Friday 3rd March 1972
Sir William Lyons, founder of Jaguar Motors, retired as Chairman of Jaguar Cars Ltd. He ruled Jaguar with an iron fist and an iron will. Even when Jaguar was later absorbed by the larger British Motor Corporation, Sir William made it clear that in matters concerning Jaguar, he was the ultimate authority. But, oh, did he make beautiful automobiles! William Lyons was born in Blackpool, England in 1901, the son of a music shop owner.
As a young man, Lyons was fascinated by motorcycles and owned several. Across the street from Lyons lived William Walmsley, who owned a company called Swallow that made motorcycle sidecars. Lyons was particularly impressed with the Swallows, as they had a unique octagonal dirigible look to them, and bought one for himself. In 1922 at the age of 21, Lyons joined Walmsley as a partner in the business. With Lyons’ keen business sense, the business grew rapidly and expanded into coach building. Using an Austin chassis and engine, the two boys from Blackpool created a stunning two-seat automobile. The new two-toned Swallow car was an immediate hit, and a four door sedan, or saloon, soon followed. Growth was inevitable, and Lyons soon increased production from 12 cars a week to 50.
But Bill Lyons’ dream was not just to re-body existing cars, but to design and build his own cars from the ground up. He began to hire top-notch engineers to help him achieve his dream. The first products of this new philosophy were the S.S. 1 and 2 automobiles in 1931 and 1932. Whether the “S.S.” designation stood for Standard Swallow of Swallow Special is lost to history. Always seeking better performance, Lyons instructed his engineers to begin designing a more powerful engine for a new line of cars called S.S. Jaguars.
At this time in the company’s growth – the mid 1930s — William Walmsley was content to sit back and enjoy the profits that were rolling in. Lyons, on the other hand, kept pushing his company to create new, more powerful, more beautiful products. This difference in philosophy caused Walmsley to leave the company, leaving Bill Lyons fully in charge. Following the war, the company name was changed to Jaguar Cars, Ltd., since the S.S. name now carried negative connotations. Lyons had desired to create a car capable of going 100 miles per hour, and set his engineers to work on a new engine powerful enough. The engine, first used in the large Mark IV sedan, was unable to take the heavy vehicle to 100 mph. Lyons then installed in the engine in the groundbreaking Jaguar XK. he car-engine combination enabled the XK sports car to not only exceed 100 mph, but was able to achieve 120 mph. The car debuted in 1948 at the London Motor Show and caught the attention of motoring enthusiasts not only in England, but America as well.
Over the succeeding decade, the XK 120 was followed by the XK 140 and the XK 150, cars capable of going 140 mph and 150 mph respectively. In the early 1950s, Lyons entered the XK sports cars in racing events. Fueled by early success on the track, the company developed the C-type and D-type racecars, which not only achieved racing success at LeMans and other venues, their feline-like shapes would define the new Jaguar look. The first passenger car to adopt this new look was the Jaguar E-type coupe, considered one of the greatest automobile designs of all time.In 1956, Queen Elizabeth granted Lyons knighthood, and from that point forward he was known as Sir William. The string of successful products and a growing legion of Jaguar customers defined the fifties and early sixties. In 1966, however, Sir William felt that in order for Jaguar to continue its growth, it should merge with the larger British Motor Corporation. It was a decision that Lyons would later regret.
British Motor was subsequently taken over by British Leyland. During the mergers, Lyons was kept on as a consultant and advisor, but in his mind, Jaguar was always his and he was in charge. With retirement nearing, Sir William had one more car in him, and in 1968, he debuted the Jaguar XJ6, his last masterpiece. Sir William Lyons retired in 1972, but even in retirement, he would frequently visit the Jaguar factory, offering his advice to eager listeners. In 1985, Lyons died, leaving behind a company and a string of products reflecting his grand vision.