100 Years of Jaguar: Our Favourite Things
Updated: Apr 9
In 2022 Jaguar is 100. It’s come close to disaster many times - including quite recently - but somehow survived and thrived.
The firm was set up in 1922 by Sir William Lyons as the Swallow Sidecar Company of Blackpool. When it moved into building car bodies it was abbreviated to SS. By 1945, perhaps due to the negative wartime associations of those initials, Lyons adroitly renamed again, this time adopting the name of one of its most popular cars, the Jaguar.
The firm moved to Coventry in 1928, which became its base until the turn of the new century. The immediate post war years were the firm’s purple patch - a string of brilliant cars like the XK models, Mk2, E Type and XJ saloon made the firm a success on track and in showrooms.
Jaguar has had several owners over the years, first with British Leyland in 1966, then Ford and Tata. It was briefly independent again in the 1980s
Here are favourite Jaguar-themed things from the firm’s first 100 years.
Sir William Lyons
A car boss who is equally at home planning factories as appraising car design is a rarity. Yet that was Sir William Lyons' gift. His singular control of virtually every aspect of the Jaguar business mean that throughout the firm's Post War 'sweet spot' until the mid 1960s, it didn't put a foot wrong.
In that time the firm produced icon after icon - XK, Mk2, E Type and XJ, all cars that were at the absolute pinnacle of motoring perfection for their times.
Lyons remained the boss under British Leyland, but he was no longer the autocrat that made those brilliant cars what they were. So perhaps it is telling that in his last decade Jaguar produced just one new car - the XJS - and its reputation deteriorated due to quality issues.
Over 50 years on from its launch it is perhaps hard to grasp just what a step forward the Jaguar XJ was when it was launched in 1968. Here was a posh saloon car that looked a bit like a four door E Type - in fact, that's exactly what it started out as - and offered a quality of ride that put virtually every other car on the road to shame. Then Jaguar dropped a smooth V12 under the bonnet. Perfection.
Just how good that original design was is demonstrated by how long it stayed in production. The final versions rolled off the line in 1992, 24 years after it was launched.
The XJ's style also proved long lasting. It influenced the design of Jaguars well into the new Millennium and, for some, remains the epitome of what a Jaguar 'should' look like. Of course, continuing to plough the heritage track eventually forced Jaguar into a design cul de sac, but the XJ's svelte lines can be - just about - still sensed in some of the company's current models.
Good To Be Bad
Even in the days of the Swallow Sidecar company, Jaguar had a reputation for louche, debonair style. Perhaps because for most of the firm's life Jaguars have always offered a champagne lifestyle for beer money, particularly when second hand, the marque's image has always had a bit of an edge to it. Back in the day if you wanted pace for the getaway, space for your nefarious colleagues and a bootful of swag, there was no more graceful way to outrun the rozzers than in a Jaguar saloon.
Thanks to a well-earned reputation for variable quality, old Jags have always been cheap. Which has put them in reach of sheepskin-coated chaps who aspire to the leather and wood-trimmed lifestyle but perhaps lack the budget to fully indulge it. The epitome of this was Arthur Daley, who tried to run rings around less wiley Londoners behind the wheel of a Jaguar. Well, actually a Daimler, but that's just splitting hairs really.
Jaguar played up to this image in the new Millennium with the 'Good to be Bad' advertising campaign. Clever though this seemed to be, of course it logically led back to Arthur Daley. Which may explain why Jaguar quietly dropped the idea for future campaigns.
The E Type
Jaguar and the E Type go together like two peas in a very stylishly shaped pod. Yet it's a car that shouldn't really have ever become a car. We tell the E Type's story fully elsewhere but the brief version is that it was conceived as a Le Mans winner rather than a road car. A catastrophic accident at Le Mans, followed by an equally devastating factory fire, put paid to that plan. Jaguar realised instead that it could sell cars without going to Le Mans so reworked the car for the showroom. The coupe, which is often considered to be the more elegant of the original body styles, was a hasty after thought.
For a car with a jumbled, cobbled together back story, the E Type's success and lasting appeal are remarkable. What a pity thought that Jaguar fumbled plans for its replacement. But perhaps we're better off without that difficult second album.
Sir John Egan
By the late 70s Jaguar was on its knees. Years of under-investment meant aging products and a reputation for unreliability.
Enter Sir John Egan. He is single-handedly responsible for Jaguar existing today. When he took the firm over he quickly realised it needed to improve quality to survive. He also recognised it needed new products.
Quality was significantly improved - although still well below German-esque levels - but it was his solution to the product problem that illustrates his genius.
With no money to launch new products quickly he opted to breathe fresh life into the ones he did have. The ailing XJS, sales of which were down to a pitiful dribble, got a visual refresh and a more economical V12. In time there would be new engines and body types.
The creaky old XJ also got a makeover, a clever redesign by Pininfarina that to many eyes looked better than the original.
Sales of both cars, particularly the XJS, boomed. Which helped both cars remain in production well beyond anything Egan could have anticipated: XJS until 1996 and the XJ until 1992.
Jaguar went on to launch brand new models like the XJ40 and was eventually sold to Ford at the end of the 80s for £1 billion.
The idea of a twelve cylinder engine guzzling petrol at under 20 mpg feels a very long way from Now. But lets celebrate arguably one of the greatest combustion engines of the last 60 years, a bold, brilliant idea that Jaguar somehow actually managed to pull off.
Jaguar originally intended to complement its straight six XK engine with a new V8 to suit the important US market. Unable to get its V8 to run sufficiently smoothly and convinced that more cylinders would give the firm a competitive edge, Jaguar took the audacious gamble to develop and launch a mass produced V12 engine .
The V12 was everything it was claimed to be - sewing machine smooth and effortlessly powerful. The only downside is that it killed the planned E Type replacement. To get it to production, Jaguar wanted to test it in the relatively low volume E Type first. The firm didn't have the money to do that and replace the E Type.
Sir William Lyons knew a thing or two about showroom surprise and delight. And his cars virtually dripped it. Once the would-be buyer had got over the gorgeous exterior lines he was wowed again by Jaguar's interiors.
Take the example of the Mk2 interior above. In 1959, when the car was launched, saloon cars typically had interiors that looked suspiciously as if someone at the factory had thrown a bag of dials and fittings into the car and hoped a few of them stuck. Form followed, sulkily dragging its heels, behind function.
Not so Jaguar. As you can see, Lyons put form and function side by side. There may be a forest's worth of wood on display but everything is logical and clear, from the minor switches to the major dials. Jaguars were not cheap cars, but they oozed a level of luxury borrowed from even more expensive cars.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733