Swallow’s First Real Coachmaker and Master Jig-Maker
Since Cyril Holland joined the Swallow Sidecar company in 1926, he proved to be invaluable to William Lyons, who might have never succeeded without Holland behind him. Holland was great at interpreting Lyons’ sketches and he, more than anyone, was the one who got Swallow bodies off the sketch pad and into the showrooms.
As the company grew they were unable to find sufficient skilled people in the Blackpool area so Lyons placed an advertisement with several newspapers published in Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton – the very centre of the motor industry – for a skilled worker with jig-making and panelling experience.
Apprenticeship, War and Coachmaking
Cyril Holland was born on 6th March 1895 and grew up and was educated in Birmingham going on to night school to learn draughtmanship, concentrating on coachmaking-drawing. He started his working life as an apprentice of the Lanchester Motor Company (one of Britain’s oldest and most respected car manufacturers). Frederick Lanchester believed body-building was both an engineering and an artistic task, so Holland was well trained. One of his key memories of his days at Lanchester was the accuracy of the sawmill work, a skill he clearly took with him when he joined Swallow.
During WWI he was called up into Army Cycling Corps and later transferred to the Lancashire Fusiliers and saw service in France where he was wounded. He met his wife-to-be while convalescing in Harrogate, was then sent back to France, only to end up as a POW until the Armistice was declared. He returned to Harrogate, married towards the end of 1919 and started working at a charabanc maker in Otley.
As a skilled coachmaker it was easy to find work and he ended up back in the Midlands including working at Austin in Longbridge and Morris Bodies. Then in 1926 a friend of his told him of a ‘tin-pot sidecar company in Blackpool’ that was planning to go into car building and was advertising for craftsmen.
Mostly out of curiosity but also because it sounded like a challenge he applied. During the interview, “he said if we could give him a sketch, he could frame up a body with the appropriate jigs for making the panels, panel the body, and finish it ready for paint” William Lyons recounted.
Holland, who by then was working for Mead and Deakin who were making sidecars, and cars under the Rhode brand, was hired on the spot.
Lyons had found someone who could interpret his ideas. Holland “not only lived up to his claims, but proved to be one of the quickest men to carry out his job that I have ever known. What delighted and impressed me the most was his ability to work with nothing more than a rough sketch of what he had to do” – William Lyons.
After working on a body for a Clyno chassis for William Walmsley, Lyons and Hollands turned their efforts to making a small open two seater – the Austin Seven Swallow – which appeared in the spring of 1927. In the early days, Holland built up the wooden jig which was then used to take patterns for the panel-makers. Later it became a support for panels shaped out of sheet steel by skilled panel-beaters to replicate a full-size car. Finally, Lyons would then modify the prototypes until he had achieved the look he wanted.
Lyons spent quite a lot of time each day on the shop floor with Holland and when speaking (at least in private), Holland was one of only four people at Swallow and later at Jaguar whom he called by his Christian name. The other three exceptions were Jack Beardsley, Fred Gardner and Harry Teather.
When Lyons wanted to increase production to meet the order from Henly’s for 500 Swallows (20 per week), William Walmsley at first refused to co-operate with the expansion programme, probably thinking Lyons’ over-ambition would ruin the company. On the contrary, Holland set about streamlining the fabrication process and with the help of further workers brought in from the Midlands, got to work and production of the Austin Seven Swallow two-seater was raised from 5 to some 12 a week by mid-1928. The Henlys deal also included four seater saloons which needed creating – Holland drew a full scale, side elevation on the workshop wall, then worked out the necessary jigs and panelling to build it.
1928 also saw the arrival of two Alvises at the works, one a complete car the other one just a chassis, and Holland almost single-handedly made a body for this ‘Alvis-Swallow’ for Walmsley.
However it became clear to Lyons that he would not be able to find either large enough premises, or sufficient skilled labour in the Blackpool area to meet his production requirements. Production often spilled out onto the streets much to the amusement of Blackpool visitors. Lyons decided to move to the Midlands, eventually settling on Coventry.
About 30 of the 58 Swallow employees agreed to move from Blackpool, without the benefit of any type of relocation assistance which employees take for granted nowadays. Some of them had come from the Midlands so they were happy to return ‘home’, others were content to stay and find alternative employment, in the North.
To Lyons’ disappointment, one of those who did not want to move was Holland who having only moved to Blackpool two years earlier asked for, and was refused, a movement allowance. Though Lyons was worried about moving without him, as he depended a great deal on Holland, he knew that to survive, Swallow had to make the move which took place between September and November 1928 and was largely managed by Harry Teather.
To The Rescue in Coventry
Coventry was quite different from Blackpool and it was not plain sailing at first. There were problems between some of the locally-hired workforce and those who had come from Blackpool but eventually they all settled down. The Company faced another problem, with production, after Lyons was determined to make a new body-framing technique work. Instead of each wooden frame being build-up individually, this new (to Swallow) scheme involved using specialised machinery that were tailor-made to cut all the frame components in quantity which would then be assembled in a dedicated jig. In this manner the sections could be stockpiled and used as required, making each body frame identical and saving time. After Lyons purchased the machinery, Mr Aylesbury (of the Midland Bent Timber Co), introduced him to Frank Etches, a steam-bending expert, who was hired to produce the curved sections. This did not go to plan as the resulting sections would not fit into the jig and when left the bent timbers would unbend. Etches tried hard but could not get the process right and one weekend he left, never to return. Swallow had orders to fulfill and production was in danger of coming to a standstill.
Lyons, remembering how efficient Holland had been in Blackpool, persuaded him to leave his job at Burlingham coachworks and move to Coventry, by increasing his salary threefold. Within a few weeks Holland had ditched the steam-bending timber process, replacing it with parts made up from composite pieces and had the jig assembly process working correctly. To Lyons’ delight, this increased production of the Austin Swallow saloon and two-seater to 40 or more a week and reduced its cost by 50 per cent. Efficiency was aided by the fact that they had their own sawmill onsite supplying all the wood he needed.
With the return of Holland, new models of various sizes, all similar in style to the Austin Swallow Seven saloon – with chassis from Fiat, Standard, Swift and ultimately (from January 1931) Wolseley – appeared quickly one after the other.
The Wolseley Hornet and later the Hornet Special with Swallow bodies were a milestone in Swallow history. These were the first true sports cars that Swallow had offered, and were also his first six cylinder cars. To get its shape, a process which from then on became Lyons’ standard method of working, was used. Holland designed the Hornet body frame so that each piece of wood was curved in one direction only enabling it to be cut in multiple batches.
By 1931, the Swallow name was reasonably well known and William Lyons could see that the Austin Seven-Swallow, introduced in 1927 and still in production, could not be developed further. He had stretched the Swallow body to accommodate the Standard Sixteen chassis, but there was nowhere else to take the design. The time was right to produce an original model. Lyons was encouraged in this venture by the General Manager of Standard Motors, John Black. Lyons and Black reached an agreement where Standard would build-up a chassis and deliver it as a running unit with engine and transmission to Swallow. Their part would be the design of this chassis and having it cast as a model for Standard. Lyons and Holland now began work on the chassis details; they were not draughtsmen but used their experience gained on the various Swallow models.
Holland was heavily involved in the design and build of the car that was to become the SS 1. Lyons consulted his biggest customer, Henlys, as well as the staff of the Autocar’s publisher Illiffe Press about how a ‘sportsman’s coupé’ should look and was referred to artist Donald Reesby who produced a full colour sketch. Lyons liked this so much he ordered Holland to build the car. This had a very long sleek bonnet and very low coupé roof.
William Walmsley believed there would not be enough headroom in the car and the roof line should be higher. Lyons didn’t agree and preferred the lower look, but went off to hospital with appendicitis and Walmsley instructed Holland to raise the roof height. By the time Lyons came out of hospital it was too late to make any changes ahead of the planned launch at the Motor Show and Walmsley’s version made it into production, much to Lyons’ annoyance.
In the summer of 1932, Lyons and Gardner re-designed the SS 1, lengthening the car somewhat, extending the front mudguards into full length running boards, taking it much nearer Lyons original proportions.
For a while Holland ran an SS II saloon as his own car and use to compete in SS Car Club rallies including ‘best performance in an SS’ in Blackpool in 1935 and Scarborough in 1936.
Walmsley left the partnership in 1934 leaving Lyons free to run the company his own way. Lyons and Holland spent a great deal of time working on the body design for the new SS Jaguar car and a running prototype was finished just in time for its launch at the Mayfair Hotel on 21st September 1935. The SS Jaguar was unveiled to much favourable comment and the assembled company were asked to guess the price. The average guess was £632, the actual price… just £395.
Motor shows were a great source of styling inspiration to Lyons and Holland, who was made to accompany him. But to Holland’s embarrassment, Lyons would stop by a stand and say in front of the stand’s personnel, “I like that Cyril, you want to remember that when we do one of our next jobs!”
A New Direction for Car Building and Cyril Holland
The late 1930s saw major changes coming to the industry with the start of the move from wooden framed cars to all steel meaning the role of a coachmaker would disappear. War intervened and Holland’s expertise was put to good use as the company had a contract to repair Whitley bombers and Holland was put in charge. After the war Holland, who had been made Body Shop Manager, was not happy directing large groups of men and decided to leave. Lyons offered him a much bigger salary than he had expected, and assured him of a place in the country but did not offer Cyril the written contract he wanted, so he left to run a number of successful small companies of his own. With his departure, Fred Gardner took over his role as Lyons’ styling “interpreter”.
In the 20 years Holland was with Lyons, he had implemented the whole jig-building system which contributed to the growth and success of the company throughout the 1930s and they had gone on to design 15 cars together. His role in the company justified them using the term ‘Coachbuilding’ in the company name and without him it is likely that many of Lyons’ basic sketches would never have made it to production.
Now aged 50 he moved down to the Bournemouth area and spent some time experimenting with Hydroponics – soil-less fruit growing. He then went on to run a number of small engineering businesses, one of them in partnership with Arthur Whittaker, finally retiring at age 73.
Authors: Shihanki Elpitiya and Tony Merrygold
© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust