1939 to 1945 – Wartime Production
Normal car production was ceased for the duration and the manufacturing capacity and skills of the company was turned over to wartime production with contracts allocated by the Ministry of Supply.
As war approached Lyons bid for some of the Ministry supply work receiving contracts for sidecars for military use – building over 10,000, and later for 30,000 lightweight military trailers. He also bid for contracts on the Manchester medium bomber but when the project was dropped they received work repairing wings for the Whitley bombers. These new contracts brought in much needed up to date machinery which significantly enhanced their manufacturing capabilities which would not have been possible on their antiquated pre-war machine tools. The company was also sub-contracted to Armstrong Siddeley making components for Cheetah aircraft engines.
On 14 November 1941, during the worst period of the Coventry blitz, the Foleshill factory was damaged. Armstrong Siddeley located a run-down shoe factory away from the raids at South Wigston, near Leicester. This was requisitioned and re-floored to take machine tools and run by Beardsley, manned by between 200 and 300 people. With Beardsley in charge, this machine shop helped SS gain other specialist work throughout the war including: aircraft bomb doors; long-range fuel tanks; major fuselage sections for the first Meteor jet fighters and gearboxes for Armstrong Siddeley.
After the war, Beardsley and his men completed their contract work and returned to Foleshill with Beardsley as machine shop superintendent. As some of the Ministry equipment wasn’t adaptable, much of his time was spent at Britain’s machine tools sales. Lyons left the machinery purchase decision making to Beardsley – including the unusual purchase of a pair of Pratt and Whitney borers – ideal for boring the holes through the twin camshafts of Jaguar’s new XK engine. Beardsley had to inspect these underground, near Calne in Wiltshire, where rifles had been manufactured.
1945 Onwards – Post-War Production
The wartime aircraft and fabrication work had the beneficial side effect of introducing the company to aircraft design and techniques but early post-war times were difficult for British companies. Amongst other problems were shortages of steel and foreign currency. The Government issued the dictum, ‘Export or Die’ and steel quotas were closely related to export performance – in other words, no exports, no steel!
At the same time it was decided to drop the SS name and simply call the company Jaguar Cars. Lyons had registered the company name back in 1937 and now he commented that SS represented ‘a sector of the community not highly regarded.’ The Jaguar name had previously been used on an engine built by Armstrong Siddeley and Lyons checked with Sir Frank Spriggs, MD of Armstrong Siddeley (to whom SS Cars had been sub-contractors during the war) that he had no objection to Lyons’ company using the name.
In September 1948 Jaguar announced its first new post-war, stop-gap model, the Mark V, which would carry the company’s fortunes for a couple of years.
The main innovation was the adoption of independent front suspension, conceived by Heynes.
1948 – The Jaguar XK Arrives
Before the war Lyons had expressed his ambition to build one of the world’s finest luxury cars. Lyons wanted this car to have a full size saloon body and be capable of 100 mph. During the war, he would get together with Heynes, Hassan and Baily during Sunday night fire watching sessions in Coventry to discuss and design a new engine. This would become the world famous XK engine that would stay in production for over 40 years and be the backbone of Jaguar’s success at Le Mans.
The exciting new engine was virtually ready for production. The designers bravely chose a twin overhead camshaft layout and after trying several configurations, the final engine was decided upon. It was to be a straight six of 3,442 cc and given the name XK. The achieved output was 160 bhp!
Jaguar now had a tremendously exciting new engine, but work on the monocoque for the new Mark VII saloon was taking much longer than planned. It became clear that the Mark VII would not be ready in time for the first post-war Motor Show. The decision was made to showcase the engine in a new sports car, which would generate publicity.
The task fell then to William Lyons to design a suitable body that would fit a shortened Mark V chassis and with the help of Fred Gardner this was designed and built in a matter of months, in time for the 1948 Motor Show.
The result ‘stole the show’. It was known as the XK120 Super Sports. It was refined in the usual Jaguar manner, had unrivalled comfort for such a car, and to cap it all, was priced at just £998 (£1,298 with tax).
The name was based on top speed which made it the fastest production car in the world. Indeed at first people were sceptical and refused to believe what was being claimed for the XK120.
To convince the sceptics however, some tangible proof of the claimed prowess was needed.
Accordingly Jaguar took over a closed section of new dual carriageway at Jabbeke in Belgium where, in front of the assembled press, a standard XK120 proceeded to clock 126 mph.
Then with the windscreen removed, 133 mph was achieved. The orders came flooding in and Jaguar quickly realised that the couple of hundred originally intended could not possibly meet demand.
The XK120’s racing debut was at Silverstone in a Production Sports Car race in August 1949. Three cars were loaned by the factory to well known drivers Peter Walker, Leslie Johnson and Prince Bira of Siam. Bira was unlucky enough to have a puncture, but Johnson and Walker finished first and second.
As it had not been originally planned to put the XK120 into volume production, the company hadn’t had either the time or the money available to invest in new press tools to make the body. The first 240 cars were all hand-built in aluminium, which was in plentiful supply, and once the company knew that there was sufficient demand for the car, it became worthwhile to commission the needed press tools.
In 1950 it was decided to take three cars to France for the world famous Le Mans 24 hour race, merely to assess their capabilities against international opposition. Driver Leslie Johnson’s car went out with clutch failure but the other two finished 12th and 16th. Johnson said that the cars needed more power and less weight if they were to have a chance of winning.
On the rallying front Ian Appleyard and his wife, William Lyon’s daughter Pat, drove their XK120, NUB 120, to success in the Alpine Rallies of ’51 and ’52 and the Tulip Rally in ’51 and became one of the most successful rally cars of all time.