Sir William Lyons was born in Blackpool in 1901. He formed Swallow Sidecars when he was just 21 after getting a loan from his father. He partnered with William Walmsley who had converted army surplus motorbikes into sidecars and civilian motorbikes. Lyons was already an owner of a sidecar and they set about building more.
They began to rebody the Austin Seven and created the Austin Seven and produced around 12 a week. In 1928 after outgrowing factories in Blackpool, Lyons moved the company and his family to Coventry.
Production reached 50 cars a week and invested in a new model, the SS1 which went on sale in 1931. In 1933 The company name was changed to SS Cars Ltd. Walmsley left shortly after.
Jaguar – Newly Named
After World War II to avoid any association with the Schutzstaffel Nazi military, the company name was changed again, to Jaguar. Named after a particularly successful aircraft engine produced by Armstrong Siddeley a fellow Coventrian car and aerospace manufacturer. In 1948 the XK series of cars was launched, these became an overnight sensation. The straight six engine powered Jaguars until 1971, when the V12 featured in the series 3 E-Type.
Sir William Lyons was very hands on with the styling of Jaguars despite having no background in this area. Working with full size models, his loyal engineering team worked to interpret his ideas.
Malcolm Sayer was left to design the C and D-Type racers, where his aerospace knowledge helped with the aerodynamics – a critical part of the design. Lyons respected this and would only get involved in road cars.
He worked closely with Keith Helfet. Helfet described his design mentality as a “Frustrated sculptor”.
Sir William Lyons Home – Wappenbury Hall
Often referred to as “Mr. Jaguar” Sir William Lyons requested that prototype cars were delivered to Wappenbury Hall so he and his wife Greta could cast their final opinion before the car reached production. In the stable blocks of Wappenbury Hall there are still marks on the floor where engine blocks were left for various prototype cars.
His time at Jaguar had been incredible eventful with continued success at Le Mans (1955, 1956 & 1957 with the D-Type alone) being knighted as “Sir William Lyons” in 1956. Plus all the successful road cars from XK120 to E-Type.
British Leyland & Nationalisation
With strengthening competitors Lyons merged Jaguar with British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1966 in order to keep the company from being bought. BMC was later incorporated into British Leyland two years later. The first car produced was the XJ6, a luxurious saloon, which initially helped get the merger deal with BMC over the line.
As time went on it became clear British Leyland had not rationalised the product range quick enough. Brands all under British Leyland ownership cannibalised their own sales. Austin, Morris and MG cars competed with Triumph sports cars. Large Rover saloons competed with Jaguar saloons. Internal politics were such that rival marques would attempt to sabotage each others efforts. Austin and Morris made for particularly bad stablemates with regular disputes.
Lyons went on to be chairman of Jaguar in 1967. This was a difficult time for Jaguar under British Leyland. Internal politics, regular disputes and losing the independence he sought for Jaguar resulted in his retirement in 1972.
In 1975 British Leyland were losing huge amounts of money and were subsequently bailed out by the UK government. Jaguar would later be transformed by John Egan in 1980. During this time, in spite of being retired, Sir William would often be involved in reviewing prototype cars from Wappenbury Hall. The XJS and XJ40 would be reviewed in this way – and after all the cars he helped produced, his favourite remained the 1968 XJ6 – His masterpiece.
Road trip, car show or track day Ed is sure to be there taking photos and notes to blog about. Ed has a particular fascination with the volatile history of the British sports car industry, hence this website!