2 December 2010

World of Jaguar

(To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the  Winter 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.)

When it comes to the art of the sports car, the lithe machines from Coventry showed the way to the world.

Some car companies are so product oriented that their wonderful machines barely make a profit. Others concentrate so hard on the bottom line that their dull cars fade away from lack of customer interest. The fabric of Jaguar is woven of many threads – design, engineering, the blissful curves of its styling and highly accurate pricing. The combination has attracted and held loyal enthusiasts for more than 75 years.

Like many great marques in history, Jaguar reflects the passion and drive of one man – Sir William Lyons, who had a vision to go into business long before he was 21. He first produced motorcycle sidecars, teaming with William Walmsley in the English seaside city of Blackpool in 1922.

After a move to Coventry, center of the British car industry, car body production began to surpass sidecars. Lyons, always ambitious to build a car of his own design, negotiated with the Standard Motor Company to provide him with chassis and mechanical components, and in 1931, launched the rakish SS1, a two-door coupe.

More SS models were quickly added, the company name was changed to SS Cars Ltd., and Walmsley – not as enthusiastic about expansion – left the firm. Looking for ways to make a greater impact with both performance and name recognition, Lyons chose “Jaguar” as his product name. In 1935, he announced the SS Jaguar 100 sports car. The SS 100 would “do the ton” (100 mph) and cost just £310. At the London Motor Show, journalists had estimated the price to be £1,000! Only 309 were built in four years, but most still exist today.

By the start of World War II in 1939, SS Cars offered three all-steel-bodied sedans as well as the SS 100. The Lyons formula of style, equipment and performance at a reasonable price was attracting more and more buyers. During the dark days of the war, Lyons and his staff made plans for the company’s future. The foremost development was the XK engine, a brand-new twin-overhead-cam 3.4-liter unit that would power Jaguar into world markets


The company name was changed to Jaguar Cars Ltd. in March 1945. Production resumed, building pre-war sedans with a few trim changes. The first left-hand-drive cars came off the assembly line and exports grew to 25 percent of sales.

At the London Motor Show of October 1948, the cars on display replicated 1939 – until you reached the Jaguar stand. There stood the magnificent XK 120 sports car, named for both its new engine and top speed. Lyons had anticipated using the hand-built, aluminum

XK 120 as a low-production showroom tool to help sell bread-and-butter sedans, but seeing a flood of orders, he immediately ordered tooling for steel bodies and revised the production forecast from hundreds to thousands. The company logo was now a sleek, chrome-plated jaguar caught in mid-leap. Matching the emblem, the XK 120 in one leap established Jaguar as a style and performance leader.

The XK 120 shown in 1948 was a roadster with traditional side-curtains but the upholstery was fine leather, the dash held a full set of instruments, and under the bonnet was amazing horsepower. The company soon brought out a coupe version that lost nothing of the roadster’s smart styling but added a beautifully shaped steel roof, taller doors and roll-up windows. Walnut veneer on the dashboard and door cappings added to the luxury atmosphere. Luxury-minded buyers could also choose a “drophead coupe” that had the same amenities under a padded convertible top.

Press and public focus was on the XK 120 but sedans generated the most profit. The traditional-looking Mk V came out in 1949, with torsion-bar front suspension and hydraulic brakes, but with pre-war power. It was succeeded in 1951 by the Mk VII, a modern, five-passenger, four-door with the XK engine and interior finish worthy of a Rolls. The basic sedan design continued through Mk VIII and IX. The XK 140 followed in 1954, followed by the XK 150, which – along with the Mk IX – was equipped with disc brakes.

Lyons became Sir William in 1956, recognized by Queen Elizabeth for his company’s export success. The accolade was well deserved, especially considering that Jaguar had recently created a new market segment, the compact sports sedan. First sold in 1955 as the 2.4, the model’s performance was soon upped with a 3.4. Restyled and introduced in 1959 as the Mk 2, available with a 3.8-liter engine, it was another confirmed forward leap for Jaguar.

Roomy enough for a family, with a top speed of 125 mph, the Mk 2 could show its taillights to most cars on the road. Perfect for fast commuting, it became known as the “Executive Express.” The sports car suspension and disc brakes made for excellent handling and the monocoque body with traditional Jaguar leather, walnut veneer and carpet kept the interior quiet and comfortable, even at three-digit speeds. A selection of striking colors, automatic transmission and even air conditioning were available.


Pre-war Jaguars had some success in rallying and minor races, but it was the XK engine that powered the company to the podium. When the XK 120 won its first-ever race, a competitions department was formed to build a racing version. The XK 120-C (C-Type) was victorious at Le Mans in 1951 and ’53. Its successor, the D-Type, won the 24-hour race three years in a row: 1955, ’56 and ’57. The company then retired from official competition until the 1970s. From 1975 through 1990, the 12-cylinder E-Type, XJS and IMSA Camel GT prototypes won a string of events, including Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

The Mk 2 was a leap forward, but the Jaguar E-Type was a vault into the future. Launched at the Geneva show in March 1961, the new roadster and coupe were as far out of the box as the XK 120 had been in 1948, and still look contemporary 50 years later. The rigid monocoque structure, the smooth lines, the all-independent suspension and the hottest version yet of the unique XK six gave the car 150-mph potential with excellent drivability and comfort. Everything about it said speed, from the row of instruments and switches marching across the dash to the knock-off wire wheels. It was not a racing car, but few customers drove it home without dreaming of a waving checkered flag.

Naturally the roadster was the most desirable and sold the most, but Sir William’s eye for the proper lines of a car found its best expression in the coupe with its unbroken roofline arching back from the windshield and down to a curved finish behind the rear bumper. Of all Jaguars, the E-Type has retained its value best and has the largest number of enthusiasts. The 1961–66 Series 1 is most desirable.


E-Type production ended in 1974 with the demise of the V-12 powered Series III. Jaguar’s next sporting model was the XJS, a 2+2 GT car with the V-12. But most significant was the Jaguar XJ6, an all-new sedan announced in 1968 and named Car of the Year in Europe. It was created to simplify the product line while still appealing to a broad market segment. Over the period from 1979 to 1987, when Jaguar had to be extricated from the collapse of its corporate parent, British Leyland Motors (BL), the XJ6 was the car that saved the company.

BL, an unwieldy conglomerate, had too many factories, too many unions, weak management and mostly uncompetitive products. Fortunately, by 1984, Jaguar, under new CEO John Egan, had a resurgence in XJ6 sales and, backed by the British government, bought itself out of BL and became a separate corporation, traded on the London Stock Exchange. The cat had leaped again and landed firmly on its feet!

Jaguar pushed ahead, spending heavily on development of the “New XJ6,” a 3.6-liter sedan, all new from wheels to windows. Forever known by its factory code name “XJ40,” it came out in the fall of 1986 in a declining market and was beset with costly warranty problems. By 1989, financially stretched, Jaguar needed help and was purchased by Ford. Ford’s own financial troubles in 2008 made it necessary to sell Jaguar and Land Rover to Tata Motors of India. When the 2011 XJ went on sale, press reviews proclaimed it eclipsed all of its competitors in style and performance. It appears Jaguar has leaped again and is poised to land on the path to a promising future.

Jaguar has always focused on product. And founder William Lyons was always very financially aware. But when asked what makes a Jaguar collectible, Sir William said, “The car is the closest thing we make to something that is alive.” His “recipe” of style, finish and performance is a start, but there is more to making a Jaguar lifelike, something almost indefinable.

Walter Hill, for many years one of the premier Jaguar collectors in the United States, defined it thus: “Their sweet lines all but take my breath away, and I desire them as much for their beauty as for their use.” The words came from a man who ran Jaguars in vintage races and exercised his collection on a private test track, but, in truth, they could have been uttered by virtually any Jaguar enthusiast.

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