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  • Stylish businessman who developed the cat's appeal

    Founder of Jaguar
    Sept. 4, 1901-Feb. 8, 1985

    Bradford Wernle
    Automotive News Europe

    From the very beginning, William Lyons gave customers value for money. He had a flair for style that made motorcycles, Austin Sevens and Jaguars look like they were worth more than they were.

    Lyons was born in Blackpool, England, where his father ran a music store. As a teenager he loved motorcycles, which were more affordable than cars. With a sidecar attached, they became practical transportation. When he was 20 he bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and then added a flashy sidecar called the Swallow, made by his neighbor, 30-year-old William Walmsley.

    Lyons was only 20, but he saw that Walmsley's stylish aluminum sidecars added a lot of value for relatively little cost. He proposed that they go into business together and get a bigger workshop than the garage at Walmsley's parents' house.

    A year later, they formed Swallow Sidecar Co., which prospered. In 1927, they became coachbuilders, putting their own bodywork on an Austin Seven chassis. For the next four years they made dashing bodies for inexpensive chassis from Austin, Wolseley, Standard, Morris and Fiat.

    In 1931 they made arrangements with Standard Motor Co. to buy a reliable engine and a Standard chassis modified to their specifications.

    This limited their capital investment, yet gave them the customized stretched platform Lyons wanted. He had become obsessed with creating cars that were as low to the ground as possible.

    In 1935, the low, sleek SS Jaguar appeared on the scene. The name Jaguar was suggested by the company's advertising agency because it suggested feline grace and elegance but Lyons was slow to embrace it initially. He liked the SS designation but after World War Two, when SS had come to have a Nazi connotation, the company became Jaguar Cars Ltd.

    Lyons bought out Walmsley in 1934. The company built war material from 1939 to 1945, then relaunched itself into the car business. Lyons wrapped a powerful new motor in a prototype shown at the 1948 British motor show, and the XK120 (for the 120mph top speed) became a sports car classic. More classics followed, including the swoopy Mark VII sedan in 1950 that helped cement Jaguar's status in America.

    Jaguar achieved further immortality in the 1960s with the E-type. The XJ series sedans, first introduced with the XJ6 in 1968, were Lyons' attempt to consolidate Jaguar's sedan offerings into one line. The XJ series will continue to fill the top of Jaguar's sedan lineup well into the next century.

    William Lyons retired in 1972 at age 71 and died quietly in 1985, having just seen his cherished company regain independence from British Leyland.