Legendary British marque, Jaguar, is known around the world for blending sportiness with luxury and style in a unique manner. From the motorsport triumphs and the iconic E-Type of the past, to the technological advancement of the all-electric I-Pace today, the “leaping cat” continues to offer driving pleasure in a compelling package. Let’s discover the brand’s exciting history and learn more about the people and the models that shaped its identity.
The story begins in the early 1920s in Blackpool, England. William Walmsley was building motorcycle sidecars when he met his young neighbour – and fellow motorcycle enthusiast – William Lyons. With their shared passion for motorcycles, it was logical step for the pair to go into business together. In 1922, shortly after Lyons’ 21st birthday, they founded the Swallow Sidecar Company, selling Walmsley’s hand-built designs which were distinguished by their beautiful streamlined shape.
Business boomed, and the company expanded, adding car body repairs alongside their sidecar business, before expanding into building car bodies (and changing its name to Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company) which were bolted onto the chassis of existing models like the Austin Seven (1927) and later, the Fiat Tipo 509A (1929).
In 1927, now firmly established as a coachbuilder, the company dropped ‘Sidecar’ from its name to become simply Swallow Coachbuilding Company and the following year, with business prospering, and needing to be closer to England’s automotive hub, the company moved to larger premises in Coventry.
In 1931, Swallow launched two new models, the SS I and SS II, built on a chassis made by The Standard Motor Company, with competitive pricing, despite their premium styling.
In 1934, co-founder Walmsley left the company, leaving Lyons at the helm. He renamed it S.S. Cars (Standard Swallow) and created an engineering department, hiring a talented young engineer, William Heynes, to oversee the development of new models.
The first car bearing the Jaguar name launched in 1935, the SS Jaguar 2.5 litre Saloon, reflecting the model’s combination of elegant design, power and agility. Alongside the saloon, a two-seater roadster SS Jaguar 100 launched in 1936, with an advertised top speed of 100mph (161km/h). This car was also the first to carry what would become an iconic automotive symbol, the ‘leaping jaguar’ hood ornament.
In 1945, after the difficult years of World War II, and with the SS initials forever tainted by the notorious Nazis, Lyons renamed the company to Jaguar Cars Limited. Production of pre-war models restarted but the engineering department was already working on a groundbreaking design that would change the course of Jaguar’s history.
Introduced in 1948, and developed by chief engineer William Heynes and ex-Bentley engineer Walter Hassan, the legendary XK6 engine was a straight-six, dual overhead cam unit that would power Jaguar cars both on the road and the racetrack until 1992.
At the 1948 London motor show, Jaguar presented two cars – a production model and a very interesting prototype. The Mark V, was a luxury four door with premium design that, despite using existing running gear sourced from the Standard company, featured a number of significant improvements over the pre-war models. It was also the first Jaguar with independent front suspension and hydraulic brakes.
The second model, initially developed as a testbed for the brand new XK6 engine, was the sports car prototype XK120, which caused a stir with its beautiful aluminium body styled by founder William Lyons, and its impressive performance figures. Thanks to the 3.4-litre engine, producing 119kW, the XK120 was the fastest production car in the world at the time, with a top speed of 120mph (193km/h).
People were sceptical of the roadster’s capabilities at first, but after a standard car clocked 126mph (203km/h) during testing, that scepticism died away. The performance of this beautiful piece of design and engineering prompted its racing debut in the One Hour Production Car race at Silverstone in 1949, where it finished first and second, marking the first of many victories for the brand around the world.
Back to the premium sedans, the Jaguar Mark VII launched in 1950, based on the Mark V chassis, but featuring a more streamlined design and with the XK6 3.4-litre engine now producing 120kW (160hp). That bump in power was good for a top speed of over 100mph (160km/h).
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In 1952, following a flippant remark from Jaguar test driver Leslie Johnson, who had recently completed a one-hour test averaging an astonishing 212km/h (“the car felt so good it could have gone on for another week”) Jaguar unveiled the XK120 Fixed Head Coupe. Johnson, along with Stirling Moss, Bert Hadley and Jack Fairman, drove the XK120 FHC non-stop for seven days and seven nights, covering a total of 16,851.73 miles (27,120.23 km) at an average speed of 100.31mph (161.43km/h), breaking numerous records along the way.
In 1951, Jaguar was relocated to Daimler’s Browns Lane plant in Coventry, where the larger space allowed greater production numbers so the growing company could meet demand and gradually expand to more markets.
The success of the XK120 in racing prompted the development of the C-Type race car, using the production car’s running gear. The aluminium body was designed by aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer who joined Jaguar with a background in the aircraft industry, while the lightweight tubular frame was developed by highly skilled engineers Bob Knight and William Heynes.
The C-Type won on its debut at the 1951 Le Mans 24 Hour, and after suffering from overheating in 1952, an updated version with 164kW (220hp) engine and disc brakes on all four wheels finished first, second, fourth and ninth at the 1953 Le Mans race.
While the C-Type was winning races, the talented team of Heynes, Knight and Sayer, worked hard for 18 months developing its successor. The new D-Type featured a revolutionary monocoque chassis inspired by aircraft design, an updated dry-sump XK6 engine producing 182kW (245hp) and a low-drag body distinguished by stunning curves and a vertical tail fin.
At the 1954 Le Mans, the D-Type was faster than the rival V12-powered Ferrari 375 Plus, even though it was considerably less powerful. After a very close battle, the D-Type finished second, suffering from fuel filter problems (allegedly due to contaminated fuel), with a privately raced C-Type finishing fourth.
The first Le Mans victory for the improved D-Type came the following year with drivers Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb, but it was inevitably overshadowed by an horrific accident that killed 84 spectators, sparking rival Mercedes to withdraw from all motorsport.
In 1956, a privately owned D-Type took the overall victory against the likes of Ferrari and Aston Martin however the most memorable moment in Jaguar’s racing history would take place at the 1957 Le Mans 24 Hour, where privateer D-Types finished in first, second, third, fourth and sixth, dominating the race.
Having announced its temporary retirement from racing (as a factory team) at the end of 1956, Jaguar converted the remaining D-Type race cars to road-going specification.
The XKSS was very closely related to its racing sister, but featured a full-size windscreen, side screens, a folding fabric roof, and chromed bumpers, while the vertical fin was removed. A limited production run of 25 units was scheduled, but a catastrophic fire in February 1957, destroyed almost a third of the Browns Lane factory together with scores of cars including nine examples of the rare XKSS.
During the 1950s, Jaguar’s premium sedans also enjoyed quite a success in racing. The Mark VII won the Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone five years in a row (1952-1956) with driving legends like Moss and Mike Hawthorn behind the wheel, while the updated Mark VII M sedan with 142kW (190hp) engine, won the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally.
All those victories brought a lot of attention to the small British manufacturer, resulting in increased orders. Jaguar kept improving its model range with the more comfortable and more powerful XK140 (1954) and XK150 (1957) sports cars in both roadster and coupe body styles, as well as the more luxurious Mark VIII (1956) and Mark IX (1959) sedans, which retained very competitive pricing while benefiting from the upgraded versions of the venerable XK6 engine.
A big breakthrough in the company’s sales figures, came with the introduction of the compact sports sedan widely known as the Mark 2 in 1959.
The model was an improved version of the 2.4-litre (Mark 1) launched in 1955, and featured a rigid and light unibody construction, sub-frame mounted independent front suspension, disc brakes, and a range of straight-six engines (2.4-, 3.4- and 3.8-litre), all of which provided exceptional performance and handling, previously unknown to the sedan market.
At the same time, the stylish exterior combined with the roomy cabin featuring premium materials and enlarged windows, contributed to the ideal implementation of the ‘Grace, Space, Pace’ slogan introduced by Sir William Lyons in the 1950s.
The fastest version of the Mark 2 was equipped with the 3.8-litre engine producing 164kW (220hp) of power, allowing a 0-97km/h acceleration of 8.5 seconds and a top speed of 125mph (201km/h).
With those specifications, there weren’t a lot of cars in the 1960s that could keep up with a Mark 2, making it the perfect choice for bank robbers, racing drivers, celebrities and the police. From 1959 until 1967, more than 90,000 examples of the Mark 2 left the factory in a number of different versions, making it very hard for Jaguar to find a successor.
In 1960, Jaguar acquired the luxury automaker Daimler from the BSA Group. Since then, new Daimlers were based on Jaguar models and eventually the historic nameplate became a premium trim level for Jaguar’s flagship sedans.
At the 1961 Geneva Motor Show, the world would witness the unveiling of an engineering piece of art. The Jaguar E-Type caused a sensation with its stunning design combined with amazing performance figures.
Inspired by the racing success of the D-Type, the new sports car featured an aerodynamic body designed by Sayer who managed to create a fluid shape considered by many as the most beautiful car of all time (including Enzo Ferrari himself).
At the same time, Jaguar’s engineering dream team developed an advanced monocoque chassis with independent front and rear suspension mounted on the subframes, designed by Knight.
Under the long and elegant bonnet, the 3.8-litre XK6 engine (later with increased displacement of 4.2-litres) produced 197kW (265hp), allowing a 0-97km/h acceleration in just 6.9 seconds and a top speed of 150mph (241km/h) which made it the fastest production car in the world.
The E-Type not only was the sexier, fastest and most advanced sports car of its time, but it also was great value, costing less than half the price of its closest rivals from Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin. Initially, the car was available as a coupe and roadster, with a more practical 2+2 version added to the range in 1966.
As you would expect, the E-Type, also known as XKE in the US, became an instant hit and the most desirable car of the 1960s. From 1961 until 1974, Jaguar continuously evolved its halo car which sold more than 72,000 units in total.
The most notable upgrades to the E-Type were introduced in 1968 with the Series 2 featuring various styling changes in order to comply with the US legislation, and in 1971, the Series 3 fitted was with a brand new V12 5.3-litre engine producing 203kW (272hp). Although all cars were visually appealing and retained the unmistakable proportions, the original Series 1 remains the most sought after classic because of its purity.
During the production run of the E-Type, Jaguar also created a handful of racing-inspired versions, like the unique 1962 Low Drag Coupe and 12 examples of the 1963 Lightweight E-Type with aluminium body and an uprated 220kW (300hp) engine. Some of these Lightweight cars were later converted to Low Drag Coupes and competed in various racing events.
Jaguar didn’t neglect the luxury sedan segment in the 1960s, despite its reputation for building sports cars. The company launched the all new Mark X in 1961, which introduced unibody design and the revolutionary independent rear suspension to the flagship range.
Its quad headlight design with the forward leaning nose would become a signature for Jaguar sedans while the imposing dimensions, comfortable ride and premium wood interior finish were aimed at the US market.
Despite its size, it could reach a top speed of 120mph (193km/h) thanks to the E-Type’s 3.8-litre engine and all that at half the price of a Rolls Royce. Although being a great car overall, the Mark X didn’t quite meet the sales targets while the slightly updated 420G that followed in 1966 was a commercial failure.
The Jaguar S-Type, launched in 1963, was a technical evolution of the Mark 2 incorporating the independent rear suspension from the Mark X and boasting a longer tail, higher roofline and a more spacious interior. While technically superior to the Mark 2 it was intended to replace, sales of the S-Type didn’t take off, mainly because of the questionable styling.
By 1966, sales of sedans were slow and the new flagship model was still in its early stages of development. Sir William Lyons desperately needed a temporary solution to boost profits.
At the 1966 London Motor Show, a fourth sedan was added to Jaguar’s range. The 420 was heavily based on the S-Type but it received the larger 4.2-litre engine and featured a more appealing front end design incorporating elements from the Mark X.
Essentially a facelift of the S-Type, the 420 sold well in the US, and was also offered as the Daimler Sovereign with a V8 engine.
In the mid-1960s, a small team inside Jaguar was secretly working on a racing prototype that could possibly mark the company’s return to Le Mans.
Heynes, Claude Bailey and Wally Hassan developed a new V12 5.0-litre engine and Sayer used his complex mathematical calculations to design an aerodynamic body that was built with the help of Bob Blake. Engineer Mike Kimberley, who later had a distinguished career at Lotus, was responsible for the development of the car, while David Hobbs was the main test driver.
As a result, the mid-engined XJ13 prototype (above) was completed in 1966, but a change in regulations combined with a much needed focus on production cars led to the cancellation of the project that couldn’t match the performance of the brand new Ford GT40.
The stunning XJ13 cited by many as “the greatest Jaguar that never was”, did not participate in racing events and only one prototype was built. Unfortunately the car was heavily damaged in a crash in 1973, when filming a promo for the Series 3 E-Type. Years later, the XJ13 was rebuilt close to original specification and is now on display at the British Motor Museum.
In 1966, Jaguar merged with the British Motor Corporation (BMC) which had recently acquired Pressed Steel, the sole car body manufacturer for all Jaguar models. The company grew larger with the addition of Leyland Motors in 1968, and was renamed British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC).
By 1968, the development of the much awaited flagship sedan was completed and founder Sir William Lyons was ready to present what he described as his personal favourite and the epitome of his work.
Launched at the 1968 Paris Motor Show, the XJ6 was the greatest car ever produced by Jaguar, with balanced proportions, unmistakable styling, luxury interior and extraordinary levels of ride comfort combined with solid performance and great handling capabilities.
The model was initially offered with 2.8-litre and 4.2-litre versions of the XK engine, featuring power steering, automatic gearbox and the latest development of the four-wheel independent suspension created by the genius of Knight.
With the XJ6, Jaguar rationalised its sedan model range as it gradually replaced both the S-Type and the 420 models, although the latter served as the flagship sedan after 1970 when the unsuccessful 420G went out of production.
In 1972, the XJ12 became the fastest sedan in the world with a top speed of 140mph (225km/h), thanks to the new 5.3-litre V12 engine with 198kW (265hp) of power. Further, the introduction of a long wheelbase option added more space for the rear passengers in the XJ range.
The updated XJ Series 2 range premiered at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show, introducing a stunning two-door coupe variant with frameless windows which went on sale two years later. Jaguar also standardised the long-wheelbase for the four door saloon.
Finally, the last major update for the XJ was the Pininfarina-styled Series 3, launched in 1979, with modernised equipment, new bumpers, redesigned windows and a higher roofline increasing headroom.
The first generation of the XJ flagship stayed in production from 1968 until 1992, with cumulative sales of 318,000 units, helping Jaguar survive through its most difficult times. Today, the original XJ remains the greatest implementation of the ‘Grace, Space, Pace’ slogan, defining the brand more than any other car (ED: I reckon the E-Type may have a rightful claim to that stake).
Coinciding with the launch of the most refined model in its history and the brand new V12 engine, the late 1960s and early ’70s was a tough era for Jaguar, with a number of high ranking executives, designers and engineers confirming their retirement.
First, William Heynes, Chief Engineer and Vice Chairman, who was responsible for the development of all Jaguar models and legendary engines, retired in 1969, with his long time friend and colleague Bob Knight taking over his responsibilities.
Then, in 1970 came the premature death of Sayer, aged just 53, leaving behind an incredible legacy with his unique approach to aerodynamics.
Finally, in 1972, founder Sir William Lyons announced his retirement, after a thriving career of 50 years at the forefront of automotive history as the head of Jaguar, not only from a businessman’s perspective but also as a stylist, shaping many of the iconic Jaguar models.
Engineer Frank ‘Lofty’ England, manager of Jaguar’s racing team during the triumphs of the 1950s, and a high-ranked Jaguar executive ever since, was appointed as the new chairman and CEO of the company, keeping his position for only two years before retiring in 1974 due to tensions with British Leyland executives.
In 1975, Jaguar’s parent company, British Leyland, collapsed due to poor management and was nationalised by the British Government. In the following years, Jaguar struggled to find the necessary capital for the development of new models and suffered from poor quality control and long waiting lists for deliveries.
Read more: The Story of Jaguar – Part 2
By the mid-1970s, it was a priority for Jaguar to replace the ageing E-Type which went out of production in 1974. The development of its successor had started as early as 1966, with Sayer designing the first prototypes before his sudden death and Heynes heading the development before his retirement.
Rather than a sports car, the goal was to build a refined and yet comparably affordable 2+2 grand tourer, so a shortened version of the XJ chassis was chosen to underpin the new model. Design work was completed by Doug Thorpe and the all new XJ-S was unveiled at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show.
For the first time in Jaguar’s history, the unveiling of a new model was followed by a lukewarm response from the public and the press. The design of the XJ-S was a radical departure from the E-Type’s curves, although the new car was more aerodynamic and far more technologically advanced than its predecessor.
The most controversial design element was the flying buttresses at the rear, which might have looked weird but they did a great job improving aerodynamics and high speed stability while adding structural strength.
Under the bonnet, the smooth-running V12 5.3-litre engine produced 212kW (285hp) helping the car achieve a top speed of 150mph (241km/h) but in the wake of the fuel crisis, timing for the unveiling of the new model was far from ideal. The motoring press praised the grand tourer’s qualities but initial sales were slow, raising concerns about its future.
In 1975, The US based Group 44 racing team won the Sport Car Club of America (SCCA) B-Class championship with a modified E-Type Series III driven by Bob Tullius, even though the production model was already phased out by then. In the following years, the team kept racing with modified XJ-S cars in the SCCA Trans-Am series, with Tullius winning the driver’s championship in 1977 and Jaguar winning the manufacturer’s title in 1978.
In 1980, Sir Michael Edwardes, CEO of British Leyland, unhappy with Knight’s performance as the Managing Director, forced Knight’s retirement, appointing British industrialist Sir John Egan as the new chairman and CEO of Jaguar.
After long troubling years, this man would lead Jaguar into a new era, thanks to an ambitious restructuring program that included laying off a large number of employees, raising vehicle prices and vastly improving the brand’s quality control, and quadrupling productivity, areas that had been neglected during the past decade.
Under Egan’s leadership, the troubling company would return to prosperity, turning loss into profit and eventually leading to privatisation in 1984, a move embraced by the Thatcher government.
Stay tuned for the second part of the exciting story of Jaguar, characterised by a lot of controversial models but also some great cars that brought the British marque to the unprecedented growth of today.
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