especially low. However, the four-spoke steering wheel is both big --18 inches is the standard diameter -- and rather close-in to the belt buckle.

Happily, it's easily adjustable for distance and, with tools, for rake angle. Even when closed, the door doesn't seem to be there because of its very deep elbow cutout.

There's not much but air all around, in fact, and you feel more atop the car than within. But your legs have vanished into a long, narrow tunnel and this creates a compensating feeling of security, as if you've been holstered.

That wondrous great bonnet with its four rows of louvers dominates the view. It seems remarkably long; it actually measures 49 1/18 inches along the chromed piano hinge linking its two "butterfly" sections. Jutting up proudly either side are the huge headlamps, borne by the flaring wings.

Not far above your lap is a curvaceous double-lobe instrument panel displaying a sextet of elegantly white-faced gauges, including a 100-mph speedometer down low to the right of the steering column, and a 5,000-rpm tachometer to the left.

The latter, which works counter-clockwise, has a red sector (lacking on some cars) beginning just above 4,500. Most secondary controls are spread across the rest of the panel, save two levers on the steering-wheel hub for lighting and ignition timing.

The Jaguar SS 100 still had the longish 104-inch wheelbase and substantial 53-inch track, but it was only 150 inches long overall and 63 wide, so it didn't take up that much road space.

It was fairly light, too. A figure of "23 hundredweight" is usually given for a typically equipped car. A "hundredweight," often expressed as "cwt." is one of those quaint measures still dear to the English, like "stone" (used to express a person's weight in 14-pound chunks) or "Guinea" (a coin of the realm equal to 1 British pound plus 1 shilling). A "cwt." is 112 pounds, so a road-ready SS 100 apparently tipped the scales at 2,575 pounds. A mere bagatelle to the mighty 3.5-liter, 125-horsepower Jaguar engine.

What fun it must have been to set off in a brand-new Jaguar SS 100 for a bracing canter along the narrow, twisting, usually quiet country roads of its homeland. The ohv engine retains much of the steam-engine torque delivery of the earlier side-valve, but there is more of it, so the six big aluminum pistons pull smoothly and eagerly from as low as 500 rpm.

The four-speed transmission uses a conventional H-pattern with reverse left-forward (and "LIFT," as marked on the knob). Its movement is short and not too heavy. Luckily, a tendency in early gearboxes to break teeth had been cured. However, first gear lacks synchromesh, and while the upper three have it, they still require a deliberate, sensitive hand.

With only 2.3 turns lock-to-lock, the steering is pleasantly responsive, yet light enough to make the car feel easy to handle. The front-end geometry-so long proven on Standards-is such that shimmying, tramping or other bad beam-axle habits seldom are noticed.

The rear axle, however, prefers England's typically smooth roads, as poorer ones can set up a wheel hop. Coupled with the car's natural tendency toward over steer (tail-sliding) at the limit, turns can abruptly turn wild.

Words such as "unpredictable," even "skittish," still aptly describe the cornering behavior. The ride on rough surfaces is pretty harsh, too, but drivers of this period believe discomfort is the necessary price of responsive handling.

Driven ruthlessly, the SS 100 can use up its tires rapidly, and an eye has to be kept on the water-temperature gauge. But the braking power with the bigger drums is considered entirely adequate for the performance and driving techniques of the day. And over long, arduous routes, often against time constraints, the car has begun to build up a surprising record of sturdy reliability.

The SS 100's most unsettling characteristic is the impression it sometimes gives at high speeds that the front end is flying. Whether this is caused by the rakish "wings" or perhaps by weakness in the steering mechanism, will never be resolved.

But some drivers who wind the speedometer right to the 100 mark -- or who encounter strong wind gusts at lower velocities -- feel the steering go light and vague.

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Jaguar SS 100 Assessment

The Jaguar SS 100's undeniable quirks, coupled with a widespread first impression that the extravagant-looking sportster was just too pretty to be taken seriously, held some critics back from immediate acclamation.

1938 Jaguar SS 100
Driving the soulful 1938 Jaguar SS 100 seemed to
create a bond between human and machine.

But many of those who took time to really get to know the SS 100 found that it grew on them. As The Autocar put it: "An outstanding feature recalled of the SS was that, whilst one felt sufficiently at home in it from the beginning, there came a stage, after perhaps a couple of hundred miles, where one suddenly found a great deal more in the car than there had seemed to be at first-not so much in sheer performance as in confidence in it."

This passage is quoted from Jaguar Sports Cars, a book by marque expert Paul Skilleter, who went on in his own words to make this important point: "Thus William Lyons had managed, with what was really his first production sports car, to achieve that 'thoroughbred' feel which was to remain present in all successive Jaguar sports cars; a certain quality by which a personal relation-ship can be established between car and driver."

It is just this quality that forgives a multitude of niggling little sins. To the driver who deeply enjoys driving, a car shows a personality, and when it is a willing and eager car, a car that seems to have been born for the joy of the open road, such a driver dismisses foibles and imperfections. They're irrelevant to the relationship.

That was the root of William Lyons' success as an automaker. His cars would always be flawed, but they would never be soul-less transportation appliances. They could be loved

A telling vignette about Lyons' own involvement with driving occurred one sunny spring day in May of 1938. At Donington Park, then home of the British Grand Prix, he joined his chief engineer, William Heynes, a third SS 100 driver, and one in an SS 90 for a little demonstration race.

So anxious was the Jaguar chief to get going that he twice jumped the start and had to be called back. Once fairly away, he drove, according to a contemporary account, "with the most awe-inspiring determination," and won.

Other Jaguar SS 100s in other hands were winning other events. Not great events; Jaguar's sports car was not yet a race car. It was never meant to be. Yet it had that appealing "let's try!" temperament, and so people did try.

Perhaps the most venerated Jaguar SS 100 in competition was one owned and modified by the factory itself. Known to Jaguar enthusiasts as "Old No. 8;' from its chassis number 18008, it began as the 2.7-liter street car that won the top prize in the 1936 International Alpine Trial, a grueling long-distance Continental road rally.

Bit by bit, over the next several years it was hopped up and stripped down for track work. It lost its fenders for better aerodynamics, but gained a 3.5 engine. For better weight distribution, its engine was moved back in the chassis and both its axles were moved forward.

In 1937 it won a race at the old Brooklands banked speedway at 118 mph. Two years later it lapped the same track at 125. Running on a 14.0:1 compression ratio and exotic fuels, it showed 169 horsepower at 4250 rpm on the test bed.

Development resumed after World War II, and in 1947 the engine was made to put out 171 horsepower at 4500 rpm. Even then people couldn't keep their hands off the grand old thing, and a later owner reported he'd turned it to 4800 rpm on a chassis dyno, at which rate the reading was 172 horsepower at the rear wheels. He reckoned that meant about 215 at the flywheel. Old No. 8 was then over 30 years of age.

Of course, the factory had long since turned to other things, having ended SS 100 production in 1939. The number built is believed to be 308. Adding prototype and production SS 90s brings that up to only 332.

Small numbers, but big impact. The SS sports cars had been seminal in design and performance. They also were smashing commercial successes for a small company striving to make its mark. With them was struck the pattern for every sporting Jaguar to come -- the image and personality that still fire enthusiast hearts today.

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Jaguar SS 100 Specifications

The Jaguar SS 100 was not a "pure" Jaguar, in the sense that it used a chassis and engine from the Standard Motor Car company. But its stylish body design was by Jaguar, and its fine performance and rakish spirit set the tone for all Jaguar sports car to come.

Jaguar SS 100 Specifications

Years produced 1935-1939
Number built 308
Configuration Front engine; two-seat-plus-shelf.
Body style Roadster
Suspension, front Beam axle with leaf springs
Suspension, rear Live axle with leaf springs
Wheelbase (inches) 104
Track, front (inches) 54
Track, rear (inches) 54
Overall length (inches)
153

Jaguar SS 100 Engines

EngineStandard-base inline six-cylinder
TypePushrod overhead valve
Displacement, liters/cc
2.7/2661 or 3.5/3485
Maximum horsepower
125

Jaguar SS 100 Performance

Best 0-60 mph (seconds)
10.4
Best top speed (mph)
101

 

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