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William Lyons biography

Part 3

The 50's and 60's were truly the glory years for William Lyons and Jaguar. By now, Jaguar had clearly begun to distinguished itself as one of the world's premier automobile manufacturers. In creating that unique combination of grace, space and pace, no one could do it better than Lyons himself. By the mid-fifties, automobile buyers everywhere were beginning to appreciate and buy Jaguars, especially Americans.

Impressive victories came in the prestigious 24 hour endurance race at LeMans and helped enhance the performance image of Jaguar in '50's. C-types won LeMans in 1951, 1953, and the even more areodynamic D-type won LeMans in 1955. The 1955 victory was a hollow one for Lyons who was struck with personal tragedy when on the eve of the event his only son, John was killed in an automobile accident en route to LeMans. The following year Jaguar announced it was retiring from racing. Private racing enthusiasts took up the slack and bought limited production D-types and raced them very successfully.

The new XK engine was proving very capable and reliable. It was so flexible that various sizes and adaptations of the engine found its way into every production Jaguar built in the '50s and '60's. The large saloon range, with its impressive accent on grace, continued with Mark VIII's and Mark IX's. A complete re-design in the early '60s resulted in the largest of all Jaguars, the Mark X and its subsequent version, the 420G. It was thought that Lyons rather enjoyed this car as several recall seeing him "barrelling around" the plant in it.

A major highlight of Lyons' career came in 1956 when Queen Elizabeth, a loyal Jaguar customer, took a tour of the Coventry plant and knighted him with the title, Sir William. There were some, both at Jaguar and in the press that found him less approachable from this time on.

A devastating fire swept through part of the factory in 1956. There are many sad photographs of burnt out XKSSs and Mark 1s being scrapped in the days that followed. But another amazing thing was happening as well. Whereas a lesser company might have faltered at this time, Jaguar got right back to the business of cleaning up and making automobiles again. The positive publicity from the determination of its workers in the light of this disaster impressed people everywhere and helped Jaguar sell even more cars.

Lyons found success with offering a sports car and a large saloon. By the mid-50's, he decided that an intermediate sports saloon should be offered as well. Since the large saloon was intended mainly for the American market, there was a need to produce a smaller luxury saloon that would do well on the narrow European roads.

So the 2.4 saloon (subsequently named Mark 1) was developed and introduced in 1955. It was nicknamed the "rotund style" by Lyons during the design phase. A larger engined version became available in 1957, known as the 3.4 but by 1959 both versions were replaced with the Mark 2 and a third engine option, the 3.8 litre was added.

The 3.8 litre Mark 2 was very popular in the US and offered the best performance from the XK engine in a Jaguar saloon. With 220 bhp and a maximum speed of 125 mph, with manual transmision, it was capable of 0-60 in 8.5 seconds.

In the mid 60's, the Mark 2 design was "stretched" to produce the 3.8 S-type. Finally the 420 emerged as a hybrid of 3.8 S and 420G design, intended to fill the gap of a year or two until the new XJ6 was unveiled. Actually several of these models overlapped in their production. By the late 60's Jaguar was suffering from an overabundance of models being available and there was a need for some consolidation.

By the late 50's Lyons needed more space and facility to build his automobiles. So in 1960, he purchased the Daimler Company which had the much desired production facility in Coventry. Initially, Jaguar continued production of the Daimler Cars, including the Majestic Major, Limousine and the SP250 sports car. Gradually, however, these models were replaced by Daimler versions of Jaguar models. They also inherited a very impressive V-8 engine which Daimler had developed. An outstanding performer, the engine saw only limited service in Jaguars.

More so perhaps than any other car, Jaguar was truly a product that reflected the taste and style of one individual. Whenever Jaguar owners are inclined to question the reasoning behind a particular design feature (or shortcoming) of their automobile, the answer is always that that's the way Lyons wanted it to be. Lyons did not take kindly to criticisim from customers.

One of the best stories to illustrate this fact comes from the Jaguar Scrapbook. Lyons is at the '59 Motor Show in New York. He was approached by a Jaguar XK 140 owner who told him that the heater in his car didn't work properly. At that point, Lyons, the customer and Tony Thompson, head of US Jaguar sales, marched downstairs to the garage to settle the matter. Thompson recalls the incident: "So we went down to his car and the man said, "look, the heater doesn't work".

Sir William replied, "the heater does work".

The car was started up and the car had, if you remember, a Smiths heater with two little doors on it, and a control on the dash. I smoked so Lyons asked me to light a cigarette. He held the cigarette beside the heater and the smoke very gently wafted away.

"Look," he said, "it works perfectly".

"But, Sir Lyons," the man replied, "temperatures get to 15 below zero."

"Young man," he said, "you just put on an overcoat".

A bit of William Lyons' personality is certainly built into every car produced by Jaguar. For instance there is a distinct family resembelence in the styling of Jaguars. One can clearly trace the ancestry of the modern day XJ6 to the Mark VII's of the 50's . This was no accident as Lyons was always the final stylist, the one to make sure it had the unmistakable Jaguar signature. Even the Malcom Sayer designed cars, the D and E-types and the XJS, had that distinctive Jaguar look.

Riding the crest of recent Jaguar victories on the racing circuit, Lyons decided it was time to let the public know that his 2nd generation of XK sport cars were now capable of 140 mph. And so the XK140 was produced to replace the XK 120. This in turn was later replaced by the XK 150 (capable of 150 mph). Some racing D-types were modified and sold to racing enthusiasts in limited production as XKSS's.

By the end of the 50's, a new replacement for the aging XK line was in the works. In 1961, Malcom Sayer took his D-type design one step further to produce perhaps the most magical of all Jaguars, the E-type. With its lovely, sensuous lines, the E-type had the ability to make instant Jaguar lovers of people of all ages on their very first glance. For this was the production sports car of the '60's that would once again put Jaguar far ahead of the competion.

Another anecdote from the Jaguar Scrapbook highlights Lyons' reputation for thriftiness. On one occaision Lyons was visiting the Piccadilly showroom when he was approached by the Sales Manager.

'Excuse me, Sir William. The carpets in the showroom are becoming very worn, and threadbare in places. May I order new carpets?'

'Certainly not', replied Lyons, 'there is plenty of wear left in those'

That was the end of the conversation. On a subsequent visit a month or two later, however, Lyons happened to look down and noticed - new carpet! The unfortunate fellow was summoned.

'I thought I told you not to replace the carpet. I thought I told you that the existing ones were perfectly satisfactory. When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed . . .'

Lyons carried on in this vein until the fellow managed to interrupt long enough to explain that they weren't new carpets.

'What I have done, Sir William is to turn them round. Half of each strip was under the show cabinets at the side of the room, and therefore not worn. So now that I have reversed them the worn area is under the cabinets.'

Lyons was silent for a few moments, as he looked around him. The young man held his breath.

'Remarkable,' muttered Lyons. 'Remarkable.'

There was another pause.

'Right, my man. I want you at Wappenbury Hall (Lyons mansion), nine o'clock on Monday morning. You can do the same thing for me at home.''

A major turning point for Jaguar came in 1966. The prevailing business attitude of the time was that 'bigger was better' and Sir William believed this to be the best way to insure Jaguar's survival. This led to the merger of Jaguar into the giant British Motor Corporation, which later itself was to be re-gobbled up as British Leyland only two years later. It was during these dark years of the '70s that Jaguar, for a while, lost its identity and control over the quality of product produced.

Part 4

Jaguar's merger into the British Motor Corporation in 1966, was in hindsight, a rather unfortunate experience and one which Lyons was to later regret as Jaguar nearly lost its identity in the subsequent Leyland takeover. In the agreement, Lyons had insisted that Jaguar remain a separate entity. Other less fortunate British marques such as MG, Austin and Morris were absorbed and lost in the ensuing consolidation.

Lyon's was now clearly preparing for his retirement, which was not many years off. But before he rode off to retirement in the English countryside, he was determined to produce one last automobile. One last styling masterpiece that would encompass the very best of the elements that made Jaguar the most distictive cars of their day.

Since 1964, Lyons had been directing the creation of his ultimate sports saloon expression, the XJ6. The project, codenamed XJ4, was headed by Bill Heynes, and involved others such as Tom Jones and Bob Knight, the man credited with the XJ's exceptional ride qualities. Lyons couldn't have picked a better team of engineers to help him realize his final creation. It was decided that the car would utilize a version of the now infamous XK engine, with hints of a more powerful engine plant to come.

When introduced in 1968, the XJ6 was an overnight sensation. It captured the attention of the motoring press and soon the rest of the world. Lyons had managed, one last time, to do what he had been so good at . . knocking the automotive world on its tail with a unique combination of grace, space and pace, and yet still providing an exceptional car value for the money.

In 1980, Lyon's was asked as to his favorite car. His answer was, "Well, that's not too difficult to answer. I was determined that the XJ specification should be right. I believe it was. I don't think I would have changed anything much if I'd been starting again, certainly not the overall appearance - a few details here and there, maybe-but I really do feel we established something universally pleasing. It does seem to be standing the test of time, doesn't it?"

In 1948, when the then new XK engine was first shown to the world, it premiered in a sports car, the XK 120, a specially designed to "prove" the new engine. Likewise it seemed only appropriate that to introduce the next major engine design, that it be "proved" in a sports car first. And so it was that the newly developed V12 engine be first demonstrated in the sports car, the Series III E-type.

An engineering masterpiece, the V12 was the product of several years of development. Walter Hassan had been part of the team that developed the XK engine and he was brought in to create a V12 road engine using Claude Bailey's design. The big debate was whether it would be fitted with dual or single camshafts. Single camshafts won out and the engine finally became available in E-types starting in 1971. Although originally intended for the XJ saloon, it wasn't until 1973 that the first of the XJ12s rolled off the assembly line. The motoring press loved the new car and promptly voted it 'Car of the Year'.

Part 5

It was well known at Jaguar that Sir William always had the final say in any production detail. But, what may come as a surprise to some was that prior to any launch, Lyons always had the prototype delivered to Wappenbury Hall so he could get a final opinion from his wife, Greta.

1972 was the year that marked the end of an era. The end of the Lyons era, for in March of that year, Sir William Lyons officially retired. It was 50 years ago that he and Walmsley founded the company that would become Jaguar and now, the company that was so much a part of him would have to continue on without Lyons at the head.

Lyons' influence was still very much felt even after his departure as his opinions were constantly sought and respected. One of his personal goals had yet to be achieved. Lyons longed to produce a coupe version of the XJ and even though his "dream coupe" was introduced 2 years after his retirement, it was in every way, his creation and he spent many hours after his retirement to make sure everything was right.

In 1970 a group headed up by Knight began work on a new sport touring car to take the replace the aging "E-type". The XJS, with heavy styling influence by Malcom Sayer was to be the first new Jaguar produced in the "post Lyons" era. And although it was a Jaguar in every sense, it also seemed to lack that certain look, that unmistakable Jaguar look that the Lyons' cars always had. Such was the influence of the man that was Jaguar.

In retirement, William Lyons and his wife enjoyed the country life and tended sheep and cattle on their estate at Wappenbury. But his heart was always with Jaguar and being only a half hours drive away from the factory, he would motor over to the styling workshop where his opinions were always welcomed and sought.

The 70's era under the British Leyland conglomerate will always be remembered as Jaguar's darkest days. What, with labour troubles, strikes, supplier problems, and a general lack of quality control, Jaguar was lucky just to survive into the 80's.

When interviewed in 1980 by Andrew Whyte, these were some of Lyons' reflective thoughts: "I've been retired officially for over eight years now, of course, but I do like to take an interest," Sir William admits.

"It's been my whole life after all. Many of the people who worked for me are still there. They know the standards that must be set to remain successful in the motor industry. I think there are enough determined people there, still, to keep the essential Jaguar character in the cars, yet satisfy tomorrow's legislation worldwide. Our aim from the very start was to give the motorist pleasure. Now, more than ever, I feel that motoring should be a joy and not a chore. I still enjoy it. . . .My favorite car? Well, that's not too difficult to answer. I was determined that the XJ specification should be right. I believe it was. I don't think I would have changed anything much if I'd been starting again, certainly not the overall appearance-a few details here and there, maybe-but I really do feel we established something universally pleasing. It does seem to be standing the test of time, doesn't it?"

Five years later, in 1985 Sir William Lyons passed away and left behind a lasting legacy. Many will remember him for being a shrewd businessman or an autocratic boss that called everyone by their sir name. Others will remember him for his thriftiness and still others for his personal attention to detail. But mostly we remember him for his unique sense of design and style and the subtle way he included a little of character into every car he built. So while it may say Jaguar on the boot lid, we'll know . . . it's really a Lyons car.



"Sir William; A fresh look at Jaguar's background" by Andrew Whyte;
Automobile Quarterly vol. 18 no. 4, 1980 pp. 374-387.

Jaguar: An Illustrated History of the World's Most Elegant Car by Roger
Hicks; 1989. Crescent Books.

Jaguar: History of a Classic Marque by Philip Porter;
1988. Tiger Books Intl.

Jaguar Saloon Cars by Paul Skilleter;
1988. Haynes Publ.

The Jaguar Scrapbook by Philip Porter;
1989. Haynes Publ.



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