Jaguar SS1 review

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Ellen Dewar

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Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1
Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1
Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1
Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1 Jaguar SS1

The story of this exotic is a classic tale of post-war recovery for the motor industry...

Jaguar SS1 review
Jaguar SS1


Jaguar SS1 

Imagine being CEO of the US-based Saddam Motor Company and you might understand the dilemma that faced William Lyons and the staff of SS Cars as they picked their way through Coventry’s bomb-ravaged streets in the early days of 1945.

SS in the British context stood for Swallow Sidecars, the sleek and exotic motorcycle accessories built by Lyons and William Walmsley until 1928 when the business moved to Coventry and embraced the world of automotive coachbuilding.

It was not Lyons’ fault that the initials of the business he founded in 1922 would later be inexorably linked to Adolf Hitler’s Schutz Staffel. However with the war in Europe drawing to a close, he realised that post-conflict buyers were unlikely to purchase a car carrying an emblem that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Nazi storm-trooper insignia. In February 1945, Jaguar Cars was founded and SS faded into history.

The Depression had taken an enormous toll on car manufacturers throughout the world. Yet against a miserable economic backdrop, Swallow’s coachbuilding activities prospered due to Lyons’ emphasis on unique style and value for money. To keep sales buoyant in trying times, the price of a Swallow-bodied Austin Seven was cut from 175 to 150 Pounds while a six-cylinder Standard Swallow cost just 275 Pounds.

Willingness to sacrifice profit in pursuit of volume was essential to Lyons’ vision for the company’s future. During the late 1920s he had gathered some of Britain’s most talented coachbuilders, woodworkers, trimmers and painters to staff his fledgling business and had no intention of allowing the people who would build SS’ own car to be poached by competing businesses.

The SS1 was an extraordinary car and one designed with a troubled market in mind. Former Jaguar PR Director Andrew Whyte in his book Jaguar; The Definitive History Of A Great Car states that Lyons was inspired by a meeting with sales staff from Swallow distributor Henly’s Ltd who, when asked what type of car was easiest to sell, unanimously replied;

"Give us a motor car with a 1000 Pound look, but which costs 300 Pounds, and life will be easy!"

Lyons took their advice to heart, releasing in 1931 a low-slung, two-door sports coupe with a bonnet so long it could have accommodated two six-cylinder engines. The cabin occupied a third of the SS1’s 4.4 metre overall length and was accessed by `suicide’ doors that extended to the body’s lower extremities. In common with competition cars of its era, the SS1 had no running boards, `cycle’ front mudguards and massive P100 headlamps that would become a distinctive feature of SS models.

Under an arrangement with the Standard Motor Company, a purpose-built chassis was supplied with the choice of 2.1or 2.6-litre six-cylinder engines. The base-model SS1 was priced at 325 Pounds – 10 Pounds extra with the larger engine – and indeed looked to be worth three times its price. It was displayed at the 1931 London Motor Show and by the event’s final day orders for 1000 cars had been taken.

Among Lyons’ goals for the SS1 was a 70mph (112km/h) top speed; his diligence rewarded when The Autocar recorded a fastest run of 113km/h and reported that the car was "uncanny in its steadiness when cornering at high speed."

Alongside the spectacular SS1 was a one-litre SS2 version, built on a Standard Nine chassis and with an unmistakable resemblance to the six-cylinder car. Priced at an astonishing 210 Pounds, over 550 SS2s sold in the space of two years.

1933 saw the range expanded to include a four-seat SS1 and an SS2 open-top Tourer. A year later the exotic-looking Airline sedan was added.

By 1934 and with economic conditions rapidly improving, SS Cars Limited was launched in a public share float. Despite a sales increase of 100 percent during the preceding three years and a 300 percent improvement in profit, the company needed capital for the next major phase in its development.

Part of the 250,000 Pounds raised went to buy out Walmsley’s share of the business and in January 1935 Swallow Coachbuilding was dissolved. In its place, SS Cars was created with William Lyons as its Chairman and Managing Director.

1935 was a landmark year for reasons other than the corporate restructuring. Before his departure, Walmsley had commissioned two specially-built sports cars based on the SS1 chassis. Within months and after a rakish restyle conducted under Lyons’ supervision, the SS90 made its debut. Priced at 395 Pounds and with 52kW from its 2.6-litre Standard engine, the SS90 would reach 90mph (145km/h). Closely following the two-seater was an all-new four-door sedan and a new model name. The world was about to greet its first Jaguar.

The 1.5-litre SS-Jaguar Saloon was displayed at London’s Mayfair Hotel on September 24, 1935 and despite a relatively small 1.5-litre engine was capable of 112km/h. At a time when similar models were priced at close to 400 Pounds, the Jaguar cost 285 Pounds. Within months came a 2.5 litre version that would reach 140km/h, followed in 1938 by a restyled car that survived as the Jaguar Mark IV until late 1948.

1936 also brought a model that today ranks among the world’s most desired classics. The SS-Jaguar 100 was conceived as a competition version of the SS90 and a showcase for the company’s design prowess. With 76kW, the 2.5-litre SS100 gave Jaguar its first significant competition victories including an Alpine Trial win. The 3.5-litre engine fitted from 1938 took the SS100 to within 3km/h of the elusive 100mph (161km/h) mark.

Peter and Beverly Briese have owned their 2.5 litre SS100 since 1979 and since that time have transformed the car into one of the world’s most authentic examples. Despite its significance – the Briese car is the fourth SS100 to be produced – and value this is no cosseted museum piece and has contested gruelling events here and in Europe. It is a regular contestant at the Geelong Speed Trials, won its class in the 1995 Targa Tasmania and more recently completed the19 day Rally l’Automobiles de Grand Mere in France.


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