Ernest W. ‘Bill’ Rankin
Ernest William ‘Bill’ Rankin, Jaguar’s PR Manager and Public Relations Officer from London, took care of advertising, exhibitions, press and public relations, from 1934 until his death in 1966 and was largely responsible for establishing and growing Jaguar’s international reputation.
Rankin, born on 20th May 1898, attended Beverly School and the Barnes & Putney school of Art. He fought in the Middlesex Regiment during the First World War reaching rank of Lieutenant before embarking on a career in advertising. One of his early claims to fame was creating the famous ‘Red Barrel’ symbol for Watney’s in an open competition. He started his career in the motor industry in 1924, working as an advertising representative for General Motors in Hendon, North London. He joined the Swallow team in 1934 as Advertising and Publicity Manager.
The recently launched (1931) SS car range, was growing rapidly, with four engine sizes and two chassis, each with the choice of coupe, saloon or tourer coachwork, and 1934 saw the launch of the brand new ‘fast-back’ saloon, the Airline. Rankin’s role was to manage all advertising and where possible to generate as much publicity for the cars as possible, as publicity was always more effective than paid advertising. Throughout his time with the Company, until his death at the age of 66, he was almost single-handedly in charge of all PR and advertising. Just as William Lyons would draw out the cars in rough for Cyril Holland to turn into real metal shapes, he would come up with some basic PR ideas and it was Rankin who translated them into advertisements or PR programmes.
During 1934 the company started exporting to the US which, long term, was to become their most important market. William Lyons agreed a distribution deal with Richard G Taylor who registered the name ‘SS’ in North America, beating Lyons to it, meaning Lyons couldn’t use the name there without working with Taylor. Rankin understood the publicity value of exporting and arranged a press photoshoot. This included Rankin and Taylor together with the Coventry MP, Captain William Strickland, alongside the first batch of SS cars for export, lined-up outside the factory in Swallow Road, Coventry.
Rankin was an enthusiastic driver and took part in several events driving SSs , either on the Company’s behalf, or as a member of the recently formed SS Car club, including the RAC Rally in March 1935, which was aimed at standard road cars. Together with Harry Gill, he gained a third-class award and won their concours class in a SS1 saloon.
The biggest SS club event yet, the SS Car Club’s first national rally, took place in Blackpool in 1935 and it welcomed over one hundred people from all over Britain and even one from Sweden. The event was organised by the founding secretary, G. Moxon Cook of Croydon with the involvement of Rankin who organised press coverage. After two unofficial ‘exhibition’ runs with the new SS90 two seater, most people headed to Stanley Park to watch an air show organised by record breaking, Lieutenant Owen Cathcart-Jones, RN, who together with Kenneth Waller, had flown a D H Comet from England to Australia and back a few months earlier. One of the flying team’s series of Jubilee Air displays was performed to tie-in with the SS Car Club Rally, and Rankin gave the team six SSs for the summer, including an SS Airline for Cathcart-Jones.
An otherwise very successful club event was marred due to the SS Car Club’s secretary fleeing with the funds at Blackpool and Lyons having to pay the hotel account, he told Rankin, “either we have no owners club, or you run it” and so, alongside his role as public relations officer, and advertising manager, he also acted as ‘go-between’ between the marque and its customers.
Lyons and Cyril Holland spent a great deal of time working on the body design for the planned SS saloon car and Lyons decided that a distinctive car must have a distinctive name and the S.S. hexagon alone would no longer suffice. Lyons and Rankin instructed the Nelson advertising agency to draw up a list of zoological names. Lyons skimmed down the list and quickly alighted on Jaguar “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 1914-18 war, by an old school friend who, being nearly a year older than I, had joined the Royal Flying Corps. He used to tell me of his work on the Armstrong Siddeley ‘Jaguar’ engine. Since that time, the word Jaguar has always had a particular significance to me.”
Armstrong Siddeley had named a long series of aero-engines after the more predatory members of the cat family – starting with the ‘Puma’ but the Jaguar engine was no longer in production. Nor was it in use on any vehicles. Lyons approached John Siddeley, MD of Armstrong-Siddeley, who said they had no plans to continue using the name and agreed Lyons could have it, confirming this in writing.
Having now picked the name Jaguar for the new car, a running prototype was built and Rankin planned the launch for 21st September 1935, at the Mayfair Hotel in London. It was Rankin’s idea that guests should be asked to guess the price – the average guess was £632, the actual price, to everyone’s astonishment… just £395. The new model name of ‘Jaguar’ appeared under the winged ‘S.S.’ emblem on the radiator.
By 1937, an accessory firm was producing a proprietary ‘Jaguar’ mascot for sale to existing owners. Rankin described it as resembling ‘a cat shot off a fence’ and Lyons was appalled, instructing Rankin to produce a better version. Rankin who was an enthusiastic amateur sculptor, promptly designed an anatomically correct reproduction of a Jaguar; this was ‘stylised’ into its present form by F. Gordon-Crosby, The Autocar’s artist, and, with minor amendments, remains as the ‘leaper’ to this day.
A works-entered team of three SS100s took part in the 1936 RAC Rally. Tommy Wisdom came in second and took the prize for the best Leamington starter while Rankin with E.H. Jacob finished in fourth position.
In November 1936 a Jaguar advertisement was published following the slogan ‘Born of this Day and Age’ which was introduced during the Coronation year (King Edward VIII) as a promise of new hope in a new reign. This advertisement showed that orders over the past year went up 125% in 1935, and since one in every three of these orders had been placed by previous SS costumers, this proved that the company now had a faithful following.
Jacob went on to win the Welsh rally in 1937 in his SS100 and SS were given the manufacturer’s team prize as well as the Club Team prize thanks to Rankin who was employee, competitor and as Honorary Secretary of the S.S. Car Club, nominated his entries.
Lyons asked Rankin to compile a booklet with press road-test reports and owners’ letters for ‘testimonial’ publicity which included one from Jacob about winning the Welsh Rally.
As well as participating in rallies, Rankin arranged at least two sprint meetings at the works (‘The Coventry Speed Trials’), enlisting the aid of Fred Gardner as chief marshal, John Witherall as a starter and others from the works. Rankin also organised rallies to Scarborough and elsewhere, and several race meetings at Donington between 1936 and 1939, press-ganging more people from the trade and the works to help. The Donington Race Meeting on 8th July 1939 attracted over 20 entries.
Competition and indeed, car production, was suspended during WWII as production was taken over by the Ministry of Supply and the Company produced sidecars, military trailers and aircraft components. Rankin was called up again, serving in the British Expeditionary Force requiring evacuation from Dunkirk, going on to serve in Belgium, Italy and the Western Desert. At the end of the war he left the Royal Army Ordnance Corps with the rank of Major -returning to his publicity role at the now renamed Jaguar Cars Ltd.
It was rare that Rankin would appear in his own publicity, but he made an exception in 1946 when the company launched a miniature brochure to cope with post-war, austerity driven, paper shortages.
Jaguar Car’s share price was listed in ‘The Financial Times’ from February 1946, after Rankin threatened to withdraw Jaguar’s advertising once Lyons discovered a large payment was required to list Jaguar’s daily share quotation.
On Lyons’ instructions Rankin launched and edited the in-house magazine Jaguar Journal, with the first issue in October 1946. This was introduced, in Lyons’ words, ‘as a link between management and employees’. In the autumn of 1946 major strikes and minor disputes at Foleshill were delaying Jaguar production and a mass meeting was called. Five out of sixteen pages of the first magazine were about this mass meeting, with Lyons dominating the editorial, writing at length on aspects of what he called ‘unconstitutional stoppages’. Half of the magazine was dedicated to social issues and included an employee profile of Harry Teather, the second longest-serving member of staff at the time.
On 14 November 1946, John Dugdale from The Autocar was shown around the factory at Foleshill by Rankin. Dugdale recalled Rankin, “was not too sympathetic” about the delay in production of the new models and thought that the backroom boys should be given firmer deadlines.
The Jaguar Journal was an important means of communication and was very popular. After nearly five years of Rankin keeping the magazine going, fairly regularly, the front page headlines on the final 1950 issue, which was now in newspaper format, was dedicated to the excitement of the new Mark VII saloon.
During the second half of 1948 there were newspaper rumours that Jaguar was ‘earmarked for extinction’ as a car manufacturer, with its steel allocation to be withdrawn due to a poor export performance. Bill Rankin had to counter these rumours, ironically just before the October Motor Show which saw the launch of the XK Engine and the XK120 Sports Car which was to change the Company’s fortunes.
As the October motor show approached, on 30 September 1948 Rankin organised a dealer launch for the new Jaguar Mark V saloon. With his ingenuity and ability to work with little or no budget, Rankin decorated the Foleshill’s social club using calico drapes that would eventually end up in the car’s seat, red moquette that would form part of the interior trim and even the spares department timber would be turned into crates and packing cases. ‘Lovely To Look At’ was played by William Pethers and his Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra, followed by Lyons’ introduction of the car and explanation on the Company’s designs for the export market.
Rankin and ‘Lofty’ England travelled to the US to attend the International Automobile Exhibition in New York in February 1949. The event was the first of its kind and was only for imported cars. Jaguar had the biggest stand and the main attraction was the XK 120, resulting in a large increase in Jaguar’s export orders.
In preparation for the race at the British Racing Driver’s Club Silverstone airfield circuit on 20 August 1949, a test session was arranged at Silverstone as per Lyons’ request. He insisted on testing the XK 120 himself and with Rankin in the passenger seat said, “Hey, Rankin, I’ve left my specs behind – tell me where the corners are!”. Walter Hassan recalled seeing a frightened Rankin getting out of the car once they returned to the pits while Lyons , ’laughed like hell’ at Rankin’s frightened expression. Three cars were entered, with Leslie Johnson winning the race.
Having announced that the XK120 was capable of 120 mph the Company needed to prove this. A quiet trip to Belgium to test the car on the motorway being built at Jabbeke in Belgium was organised and Ron ‘Soapy’ Sutton and Jack Lea, tested XK120 – chassis 670002 (the 2nd LHD car built)- registered HKV 500 . When they got back they reported to Rankin that ‘it would comfortably exceed 120 mph’. but Rankin wanted to know why journalists were calling him, asking what Jaguar had been up to in Belgium. Sutton confessed that they had popped into The Steering Wheel Club, “for a quick one,” on the way home. The Steering Wheel Club, in Brick Street off Park Lane, London, attracted journalists and racing drivers. The recce also upset Joska Bourgeois, the Belgian Jaguar importer, wanting to know why she had not been in on the secret.
On 18th May 1949 Rankin invited journalists to Jabbeke, for the formal test, and on the 30th they flew in a chartered Sabena Airways DC-3 from Heathrow to Ostend to watch HKV 500, on the timed runs on the Jabbeke straight. Painted white to look better in photographs, with a cowl over the passenger seat and undertray to improve aerodynamics, the Royal Belgian Automobile Club timed it over a flying mile and kilometre recording a speed of 132.596 mph. Then to prove this was no fluke they refitted the windscreen, hood and sidescreens, to return it to production configuration and it was timed at 126.954 mph. As ever the publicity value of proving that Jaguar’s new sports cars was capable of speeds in excess of 120 mph was much greater than the value of any of their paid advertising. A number of XK120s were built to the same specification as HKV 500 with a small plaque fixed to the dashboard certifying this.
In 1950 Jaguar displayed the XK 120 as the centrepiece at the British Car Show, in New York. Twenty-one makers took part but the XK 120 which was displayed on a velvet cloth surrounded by the Jaguar bronze statuettes designed by Rankin, was the biggest publicity drive yet to take place in America by Britain’s motor industry.
By the early 1950s Jaguar was outgrowing the Foleshill factory site and negotiated with the Ministry to rent a portion of the wartime ‘shadow’ factory at Browns Lane, in Allesley, on the edge of Coventry. When the Company completed the move in November 1952, they organised a big dealer convention at the new site. Rankin published some interesting statistics briefing them on Jaguar’s export sales success story.
- In 1938, 10% would have been an optimistic view of the percentage of cars sent overseas.
- By 1946, the proportion had risen to 26%, which then doubled over the ensuing two years.
- For 1951 the proportion had increased to 84%, and was still increasing.
- In the past three years production had gone up by 118%, and this was expected to increase further, as the new factory would enable them to double output.
Le Mans – Victories and Tragedy
Having won Le Mans with the C-type on its first outing in 1951 and benefited hugely from the ensuing publicity, the 1952 Le Mans was an abject failure, with all three cars over-heating and retiring. Leslie Johnson, who had previously gained the 24 hour record in an XK120 at the Montlhery circuit near Paris, came up with a plan to demonstrate the reliability of Jaguars and generate some positive publicity. He came up with the idea of taking an XK120 round the track at Montlhéry at over 100 mph, 24 hours a day, for a whole week. In August 1952, with Rankin and his young assistant Bob Berry in attendance to co-ordinate the publicity, the four drivers (Johnson, Bert Hadley, Jack Fairman and Stirling Moss) completed the mammoth task in XK120 FHC LWK 707 covering 16,851.73 miles at an average speed of 100.31 mph, taking the four days’ record, the 15,000 kms, 10,000 miles and 10,000 kms records.
For a full write-up of the Montlhery record run – see the Leslie Johnson section of the website.
Rankin was asked if Jaguar was worried about the Americans starting to make sports cars such as the Chevrolet ‘Corvette’ and Ford ‘Thunderbird’ in the 1950s. His response was, “Good heavens, no! To an American, a sports car must be an imported car, and nothing else”.
Jaguar returned to Le Mans in 1953 for their second win, this time with their ‘secret weapon’, a disc brake equipped C-type driven by Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt taking the chequered flag. For the 1955 Le Mans race, three cars were transported by air, instead of being driven all the way, and ented for the race. Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb were in XKD 505 (trade plate 774 RW), 1953 winners Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton in XKD 506 (732 RW) and Don Beauman and Jaguar’s test driver Norman Dewis in XKD 508 (194 WK).
Three and a half hours into the race, during a duel between Hawthorn and Bueb’s Jaguar D-type and the Mercedes SLR of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, an accident involving the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh and the Austin-Healey of Lance Macklin took place in front of the pits. This tragic accident, which is thought to have been triggered by Hawthorn slowing to come into the pits, claimed the lives of over 80 spectators and Levegh himself. Hours later the Mercedes team withdrew from the race as a sign of respect to the victims, giving Jaguar a 1-2 lead with Hawthorn/Bueb in front of Rolt/Hamilton. After Rolt/Hamilton retired due to their gearbox seizing, Hawthorn/Bueb not only won the race at an average speed of 107.067 mph for a total distance of 2,569.601 miles, but set a new record as well.
Jaguar’s advertising agency, Bob Bett, recalled, “We had all agreed that, whoever won, we would advertise the race. But when I came back and saw the headlines in The Daily Express, ‘Disaster at Le Mans’, I changed my mind a bit”. After some thought, Lyons agreed and the advertisements were cancelled, but that didn’t stop him from sending Rankin a lengthy memo complaining about the lack of (non-paid) publicity on Jaguar’s win, “Hawthorn very clearly demonstrated that a British car was a match for the Mercedes which has had such a tremendous build up, not, of course, without some justification”. To Lyons it was strange that no reference had been made to Britain “producing a car at least the equal of Mercedes, or even a superior one, as proved by Hawthorn lapping faster than Fangio”.
Following the accident, speculation was rife in the international press about what / who had caused the accident, some of this was aimed at Jaguar and Hawthorn.
Rankin issued the following official statement:
“In view of the fact that all the circumstances surrounding the Le Mans disaster are in course of official investigation by the French authorities, we would not have thought it incumbent upon any firm or individual to make any comments which seek to fix responsibility or apportion blame for the tragic occurrence. Nevertheless, certain statements have been quoted in the Press implicating one of our drivers and, in fairness to him, we have no option but to make it known that, as a result of close questioning of the Jaguar pit personnel and others who witnessed the occurrence, there is no evidence to establish that Hawthorn acted in any way contrary to accepted practice:
“In the course of our own enquiry, Hawthorn made the following statement:
‘After passing Levegh’s Mercedes at Arnage, I passed the Austin-Healey between White House Corner and the Pit and, having given the necessary hand signal, I braked and pulled into my pit in accordance with pit instructions given during the course of the preceding lap. In my judgement, I allowed sufficient time for the driver of any following car to be aware of my intentions and for him to take such action as might be required without danger to others.’
“In view of the foregoing statement and the evidence of the Jaguar pit personnel who witnessed the occurrence, the Company is of the opinion that any adverse criticism of Hawthorn’s driving is without justification!”
Jaguar also issued an instruction to their dealers that no publicity was to be given to the victory.
The official enquiry did eventually exonerate Hawthorn.
In early 1957 Rankin expressed his concern to Lyons stating that the 160 mph XKSS ‘supercar’ – produced using parts from unsold D-types – was receiving “unexpected degree of interest and publicity” which might be “very effectively stealing in advance the thunder we shall need for the XK150”. Sadly the factory suffered a large fire on 12th February 1957 which destroyed some of the remaining D-types and XKSSes and the full number were never produced. Following the fire, efforts were concentrated on restoring production of the new 3.4 Saloon which was back in production by 26th February.
An important part of Rankin’s job, with help from his assistant (since 1951) Bob Berry, was ensuring that an adequate number of well prepared cars were available for the press to road test. Although ostensibly ‘standard production cars’ they were normally very well prepared, if not somewhat improved, by Bob Berry. However, following one very critical report of a Jaguar test car in the Sunday Express, Lyons sent a harsh memo to Rankin asking how this could have been allowed to happen. Rankin replied that in future all press cars would be double checked by himself or Berry before going to the press and were almost hand-built to levels of perfection not matched by normal production examples. These came to be referred to as ‘Bob Berry Specials’ for many years to come.
1960 Purchase of Daimler
In June 1960, much to the surprise of most of the motor industry, and indeed his own board of directors, Sir William Lyons bought the Daimler company from BSA. Daimler had been struggling for some time and BSA were looking for a way out of an unprofitable business. Jaguar wanted to expand their operation on the Browns Lane site but the Government of the day was encouraging the motor industry to move to less developed areas of the country – Ford to Halewood in Liverpool and Rootes Group to Linwood in Scotland. Sir William had no intention of moving but needed more space in the Coventry area and the Daimler factory at Radford in Coventry was ideal. BSA’s desire to offload the company was perfectly timed with Jaguar’s need for factory space and a price of £3,400,000 was agreed for the Daimler name, business and factory – Sir William later said “I do not recall a more amicable deal with anyone.”
Although Sir Williams’ primary objective had been achieved he had no plans to kill off Daimler and Rankin issued the following press statement:
“Jaguar Cars Ltd wish to deny unfounded rumours to the effect that sweeping changes, including the extinction of the Daimler marque, are to be expected. Whilst one of the most obvious and immediate benefits accruing to Jaguar as a result of their purchase is the availability of much needed additional production facilities for Jaguar Cars, the Company’s long term view envisages not merely the retention of the Daimler marque, but the expansion of its markets at home and overseas.”
Jaguar moved their XK engine production from Browns Lane to Radford, freeing up much needed production space at Browns Lane. As promised rather than kill off the Daimler name, one of Sir William’s next projects was to try and produce a Mark 2 version of the Daimler SP250 sports car, to re-style it and re-invigorate its sales. This led to the build of prototype 100005 – the SP252, which while an interesting aesthetic exercise, ultimately came to nought.
1961 Jaguar E-type Launch
By 1961 Bob Berry had risen to Public Relations Manager and together with Bill Rankin, worked on the launch of the E-type at the Geneva Motor Show. The previous year Rankin had been working hard to suppress roumours of an ‘E’ type. At the beginning of 1960 Jaguar had built a prototype racing car which became known as E2A. Briggs Cunningham persuaded Jaguar to lend him the car for the 1960 Le Mans as he didn’t have a suitable car of his own to enter the race. This brought about a number of rumours that Jaguar was planning a return to racing. Rankin issued a denial: “The close liaison existing between Jaguar Cars Ltd and Mr Cunningham, coupled with his renewed desire to compete in this year’s Le Mans race, resulted in an agreement by which Jaguar were to prepare a 3-litre car for Mr Cunningham…..The car itself is not an entirely new design, but is a development based on the D-type.”
Development of the E-type and plans for its 1961 launch continued with Rankin putting together a whole programme of press arrangements, before, during and after the launch – including a limited number of pre-launch press drives in the E-type Fixed Head Coupe 9600 HP.
On 4th March 1961 Rankin issued a release to the motoring press
We have pleasure in enclosing a brochure giving full information on the new E-type Grand Touring models which we shall be announcing on Wednesday March 15th. These models are additional to the current range of Jaguar cars and will supplement the XK150 models now in production.
The prices of these cars have been fixed as follows:-
Open 2 seater £1480 +£617.15.10 P.T. = £2097.15.10
Fixed Head Coupe £1550 +£646.19.2 P.T. = £2196.19.2
Hard Top £54 +22.10.0 P.T. = £76.10.0
For JAGUAR CARS LIMITED
PUBLIC RELATIONS OFFICER”
Although this has gone down in history as a very successful Jaguar product launch, it took place at the press reception at the Parc des Eaux Vives, which had been organised and paid for by the SMMT. The fact that he was a Member of the Public Relations Advisory Panel of the SMMT probably helped. Yet again Rankin had organised a high profile product launch at minimal cost to the Company.
The E-type 9600 HP had been driven out to Geneva by Bob Berry to arrive only about 20 minutes before the planned reveal. The E-type roadster 77 RW was driven out a couple of days later by Norman Dewis to help cope with the demand for press demonstration rides.
Rankin is credited with having created the initial aura surrounding the launch of the E-type which continued long after Geneva.
The E-type wasn’t the only new car that Jaguar launched in 1961. The Mark X saloon had been in development since the late 1950s and shared both the 3.8 litre, triple SU carburettor engine, and the new independent rear suspension setup. It was almost ready for launch in early 1961 but Sir William and Rankin decided they wanted to launch the E-type to the international audience at Geneva in March and then the Mark X would steal the show at the Earls Court Motor Show in London in October that year. Looking back this was a correct decision as had the Mark X been launched at Geneva as well, it would probably have attracted very little press attention, being overshadowed by the E-type.
Having split the launch of these two cars in 1961, the plan was changed for the 1964 launch of the 4.2 litre XK engine. This expanded version of the XK engine was launched at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1964, powering both the E-type and the Mark X at the same time.
This was to be Rankin’s last major project in Jaguar, as he died in March 1966 leaving Bob Berry to take over as Public Relations Manager, Fred Webber became responsible for exhibitions and John Rogers (who joined as part of the takeover of Guy Motors) in charge of advertising.
Together with the likes of ‘Lofty’ England, Bill Heynes and Arthur Whittaker, Bill Rankin was one of the loyal, long-serving Jaguar men who gave everything to the company and he was a major contributor to the success of Jaguar.
Bob Berry said of Rankin
“He created the whole image of Jaguar. It was very much a one-man band. If it was written, printed or advertised, Rankin was responsible for it.”
Author: Shihanki Elpitiya and Tony Merrygold
© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust
Sources and Further Reading:
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and foreword by HRH Prince Michael of Kent, Jaguar (Quiller Press, 1997)
Mennem, Patrick, Jaguar: An Illustrated History (The Crowood Press Ltd, 1991)
Whyte, Andrew, Jaguar: The Definitive History of a Great British Car (Patrick Stephens Limited, 1990)
Hull, Nick, Jaguar Design: A Story of Style (Porter Press International, 2015)
Porter, Philip, Jaguar: E-Type The Definitive History (Porter Press International, 2015)
Thorley, Nigel, Jaguar in Coventry: Building the Legend (Breedon Books Publishing Co Ltd, 2013)
Porter, Philip, Jaguar: Sports Racing Cars (Bay View Books, 1995)
Skilleter, Paul, Norman Dewis of Jaguar: Developing the Legend (PJ Publishing Ltd, 2017)
Porter, Philip and Skilleter, Paul, Sir William Lyons: The Official Biography (Haynes Publishing, 2001)
Porter, Philip, Stirling Moss: The Definitive Biography – Volume 1 (Porter Press International, 2016)
Bingham, Phillip, The All-American Hero and Jaguar’s Racing E-types (Porter Press International, 2020)
Porter, Philip, The Most Famous Car in the World: The Story of the First E-type Jaguar (Cassell, 2000)