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Jaguar SS 100

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.

For more on Jaguar and other great cars, see:

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  • 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.