Elegance and Performance: Jaguar History

The history of Jaguar cars is synonymous with elegance, luxury and performance, and includes some of the most beautiful cars in the history of the automobile. From humble beginnings to record-breakers and true icons of the road, Jaguar’s history is testament to a century of creativity and innovation.

Automotive History
14 December 2023

Jaguar, a legendary name in the automotive industry, is celebrated for its exceptional craftsmanship, producing vehicles that stand as paragons of excellence on a global scale. The story of Jaguar began with the production of motorcycle sidecars, when the Swallow Sidecar Company was founded by William Lyons and William Walmsley in 1922. The company soon shifted its focus, venturing into the realm of automobile manufacturing. This decisive transition laid the foundation for Jaguar’s ascent to fame as a manufacturer synonymous with unmatched luxury, outstanding performance, and breathtaking design, etching an indelible mark in the annals of automotive history.

The history of the Jaguar car company is replete with sensational cars, including the XK120, E-Type, Mark II and XJ-S, all iconic models which still turn heads today. They not only set benchmarks in design and performance but also helped cement Jaguar’s status as a manufacturer of truly remarkable cars.

But like almost all British carmakers, the timeline of the history of Jaguar has seen achievements and setbacks, evolutions, and changes of ownership and direction. However despite challenges, Jaguar continues to produce exceptional cars, maintaining its unique identity of luxury and performance.

Some have been the fastest, others ground-breaking firsts. Most are eye-wateringly beautiful and one was described by Enzo Ferrari as the most beautiful car ever made. And he made the 250 GTO. This is the history of the Jaguar company.

The Birth of the Big Cat

1936 Jaguar SS100 (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The history of Jaguar cars started in 1922 as the Swallow Sidecar Company. It was founded by Lyons and Walmsley to make sidecars. In 1934, Walmsley sold out to Lyons, who changed the name to SS Cars Limited.

Technically speaking, the first two cars produced by the company weren’t Jaguars, rather they were built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company. The SS1, offered as a six-cylinder, 48hp 2.0-litre, or a 62hp 2.5-litre, was an Art Deco-inspired wonder, and that was followed up by the SS90, a stunning 2.6-litre sports tourer.

The first car in Jaguar history itself to bear the legendary name, was the 1935 SS Jaguar 2½ Litre.

The following year, the company’s first sports car was launched, the SS Jaguar 100. The swooping lines of the 2.6-litre straight-six (later uprated to 3.5-litre) took the automotive world by storm. It was described by a motoring journalist at the time as the ‘undisputed performance-per-pound champion of the 1930s’.

In 1945, the shareholders agreed to change the name of the company from SS Cars to Jaguar Cars Limited. To some, the greatest period of creativity, design and precision engineering in the history of Jaguar was after World War II, when they produced some of the world’s greatest sports cars.

The History of Jaguar Cars: The Loudest Roar

1955 Jaguar XK140 (Photo : Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1948 Jaguar launched the XK120, powered, as many of its successors were, by Bill Heynes’ legendary 3.4-litre twin-cam straight-six engine. It was a visual and mechanical masterpiece and was the car that single-handedly introduced British two-seaters into the lucrative American market.

Along with success on the road came success on the racetrack. An XK 120C won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1951, and that victory was followed up with wins in 1953 (C-Type), 1955, 1956 and 1957, the last three in the D-Type.

Six years later came the even more beautiful walnut-hewn XK140. Again using the 3.4-litre straight-six – and the fist car in the history of the Jaguar company to be offered with automatic transmission. It was gloriously elegant, charismatic and accomplished and remains to this day one of the world’s most desirable classic cars.

The all-round chunkier, yet no less beautiful XK150 was in production for four years from 1957, and at the same time, the luxurious Mark VII, VIII, and IX, as well as the ‘Inspector Morse’ Mark II, became stand-out cars in the company’s line-up.

But in 1961, one of the most iconic cars, not just in the history of Jaguar, but in the history of the automobile, was born.

The E-Type

Jaguar E-Type S1 Roadster (Photo: Bim via Getty Images)

Designed by Malcolm Sayer, who took cues from the D-Type Le Mans winner, the Jaguar E-Type was the very embodiment of sixties glamour. The 3.8-litre straight-six Mk1 was perfectly balanced – some purists say that the 4.2-litre versions that came after weren’t quite as poised – and it became the car of choice for Hollywood elite and uber-cool rock stars.

The Jaguar E-Type effortlessly combined sensational looks, exceptional performance and competitive pricing (the coupe version had a list price of £2,196, half the price of the Aston Martin DB5).

Despite this success however, as the late sixties and early seventies rolled around, Jaguar’s history was looking precarious.

From Pillar To Post

1979 Jaguar XJS (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1966, Jaguar merged with the British Motor Corporation (BMC), forming British Motor Holdings (BMH). This merger was a significant move, integrating Jaguar into a larger automotive group. Two years later, BMH merged with Leyland Motor Corporation, creating the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC).

Catastrophic financial difficulties coupled with an industrial relations disaster forced the company to be nationalised in 1975, the same year the XJS was released. The thirsty 5.3-litre V12 was launched in the middle of a global oil crisis and early sales were poor. It was the most expensive production car in Jaguar history, and while it was a wonderfully refined and eminently capable long-distance grand tourer with a silky-smooth ride, it was a car that divided the public.

In the meantime, Jaguar was returned to private ownership in 1984. Listed on the Stock Market under the chairmanship of Sir John Egan, he cut costs (and staff numbers to the tune of around 3,000 lay-offs), improved quality control, slow delivery schedules and productivity and returned the company to prosperity. Jaguar was back to being a world-class marque, and that was evident in the luxurious XJ6 and XJ12 series and the dramatically improved XJS.

In 1989, Jaguar was delisted from the Stock Exchange and was bought by Ford. The company benefitted from increased investment, leading to the development of new models and technology, including the XK8 series and the XJ220 which was, for a year, the fastest production car in the world. However, it has been reported that Jaguar never made a profit under Ford’s ownership.

Ta-Ta Ford, Hello Tata

2021 Jaguar F-Type (Credit: Daniel Boczarski via Getty Images)

Facing financial difficulties themselves, Ford sold Jaguar to Indian multinational Tata Motors in 2008. Under Tata’s ownership, the history of Jaguar cars experienced a resurgence, with significant investments in new models, technology, and facilities.

The current line-up includes luxury saloons, compact SUVs, a gorgeous two-door sports car called the F-Type, and the E-Pace, an electric SUV.

The history of Jaguar continues to evolve, focusing on luxury and performance while also committing to an electrified future, indicating a significant shift in its strategy in response to changing market dynamics and environmental considerations.

The History of Jaguar Cars: A Legacy of Luxury and Innovation

Jaguar logo (Credit: NurPhoto / Contributor via Getty Images)

Jaguar’s history is a testament to its unwavering commitment to elegance, performance, and innovation. From its humble beginnings in 1922 to the evolving technology of the 21st century, Jaguar has consistently set standards in automotive design and engineering, producing some of the most iconic cars ever made.

Through periods of change, including mergers, acquisitions, and shifts in the global market, Jaguar has maintained its identity, continually reinventing itself to meet the demands of modern consumers. The brand’s journey reflects not just a legacy of luxury and performance, but also a future-oriented vision, as it embraces electrification and sustainable practices.


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