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The Genealogy of the Cat

Even for those who have never owned a British luxury car, Jaguars, or Cats, asthey’re affectionately called, have a certain mystique. Their proud heritage tracesback to humble beginnings in the northern seaside town of Blackpool, England.

by Stanley Murray

Perhaps more than any other marque, Jaguar automobiles have a love-hate relationship with the automotive public. Like their provocative styling, the very presence of a Jaguar instantly evokes either passion or contempt. Current owners of Jags, or Cats, as they’re affectionately called, wouldn’t think of driving anything else. Previous owners, however, have less positive things to say. They’ve been known to refer to their former car as ‘the prince of Darkness’ (because of problems with their electrical systems during the ’70s and ’80s), or to claim that the only way they’d ever own a Jaguar again would be to buy two, so one could be on the road while the other was in for repair.

Yet, regardless of where one’s feelings about Jaguar Cars lie, few are familiar with their proud heritage, and hopefully, promising future.

Jaguar Cars Limited, the maker of Jaguars, traces its humble beginnings to the northern seaside town of Blackpool, in England. There, in September of 1922, a 21-year-old motorcycle enthusiast, Bill Lyons, met up with William Walmsey. Walmsley was constructing a sleek sidecar that he planned to attach to reconditioned motorcycles. In no time, the two young men joined forces, and with a bank overdraft of 10,000 pounds, formed the Swallow Sidecar Company.

As would be the case for more than the next three-quarters of a century, Swallow, and eventually Jaguar, set new standards for design excellence and innovative technology. Typical of their forward thinking was the pioneering use of aluminium in the production of sidecars.

The fledgling company’s next step came in 1927 when they introduced a streamlined two-seater body called The Swallow. It was mounted on the popular Austin Seven chassis, giving the otherwise nondescript little car a rakish appearance. A Swallow body soon followed for the larger Morris Cowley chassis, and then another for the Austin Seven Swallow Saloon late in 1928.

With the burgeoning sales of cars and sidecars, Swallow quickly outgrew its Blackpool shop and moved on to Coventry, in the Midlands, already the heart of the British motor industry.

At the 1929 London Motor Show, three new Swallow models appeared for the first time. They were based on the Fiat Tipo 509A, the Swift Ten, and Standard Big Nine. Looking back, it’s apparent that the Standard was the most significant of the three, since its acceptance led to Swallow versions of the larger Standard Enfield in 1931, and eventually the sporty Swallow versions of the Wolsey Hornet and Hornet Special chassis. The ‘Cat’ was about to be born, but surprisingly, not as a Jaguar.

It would be called the ‘SS’, the first of Swallow’s own line of high-performance cars. First introduced at the London Auto Show in 1931, the car had a chassis built to Swallow’s specifications by the Standard Motor Company, and powered by Standard’s engines. It was heralded as ‘a new car that’s going to thrill the hearts of the motoring public and the trade alike. It’s something utterly new, different, and better!’

The ‘SS’ cars came in two versions, the SSI and SSII Coupes. Their bodies were ultra-low and had outrageously long bonnets. This was accomplished by moving the engine further back in the chassis than was the normal practice at the time, and by mounting the road springs alongside. Other models soon followed, including one with a larger engine, a saloon, a touring sedan, and the unique four-light saloon, which, though less flamboyant, was more practical; its four windows allowed the rear seat passengers to see outside.

Although outwardly Swallow prospered, internally it suffered from leadership problems. Co-founder William Walmsey did not share Lyons’s ambition and lost interest in the venture. As a result, he severed his connections with the company in late 1934.

To fill the void caused by his former partner’s departure, Lyons hired two exceptional engineers. One was Harry Weslake, an engineering consultant who specialized in cylinder head design. The other was William Heynes, who was named chief engineer and would play an important part in Jaguar’s growth for the next 35 years.

The new team produced a new chassis and engine unit with a fresh body style that was decidedly less flashy than the previous ‘S’ models, yet still stylish. The new model was a two-seat sports car, dubbed the SS 100. All who saw and drove it claimed it had ‘a feline grace and elegance, combining docility with remarkable power and agility.’ It was immediately compared to the Bentleys of the time, which cost nearly four times as much. However, great as the 100 was, it still needed a name to differentiate it from the earlier ‘SS’ models. The first use of the ‘Jaguar’ name occurred in 1935 for the 1936 model year. The products of the Coventry plant would be known as ‘S.S. Jaguars’ until after the Second World War, when the name was shortened to Jaguar.

Jaguar continued to build pre-war models until 1948 when the famous XK 120 sports two-seater was introduced. Revolutionary in design, the XK 120 was also the first Jag to sport the XK twin-cam engine, a standard feature until 1987.

Jaguar grew in strength and popularity with a succession of new sedans starting with the legendary Mark VII in 1951, and a series of XK sports cars. So visible was the company’s presence and success, that William Lyons was knighted in 1956 for his services to the British automotive industry.

However, the best was yet to come. In 1961, making a quantum leap in prestige, the company introduced the model that everyone instantly associates with Jaguar, the incredible E-type, or XK-E as it was known in America. Words can’t describe the enthusiasm and emotion that greeted this sensual sliver of automotive excellence when it was unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show. Originally available as a sports coupe and convertible, some years later, to meet the demand, it was also produced as a 2+2. In fact, it’s claimed that the E-type inspired Ferrari to build its famed GTO.

During this time Jaguar was also known for some incredibly elegant salons, namely the Mark series, and the sporty S types, all powered by the proven XK engines. Then, in 1968, the first of the long line of XJ6 saloons appeared, a car that would continue to be the company’s hallmark for the next three decades, either in a six- or 12-cylinder version. Production of a new coupe, the XJS, began in 1973, and in time, a convertible version of the XJS as well.

Unfortunately, even though the Jaguar was one of the first British car companies to export its automobiles to America, it experienced many of the same problems that the other English companies faced–stiff competition in the face of the ever-growing demand for Japanese and German cars. The Jaguar’s low gas mileage also hurt its sales during the several fuel crises of the 1970s and ’80s.

Believing in better strength in numbers, Jaguar Cars was merged into the British Motor Corporation in 1966. The resulting firm, British Motor Holdings, then merged with the Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968, forming British Leyland Motors, which marketed Jaguars along with other British cars such as MGs, Triumphs, and Austins. Over the next decade or so, this organization continued to exist under various names, including the Rover Group. Finally, anxious to regain its identity and former status, Jaguar became a separate, independent company once again in 1984. However, the damage had already been done, and financially vulnerable, the venerable car maker was acquired by the Ford Motor Company in December 1989.

Ford’s take-over actually occurred two years after the phasing out of the successful XJ6 saloon, which, in various forms, had been Jaguar’s staple for 19 years. The new car, known as the XJ40, featured an all-aluminium, twin-cam, 24-valve engine, a vast improvement over the time-proven XK. In 1995, the XJ40 sedans were superseded by still another model, the X300, comprised of both the XJ6 and the limited-edition XJR, the first Jaguar ever to be powered by a supercharged engine.

As to what the years to come hold for the vaunted maker of some of the world’s finest cars, only time will tell. If the company’s sales figures in the United States are any indication, it would appear that the future bodes well. In 1995, through August, Jaguar’s 27 percent sales growth in the American prestige segment had at least doubled that of its competitors.

Could it be that The Cat is making one of the most remarkable comebacks in automotive history? As a member of the Jaguar cult, and proud owner of a vintage XJ6 saloon, this writer certainly hopes so.