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William Lyons biography

There's a Lyon Behind Every Jaguar
The Story of Sir William Lyons

- by Craig Burlingame JDRC/NWA

(Jaguar Drivers & Restorers Club of Northwest America)

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Bibliography

Part 1

Sir William Lyons was the man who, for 50 years was Jaguar and is most responsible for the cars we all admire today. New Jaguar buyers today are probably not aware of the influence this one man had in shaping the sexy feline. After all, you won't see the name Lyons on the boot lid like you might see a Porsche or a Ferrari. That wasn't his style. His style was understated elegance with pace, space and grace to match. Lyons somehow always managed to offer an outstanding product for the money. And still his legacy remains, his mark indelibly etched in every Jaguar ever produced, even now, 23 years after his retirement and ten years after his death, his influence is still seen. Even the newest XJ6 carries modifications suggested by Sir William. For without William Lyons, there most certainly would not have been a Jaguar automobile as we know it and the automotive world would have been deprived of one of the greatest motorcars ever conceived and produced.

It all began 90 years ago when on September 4, 1901 William Lyons was born in Blackpool, England. He was the son of a music store shopkeeper. In his early days, he developed a keen interest in motorcycles and owned a "oil-bath" Sunbeam when he was eighteen. But he dreamed of Harley Davidsons and Brough Superiors (the "Rolls-Royce" of British motorcycles).

It was almost by coincidence that the young Bill Lyons should happen to reside across the street from his future business partner, William Walmsley. Bill Lyons was fascinated with Walmsley's very stylish "octagonal" shaped sidecar called the Swallow and so bought one for himself to match up to the Norton motorcycle he was now riding. Convinced that others would like this stylish version of the otherwise "ordinary" sidecar, he decided to go into business with Walmsley, who was 10 years his senior. It was at this point that the young Mr. Lyons displayed the first of his three greatest talents. For Bill Lyons exhibited a phenomenal business sense, or certainly so it seemed for a lad of 20 without formal training. He convinced Walmsley that he could increase production and profits with a few of his ideas. One of which was to secure a larger workspace, as Walmsley's garage was far too small for the big dreams of production Bill Lyons envisioned.

In 1922, they officially formed a partnership and with some financial support from their parents, became the Swallow Sidecar Company. The first of a long list of Lyons' successes, the Swallow Sidecar became very popular and looked especially classy when hooked up with the Brough Superiors Motorcycle.

In the mid-20's the business flourished and they expanded to include coachbuilding. Based on the Austin engine and chasiss, the boys of Blackpool designed and built a stylish little two-seater. At a time when most auto builders were offering basic, no frills black cars, the sight of a stylish 2 color-toned Swallow must have been a very refreshing sight indeed and so it became very popular with the public and a saloon was added as well. So popular were the cars becoming, that they decided to move operations to the Midlands area of England in 1928. They took up residence in the Foleshill Factory in Coventry with its nearby skilled labour supply and industrial resources. Lyons was forever devising new methods of improving production and during this time production went from 12 cars a week to 50.

They also re-bodied the Standard Nine and anything else they could get their hands on. In comparison photos it becomes evident that the sense of styling expressed by Lyons was clearly ahead of its time. The Swallow bodied versions looking so much sharper with the lower profile that Lyons designed. Several of his design themes, characteristics that distinguish all Jaguars up to the present, are already being clearly established at this stage in his career.

But William Lyons' car building career really started with the introduction of his and Walmsley's first true cars, the S.S. 1 and II in 1931. Working with other manufacturer's engine and chassis had placed severe styling restrictions on the free-thinking Lyons. So the next logical step was to design their own chassis and adapt a proven powerplant. With a keen business sense, Lyons did a wise thing by obtaining chassis built to his specification by Rubery Owen works and matching it to the reliable Standard 16 engine. And so it was, without the huge financial burden of engine and chassis manufacturing, they were able to concentrate on coachwork, which was still their specialty.

A funny story often recited about this early S.S. 1 design has Lyons specifying a roofline so low that it probably would never have been driven by drivers of normal height. Just before the car went into production, Lyons went to the hospital and when he got out discovered that the roofline had been raised a few inches. A change probably made by Walmsley, since he was the only one who would dare make such a decision without Lyons' OK. Lyons' comments upon seeing the production vehicle was that the passenger compartment "looked rather like a conning tower".

Introduced in a year when the rest of the motoring world was lacking inspiration and originality, the motoring press of the time was very taken with the car and design and offered these comments; " . . . the S.S. 1 is a new type of automobile in the sense that it is a car built for the connoisseur but is relatively low priced. All the attributes of sports models are incorporated in a refined manner, and this, coupled with a striking appearance, is bound to attract enthusiastic motorists of modest means"- The Motor. This assessment of the first true Lyons car in 1932 was clearly the direction all future S.S.'s and Jaguars would take and would later be coined in promotion materials as the best of all worlds, offering grace, space and pace at a reasonable price.

There has been much discussion over the origin of name of the cars. It's no secret that Lyons liked the S.S. designation used by the Brough Superior motorcycles he so admired. William Lyons himself laid speculation to rest when he said, "There was much speculation as to whether S.S. stood for Standard Swallow or Swallow Special - it was never resolved".

Enjoying the success of the S.S. 1 and 2's, it would have been very easy to sit back and watch the money roll in, which is precisely what Walmsley was content to do. Lyons on the other hand, was far more ambitious and visionary. He wanted his cars to have even better performance than the Standard 16 was able to deliver. So he set about to develop an engine that would be worthy of the new line of cars he was about to introduce, the S.S. Jaguars.

The mid-thirties were a crucial turning point for the fledgling company. Walmsley, always more interested in "tinkering" and model railroading, left the company and S.S. Cars went public. More importantly, Lyons, now Chairman (and emperor) displayed his second greatest talent. As a good businessman, he knew the importance of hiring the best people possible to do jobs which he knew he could not do. A businessman he was, a stylist he was, but an engineer, he was not. So he did the next best thing, hire the best engineers he could find. And for this he had a good knack. Reading like the "Who's Who" of Jaguar, Lyons surrounded himself with very talented and motivated experts.

He had already hired the brilliant coachmaker, Cyril Holland in the early days to oversee the coachbuilding operation, but now he brought in William Heynes to head his now legitimate engineering department. Lyons was impressed with what Harry Weslake was saying could be done to improve engine performance if you put the valves in the overhead position rather than the side. So he hired him to design and build the first true Jaguar engine so that his new line of cars could have performance to match their good looks. This proved to be a stroke of genius as horsepower using the new engine rose from a modest 70 bhp with the side valves to 103.3 bhp with the new overhead cylinder head! Lyons even managed to have the heads built by Standard to his specifications, thereby saving his company the enormous capital outlay necessary for engine production.

It was here that Lyons exhibited yet another of his talents as he had a flair for showmanship and promotion. He astonished a dealer's convention with the unveiling of his new "Jaguar" line. As impressed as they were with the car's fine looks, appointments and performance, they were quite surprised to learn that the cars would sell for about half of what they collectively estimated they would cost.

Part 2

Having achieved success with their first 4-door saloon, Lyons now directed his attention to developing a true sports car. The result was the very stylish SS 100. Philip Porter put it this way, "The SS 100 was the company's first genuine sports car and to many people it remains the epitome of the stylish pre-war sports car, Lyons at his flamboyant best. The beautiful, flowing feline shape suggested speed and when the new 3.5 litre engine was added to the range, a car of vivid performance was the result". And once again, the new sports car proved an excellent value for the money.

Lyons had been correct in anticipating the kind of car the public wanted and so demand was high. It became necessary to change from wooden frame construction to pressed steel in the saloons in order to meet this demand. Finding a good, reliable supplier of pressed steel was difficult and ruined many a good auto maker trying to make this transition during the depression. Jaguar was fortunate and able to survive this period of the late '30's.

During the war years, 1939-45, Lyons and company helped out with the war production effort. Key aircraft components were manufactured at the Coventry factory and became airborne parts on Lancasters, Stirlings, Mosquitos and Spitfires. They also manufactured everything from sidecars to a lightweight "jeep" type vehicle. All during the war, Lyons made sure his best engineers were always on "fire watch" duty together so Jaguars of the future could start to take shape. Production techniques were refined and advanced engineering ideas were tried including independent front suspension and talk of a new, more powerful engine.

Immediately following the war, Lyons resumed production of the saloon & drophead coupes. Officially listed as the 1 1/2, 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 litre saloons and drophead coupes, they would later be referred to as "Mark IV's". Unfortunately, SS100 production did not resume and it would be another four years before the introduction of the next sports car. The war necessitated another change. From now on, the name of the company would be Jaguar Cars, Ltd. since the SS initials now had a very unpleasant connotation.

During this time, British manufacturers were encouraged to export goods overseas and as a result, Jaguar discovered a very willing market in North America and began establishing a network of dealerships. Although the American market was to play a significant role for Jaguar in the years ahead, it was known to give Lyons fits at times. Several years later, Lyons gave the following instructions to the new Export Manager, John Morgan "I'm not going to accept crazy marketing plans for America because I don't believe in it. It's a volatile market".

One of Lyons' all consuming passions had been to produce a luxury saloon capable of 100 mph. The Mark IV with its 3.5 litre pushrod engine fell short of fulfilling that dream and so plans were underway to develop an engine capable of attaining his goal. The new Mark V, introduced in 1948 used the same engine as the "IV", but came with a restyled body on a new chassis with independent front suspension. But still the 100 mph barrier was just beyond reach.

Having achieved success with the new Mark V chassis, Bill Heynes now turned his attention to developing a new engine capable of 160 bhp. The team Bill Heynes assembled to develop this engine included Harry Weslake and Claude Baily. Not coincidentally, this was the same group that spent many a fire watch together during the war.

Incorporating a hemispherical head and twin overhead camshafts, the XK engine first appeared in 1948, but not in the new Mark V as many anticipated. Instead Lyons decided to display the new engine in a car specially built for the 1948 Motor Show. The XK 120 was hurriedly conceived as a show case for the new engine and it was only planned to produce 200 of these special cars. The idea was to test the new engine in the XK120s to prove the engine's durability in preparation for the Mark VII.

The new two-seater sports car with the XK engine was capable of 120 mph (hence the 120 designation). It proved such an overwhelming success that plans were made to expand the production beyond the original 200 that were envisioned. This car of course went on to become one of the all-time true classics and heralded the return of Jaguar to sports car production.

A "Mark VI" never came about because Bentley was already using that designation and so Jaguar jumped right to the Mark VII which was introduced in 1950. This was the first saloon to receive the new XK engine and finally Lyons dream of a 100 mph saloon was realized.

The early '50's are significant because it saw Jaguar officially enter racing. Previous to this, individuals had campaigned various Jaguars on their own but in 1950 Lyons was convinced that his new cars wouldn't in his words, "embarrass themselves", and so agreed to campaigning his new sports car on the racing circuit with company support. He was very aware of the potential prestige enhancement (and increased sales) that could result from successful achievements on the race course, especially LeMans.

Back then racing was viewed as cheap advertising and Lyons felt confident he had the products to compete. Although the new XK 120 was a very capable sports car, Lyons realized it would require modification to compete on the world circuit.

In very short time Malcolm Sayer, with a background in aircraft design, redesigns the XK 120 body shell to make it more aerodynamic. Heynes redesigned a lighter racing suspension and the new racer was given the code name "C-type" for competition. The design was not only more efficient, but it also looked very impressive as well. Such was the design talent of Malcolm Sayer, another Lyons hire. Like very few others, Sayer was uniquely able to artistically incorporate beautiful styling in a car along with the elements of aerodynamic design. His greatest achievements were yet to come in the form of the "D and E- types". Malcolm Sayer would soon be known as the "other" Jaguar stylist, second only to Lyons himself in creating the Jaguar look.

Part 3


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