Classic Car Weekly - 2nd July 2003 Jaguar Racing History - Richard Gunn
Jaguar’s sporting traditions started with the pre-war SS100, the car that concreted the foundations of one of Britain's premier marques, and pointed the way to its post-war future.
Try to think of all the cars that have played a major role in the history of Jaguar. The list is both long and illustrious. There's the XK120 of course, the elegant and fast sports car that stunned a world still in the grip of wartime austerity in 1948. The E-type would, of course, have to figure prominently as probably the most beautiful car ever made, and certainly one of the most significant. Then there's the Mk 2, regarded by many as the ultimate sporting saloon, a car that, alongside the E-type, helped define the decade of the Sixties. Or how about the XJ6, a design so 'right' that it still lives on 35 years after its introduction, tweaked for modernity, but still looking fresh and refined? Bringing things bang up to date, you could choose the current XK8 and XKR, which reminded the world of Jaguar’s rich sporting heritage, and more importantly, signalled that it was still capable of building a great-looking sports car to take on the best of the rest of the world.
All of these are milestones in the story of Jaguar. Yet arguably, all of these cars owe their existence to a vehicle that appeared for a brief four years before the start of the World War Two. Although it was known as a Jaguar for marketing purposes, its actual designation would become something of an embarrassment to the firm that built it, after the war ended. There was nothing particularly revolutionary about it, other than its sheer good looks and highly competitive price. Yet it effectively began Jaguar's reputation as a manufacturer of sports cars par excellence, and paved the way for its post-war glories.
The car in question is the SS100, built from 1936 - 1941, and one of the most beautiful designs to emerge during the Thirties. Its styling was very continental, with overtones of Italian and German flair, but it cost a fraction of the price of such foreign contemporaries. And whereas the perception of Jaguar before the SS100 had been a firm that had spent most of its brief history building small cars based on the Austin chassis, once the 100 hit the scene, it became clear that Coventry marque was destined for greatness.
The firm that would go on to become Jaguar began in 1922, founded by the future Sir William Lyons, then known just as plain old Bill. His career in the industry that would dominate his life started when he began building motorcycle sidecars in Blackpool. He saw the potential of coachbuilding on a larger scale for cars though, and used his Swallow Sidecars company to start making different bodies on the Austin Seven chassis from 1927. These fledging Jaguars - known as Swallows - may have been diminutive, but their looks were nevertheless elegant and refined, echoing in many ways what others were doing on bigger vehicles, but displayed a very distinctive and individual panache. Lyons had arrived on the car scene, and things would never be the same again.
As Swallow Sidecars started to expand, so did the cars it worked on. Lyons branched out into bigger, more powerful chassis, and with more to work on, a particular look started to predominate. These larger Lyons creations exhibited a long bonnet, and a sleek low-slung look, culminating, in 1931, with the appearance of the rakish SS1.
The name change came about because Lyons’ firm was now less about building sidecars, far more about car construction. SS stood, depending on which version you believe, for Standard-Swallow, Swallow Standard, Standard Special or Swallow Special, and at that point in history, it had no other significant meanings. Adolf Hitler was another two years away from taking power in Germany, giving the acronym far more sinister connotations.
The car had expensive looks, but its price tag didn't match them. Lyons wasn't just good at creating lovely looking cars, he had the ability to build them cheaply too. The hardened businessman used his considerable negotiation skills to ensure that the SS cars were much cheaper than other coachbuilt machines with similar looks. It was a trend that would continue when the firm metamorphosed into the post-war Jaguar.
There were some grumbles from customers though. As good as the SS cars looked, they didn't always go that well, Lyons cutting costs by using standard engines that weren't always up to the task of giving sporting performance. The cars had six-cylinder motors, but power outputs of around the 50bhp mark were hardly enough to generate excitement.
Lyons’ response was to create an engineering department, so SS cars could start to develop its own mechanical parts. It was another seed sewn that would eventually spout into the Jaguar of the future. "It was obvious that if we were going to get anywhere, we must do something about the engines, but I did not know how we should do it."
Along with the engineering department came Harry Weslake, a freelance tuning engineer. Harry's opinion on the SS, delivered personally to Lyons, was blunt and to the point: "Your car reminds me of an overdressed lady with no brains - there's nothing under the bonnet." That lead to a blazing row between the two, which eventually ended over several pints in a nearby pub. The two became great friends, and Westlake came to work for Lyons.
Weslake set about improving the somewhat asthmatic sidevalve 2.6-litre engine that SS Cars was being supplied as standard. He managed to raise its output to more than Lyons had been hoping for. At last, there was potential for SS Cars to live up to their looks.
In 1935, the revised engine was installed in an open two-seater version of the SS1, dubbed the SS90 because of its ability to reach 90mph. It was based on two prototypes developed by William Walmsley, Lyons former partner, who’d left when the company started to grow too large. With its huge headlights, flowing wings and characteristic long bonnet, it looked every inch the true British sports machine, and its performance wasn’t far off that of its rivals. But its price was just £395, a minuscule amount compared to what some other manufacturers were asking for similar cars.
Only 23 would be built over one year, meaning that the SS90 was more of a prototype for what was to follow it, the car that would finally gel the SS formula in place, and set the course for Jaguar.
In June 1935, the SS90 of A G Douglas Clease, of Autocar magazine, came second in class at the Concours d’Elegance of the RAC rally. Although he didn’t score any points in the competitive section, the concours award was still a proud achievement. William Lyons drove the prize winner to the first SS Car Club annual gathering at Blackpool.
On the promenade, the boss of the company demonstrated just what his product was capable of, completing a half-mile obstacle course 6.6 seconds ahead of the nearest competitor. It was obvious to everyone watching that the SS90 was a machine with huge potential, especially with Lyons driving.
It was Weslake again who was able to unlock this potential. He’d been pushing for a change to an overhead-valve cylinder head, replacing the old sidevalve head with one of his own design that matched up to the Standard block. Sir John Black, of Standard, agreed to build the new 103bhp engine for SS, giving the company the chance to construct many more examples of cars powered by it than it had SS90’s.
The engine had 100mph capabilities and it was decided to make this obvious to the buying public by calling the car the SS100. That however, wasn’t the only new name that would appear on this new development of the SS90.
"I asked our publicity people to let me have a list of names of animals, fish and birds," recalled Lyons later. "I immediately pounced on ‘Jaguar’ for it had an exciting sound to me, and brought back some memories of the stories told to me towards the end of the 1914-1918 war, by an old school friend who, being nearly a year older than I, had joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was stationed at Farnborough and he used to tell me of his work as a mechanic on the Armstrong Siddeley ‘Jaguar’ engine. Since that time the word Jaguar has always had a particular significance to me, and so SS ‘Jaguar’ became the name by which our cars were known."
It was the birth of the Jaguar, and the birth of the company’s most significant vehicle to date. The SS Jaguar 100 was closely related to its bigger saloon relatives, but its glamorous looks - based on the SS90, but even more proportioned and svelte - meant it stole most of the glory. The twin pinnacles of Jaguar were established: on the one hand, aristocratic luxury saloons for the well-heeled, on the other, exhilarating and dramatic sports cars with superb performance.
The car was taken to collective hearts of racers, the media and the public alike. But, like the XK120 that would succeed it in post-war years, Lyons seemed happy to use the SS100 more as a publicity tool than a full-scale production vehicle. Its image reflected on SS Jaguar as a whole, and general sales went up as a result. Those clamouring for an SS100 usually had to settle for one of the SS saloons instead. There were a lot who wanted the sports car though. When you consider that the nearest rival to the SS100 - the BMW 328, imported by Frazer Nash - cost £445, while the Jaguar was priced well below it at £385, it’s hardly surprising that interest in it was strong. The SS100 wasn’t a sophisticated piece of engineering, but its gorgeous looks coupled with its cost meant it didn’t really have to be.
Just 190 of the original 2½-litre cars would be built before Lyons upped the stakes still further in 1938. A new engine, intended for the saloon range, also found its way into the SS100. Its capacity was 3485cc, which gave an extra 22bhp, and endowed it with more torque and power. It made the sporting Jaguar Britain’s cheapest 100mph car, and also put it up amongst the fastest cars on the road.
While SS officially stayed away from motor racing for fear that the 100 would be outclassed, others were keen to compete in the Jaguar. Although the car didn’t excel itself, it scored some notable successes, enough to enhance its already impressive image. Tommy Wisdom, a journalist, managed to complete the very tough Alpine Rally with no penalty points. Another car managed to win the Marne Grand Prix. And another - this time, a Jaguar development example - managed to lap Brooklands at 125mph.
Lyons came up instead with an alternative way of ensuring interest in the SS100 remained high. At the 1938 Earls Court Motor Show, SS Cars unveiled a one-off SS100 Coupe. It bore some resemblance to the Bugatti Atalante, then regarded as one of the most exquisite-looking hard top sports cars in the world. In retrospect though, what was far more intriguing about it was how much it looked like the later XK120 coupe. In profile, the similarity was very pronounced. Many aspects of the SS100 had signalled the future plans of the company, but here was a clear signpost for what lay around the corner.
Any further plans or development work on the SS100 were curtailed by the outbreak of World War 2. Production of all SS Cars came to an end by 1940, with the company turning to more pressing manufacturing matters. Rumour has it that a solitary SS100 was completed after hostilities had ended, but by that time, the company had a new, politically correct name - Jaguar - and even newer ideas.
Its XK120 of 1948 was a natural successor to the SS100, and like its predecessor, its number denoted its top speed. It was a more significant car in Jaguar’s history, because in the austere and still recovering world of the late-Forties, its beauty and performance were a revelation that nobody had predicted, even from Jaguar. However, it was the SS100 that paved the way for a new XK120. It established Jaguar’s credentials, it gave the firm the confidence to go out and build something spectacular, and it laid down the foundations for Jaguar’s distinctive styling. Look at the SS100, with it’s long bonnet, flowing sides, and short, stubby rear, and you can see echoes of the XK120, the E-type, even the XK8 and XKR. There’s a certain long running countenance to Jaguars that few other manufacturers have been able to capture successfully. The tradition started here… and it still continues today.
In appearance, the SS100 is the archetypal vintage sports car. It’s how people think a pre-war roadster should look, and as a result, the SS100 has appeared sporadically in kit car form ever since. You can still go out and buy an SS100, albeit fitted with modern mechanicals, and build it yourself. Other manufacturers have aped the shape, with varying degrees of success, most notably Panther with its J72, which even echoed the wild feline name with its Jaguar-powered pastiche. When it appeared at the beginning of the Seventies, the J72 was twice the price of an E-type. Despite this, panther managed to build and sell more than SS had ever done.
The post-war cars of Jaguar may have given the firm financial security and glamorous publicity, but it was the SS100 that first showed the world what William Lyons was truly capable of. It started a trend that Jaguar felt compelled to follow, and every sports car built by the marque since has had to live up to what preceded it. As the grand Ancestor of them all, the SS100 still casts a long shadow over the modern Jaguar range. It’s the first real Jaguar. And still one of the greatest sports cars ever built by any country.