The Rearview Mirror: The First Jaguar

1925 Norton 160H with Swallow Model 4 sidecar

It’s a company that’s been known by any number of names. It was founded as the Swallow Sidecar Co., before becoming Swallow Sidecar & Coachbuilding Co., then SS Cars Limited, followed by SS Jaguar, and finally, Jaguar Cars.

And during this week in 1935, the very first car to wear the Jaguar name debuts at the Mayfair Hotel in London: the 1935 SS Jaguar. But the car’s birth came from an unlikely source: a company that had initially made its name manufacturing motorcycle sidecars.

Motorcycles beget a new business

An early design by William Lyons, a 1929 Austin-7 Swallow Roadster. (Photo Credit: RM Sothebys)

For the birth of this famed feline, one must look to Coventry, England in 1920, where a very young William Walmsley had a motorcycle sidecar business, building them in his garage. His occupation attracted the attention of a very young William Lyons, a motorcycle enthusiast who bought and sold any number of motor bikes, including Indians and Harley Davidsons, to use in local hillclimb events. Walmsley continued to build aluminum sidecars under the name “Swallow” for £28 each. An additional £4 bought a hood, screen, lamp and aluminium wheel disc.  

By 1922, Lyons thought that proper marketing could make Swallow a success, and suggested going into a partnership. Walmsley was reluctant. Undeterred, Lyons went to Walmsley’s father, who agreed with Lyons and talked his son into the partnership. He and William Lyons Sr. pledged £500 each in August 1922 to support the business by guaranteeing a £1,000 loan. The Swallow Sidecar Co. was in business.

During the next couple years, business grew, but so did competition from inexpensive mass-produced small cars, particularly the Austin Seven. When he noticed one had been modified, he foresaw a new business opportunity. Base Austin and Morris models sold for around £150, but were fairly basic. Lyons imagined rebodying the cars into a more distinctive upscale variants. Taking on the additional work wouldn’t be difficult. Swallow was already performing body repair, so it was hardly a stretch. Soon, the company was renamed Swallow Side Car & Coach Building Co., as Lyons turned his interest to cars.

The first cars

1930 Austin 7 Swallow Saloon. (Photo Credit: RM Sothebys)

Making his vision a reality, Lyons designed a two-seat body and mounted on the Austin Seven chassis. Before long, the company had an order for 500, and production began with prices starting at £175. It was followed in 1928 by the Austin Swallow saloon at £185. Lyons continued to expand the company, building Swallow models of the Fiat and Standard, among others. But while the cars proved successful, Lyons was not satisfied building cars on the other manufacturers’ chassis.

Lyons knew they had to design their own chassis, but the industry was plagued with failures. Ever cautious, he had a chassis built to Swallow’s specifications by the Standard Motor Co. and powered by Standard engines. The result was the 1932 SS I and SS II Coupes, with a low stance and outrageously long hoods. The larger SS I, priced at £310, had a 6-cylinder engine with 16 or 20 horsepower depending on trim. The smaller SS II, priced at £210, came with a 4-cylinder engine with 9 horsepower. 

A change in direction

Jaguar founder William Lyons always liked outrageous proportions, as seen on this 1934 SS 1 Saloon.

The company was growing along with Lyon’s ambition, something Walmsley did not share, and in 1934, he leaves. Lyons now turns his attention to improving the company’s powerplants, bringing in engineering consultant William Weslake, a cylinder head design specialist. He also appoints William Heynes as his Chief Engineer, a man who would have a major impact on the company for the nest 35 years. They were quite the pair.

Weslake started designing and building carburetors while in the Royal Air Force. He went on to produce his own design, the Wex Carburetor, before being hired by Sunbeam to work on competition cars. By the late 1920s, he had become one of the world’s foremost experts in cylinder head design when he was contracted by W.O. Bentley to help improve his engine’s power output.

After Weslake improved the engine’s output by as much as 40%, he was retained by Bentley to continue to develop engines. The results would make Bentley legendary as the company won the first four places at the 1929 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the first two places again in 1930 thanks to Weslake-tuned engines. It wasn’t long before he was working for Lyons.

Joining Weslake was William Heynes, who had joined Coventry-based Humber Car Co. in 1921. By 1930, he was named head of the technical department. But once the company was bought by the Rootes Brothers, management became increasingly reluctant to change, and by 1935, Heynes was at what was then known as SS Cars Ltd. Lyons had one thing in mind: to produce the world’s best luxury car.

A cat is born

1936 SS Jaguar 100 roadster

Weslake had been working on improving SS Cars engines, switching from a side-valve design to one with overhead valves. By May 1935, the 6-cylinder engine with its new cylinder head and fitted with twin SU carburetors was producing 102 brake hp. Weslake had exceeded his contracted target of 95 bhp. At the same time, Heynes was developing a new chassis as Lyons designed new bodies.

The resulting cars were so different from what had come before, it was decided that a new name was needed. Jaguar was suggested by the company’s advertising agency, but Lyons was initially skeptical. He was eventually persuaded, and the cars debuted as SS 100 Jaguar. At the model’s press preview, held at the Mayfair Hotel in London before the 1935 Motor Show, the assembled media was asked to guess the car’s price. The average guess was £632. The actual price? £395.

It was a marketing ploy Lyons would successfully use time and again throughout his life.

The SS Jaguar 100’s success would eventually lead to the automaker’s renaming after the war. As for Heynes, he would go on to engineer the company’s legendary XK sports cars, as well as the iconic E-Type. 

And it all started with small sidecar business, in a garage, in Coventry.