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Jaguar Company History

Published: 24th Mar 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Jaguar celebrates its 75th anniversary in foreign hands but, ironically, in a healthier shape than many times during its historic past. William Lyons (later, Sir William), working with William Walmsley, set up the Swallow firm for producing quality, good value motorcycle sidecars in 1922 and the business prospered. Their first involvement with cars came in 1927, when the concern started producing stylish Swallow bodies for the Austin Seven chassis; the Seven ‘Swallows’ they remain rare and desirable to this day. The move to Coventry from Blackpool was made in 1928, and Swallow bodies were then fitted to chassis frames from other motor makers, such as Fiat, Standard, Swift and Wolseley.The Lyons’ ‘SS 1’ was designed to run using mechanical bits from the Standard Motor Company. This stylish car was introduced at the 1931 Olympia Motor Show, and was the first in a long line of models which provided exceptional value for money and set the tone for future models.

After Walmsley departed, in the winter of 1934/35, Lyons built up his own, self-contained motor manufacturing business and the start of what we know as Jaguar. The SS90 of 1935 was Lyon’s first sports model, but the first car to bear the Jaguar name was the SS Jaguar 100. This featured an overhead valve conversion of the Standard’s straight six, with a cylinder head designed by the famous engineer Harry Weslake. After World War II, the letters ‘SS’ had ugly connotations, and Lyons re-named his firm ‘Jaguar Cars Ltd.’ Early post-War Jaguars were amended versions of the pre-War models, but a new, large and prestigious ‘Mark V’ sports/luxury saloon was introduced in ‘49 to create the big cat family.

Far more significant in the long term was the mould breaking XK120 sports car of 1948. This was the first Jaguar to be fitted with the long-running six cylinder, twin overhead camshaft XK engine, a unit Lyons ‘designed’ while fire watching during the WW2. Variations of this superb unit were used for decades in successive models, including the luxurious and fast gigantic Jags of the 1950s, XK140 and 150 sportsters and of course the Mk1/Mk2, E-type, and the XJ6; the latter pair which shaped – and some say even – stifled the company in the decades ahead.

Why? Because the were almost too good for their times and actually caused the company to hang back and rely on trusted themes rather than surge ahead with something new as Lyons would have surely done otherwise! The 1960s were pivotal for the company. With an aspirational model range spanning from the Mk2 to the Mk10, Jaguar was doing what BMW has made its fame and fortune on – and yet with the launch of the sensational XJ6 in 1968, Lyons slashed the line up to a handful just when rivals were building theirs…

During the 1970s potential new customers felt that there was distinct a lack of choice in the Jaguar line-up and this situation did not substantially change until the debut of the S-Type in 1999 by which time the likes of Mercedes, Audi, BMW and even Lexus had stolen the lucrative markets Jaguar once dominated.

It’s easy to look back in hindsight; during the 60s Jaguar was working on a comparative showstring yet performing miracles. Lyons saw a young Colin Chapman as a natural successor but a mooted merger in 1963 came to nothing. Instead three years later Lyons merged with BMC to create 90 .

British Motor Holdings; sadly Lyons didn’t know what a sad and sorry state the once great British Motor Corporation was actually in.Gobbled up by lorry maker Leyland in 1968 Jaguar quickly became a victim of in house politics and savage belt tightening. Build quality slumped and the fact that the E-type’s replacement, the XJ-S, was poorly received didn’t help either. By the mid 1970s, only a few years after Sir William Lyons retired, the future of Jaguar slid into in a perilous state of affairs.

Enter John Egan as the new boss who worked miracles, not simply keeping the company alive but reviving the flagging brand back to health and be in a fit enough state to stand privatisation in 1984. Sir William Lyons died a year after, but was comforted in the knowledge The Growler roared once gain (even at Le Mans!) although Egan sorely knew that Jaguar couldn’t survive as a stand alone company for much longer and so sought a buyer.

Enter cash-rich Ford with money to burn by the end of the decade! There again, the Blue Oval needed it as the Yank bosses couldn’t believe how outdated the Browns Lane set up really was…A lot of enthusiasts still sneer at Ford owning and controlling Jaguar, but the fact is that without Henry’s help the company would have folded. Ford transformed Jaguar (and Aston Martin) and let these outfits find their feet once again but lost bucketloads in doing so. With Ford running out of money, it started to jettison its premier brands, and Jaguar, along with Land Rover as a deal sweetener, was sold to Indian industrial giant Tata in 2009 at bargain basement prices. Many feared the worst once again for Jaguar – and yet with new great models being launched, and many exciting ones in the pipeline, the Coventry Cat doesn’t appear to have run out of lives just yet.

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