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Jaguar E-type: cool for cats

07 June 2022

Why isn’t the creator of the E-type Jaguar, Sir William Lyons, as revered as other 1960s design icons? Peter Grimsdale discovers the man behind the car.

Jaguar E-type

Enzo Ferrari pronounced it ‘the world’s most beautiful car’. For Frank Sinatra, it was love at first sight: ‘I want that car and I want it now,’ he said.

Few cars achieve instant, worldwide acclaim. Sixty years ago, the Jaguar E-type did just that. It was radical, rebellious and dangerously cool. A 150mph two-seater that flicked a V-sign at the stuffy post-war British establishment when it was unveiled in early 1961. It anticipated the Swinging Sixties, in all its insolent glory.

But its creator was no callow, mop-haired youth. That year, Jaguar’s founder, Sir William Lyons, turned 60. His conservative double-breasted demeanour concealed a radical autocrat with an uncompromising vision for his cars – a conviction not unlike that of Elon Musk. Lyons was not only the boss of what was then Britain’s most profitable car company, he styled every one of his cars, right down to the door handles. Quite an achievement since he couldn’t draw.

From the start, Lyons was an outlier. Born in 1901, in Blackpool, he rebuilt his first motorcycle, a 1911 Triumph, to his own design. A neighbour, William Walmsley, had built his own sidecar, not the bath-chair appendages typical of the day, but a striking, streamlined device of polished bare metal. Lyons loved the look: to him, style mattered. He convinced Walmsley to join forces.

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At just 21, with a loan of £500, he co-founded Swallow Sidecars Ltd. Within four years they were selling more than 100 units a month.

In 1926, Lyons insisted they move the business to Coventry, the British equivalent of Detroit. Car-body making in the 1920s was a separate trade from engine and chassis production, a legacy of the horse-drawn carriage era. Their designs were tall and square, with no concession to aerodynamics. Lyons started with a modest Austin Seven chassis: he added a low roof, sloping windscreen and rounded rear end, to give the car an extrovert look.

In 1931, he built his first complete car, a svelte coupé using a bought-in chassis and engine. He abbreviated the company name to SS and the new model became the SS 1. Just before the launch, he was hospitalised with appendicitis and Walmsley, bothered by what he considered an impractically low roofline, had it raised a couple of inches. Lyons was furious, but the SS 1 still created a sensation. The Daily Express marvelled at its ‘£1,000 look’, although it cost a mere £310. ‘It doesn’t cost more to make something look pretty,’ Lyons noted, prophetically.

Lyons micromanaged every curve until his superlative eye for style was satisfied

Not long after, he and Walmsley parted company. From then on, no one would interfere with what became known as the ‘Lyons line’.

When he launched a more upmarket model in 1935, he called it the SS Jaguar because it evoked the big cat’s qualities of speed, sleekness and stealth. A critic snobbishly dismissed it as a ‘Wardour Street Bentley’,a dig at the brash Soho base of Britain’s nascent film industry. Lyons didn’t care: film was about the future – and so was he.

He knew that if he was to gain real credibility as a motor manufacturer, he needed to design and build his own engines. He head-hunted a crack team including ex-Bentley engineer Wally Hassan and Bill Heynes of Humber. World War Two put a stop to all development, so he went undercover.

The team volunteered as fire watchers, manning the rooftops. As searchlights swept the skies for the Luftwaffe, they bent their heads over torchlit notebooks. All that work paid off by the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show, the first for ten years and the perfect place to showcase Lyons’ newly branded company. SS had quietly changed its name to Jaguar a month before D-Day to shake off any unfortunate Nazi connotations.

With just weeks to go, Lyons came up with the shape for a sports car, micromanaging every curve until his superlative eye for style was satisfied. The result was a svelte, smooth machine with all-enveloping bodywork that incorporated previously separate elements, such as the lights and mudguards, and covered the rear wheels.

The XK120 Super Sports stole the show. Lyons’ timing could not have been better. Post-war America was set for a boom: a whole generation fresh out of the forces, ready to rock and roll. Clark Gable demanded to have the first one in Hollywood. By 1954, the production run hit 12,000.

And before the decade was over he had made his mark on motorsport, too, with no less than five victories in the Le Mans 24-hour race in France.

Nothing put Lyons off his stride, not the loss of his only son in a road accident, nor the 1955 crash at Le Mans that killed 83 spectators (claimed by some to be caused by one of his drivers), nor a fire that almost destroyed his factory in 1957.

Throughout, he was tight-lipped, a man of few words but deep resources, who never took his eye off the bottom line. Sports cars got attention, but they were not where the real money was made. That was down to the saloon cars and on these he lavished even more attention. The Mark II was immortalised by ITV’s Inspector Morse – and umpteen villains. The XJ6 was regarded as a world beater that could have sold for twice the asking price.

Jaguar’s ‘look-at-me’ style was always at odds with a nation that prized understatement. At home, it could never quite shake the accusation of being brash. Elsewhere in the world it was a different matter. French journalist Bernard Cahier had raved about the E-type because ‘it looked so fast just standing still’.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York considered the E-type important enough to be included in its permanent collection.

What is surprising is that while Mary Quant and Terence Conran are revered as style leaders of 20th-century Britain, neither can match the impact of William Lyons’ four decades at the forefront of British automotive design.

He never courted publicity for himself. He didn’t need to. His cars did all the talking.

High Performance – When Britain Ruled the Roads by Peter Grimsdale is published by Simon & Schuster, £9.99

What next?

By Jeremy Taylor

By Jeremy Taylor Jaguar has survived an endless saga of economic upheaval, bankruptcy and takeovers to remain a quintessential British brand. Jaguar still retains sought-after royal warrants from The Queen and Prince Charles.

Recently, the all-electric I-Pace became the first serious rival to Tesla – a pricey, battery-powered SUV that signposted Jaguar’s future. But even under the wing of Tata Motors, the firm has been battered by the pandemic.

The next five years will be critical. Smaller, less expensive models have boosted sales but taken away the luxury cachet. Not even the sporty, two-seater F-type has boosted the brand’s desirability.

Jaguar is staking its future on a fully electric range of models by 2025, well ahead of the UK ban on new, combustion engine cars in 2030. Enthusiasts will have fingers crossed the Big Cat can roar again – even if it’s silently powered by electricity.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.