Preparations for War
Like many other motor manufacturers in the Midlands, SS Cars were involved with the war effort both in the run-up to war and for the duration.
Following the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the Nazi party gradually took over total power in the country and advanced territorial demands on neighbouring countries. The threat to peace from Nazi Germany pushed the British government into a rearmament programme which saw major contracts being awarded to established manufacturers and suppliers to the military. However, the quantities required meant that many of the factories concerned could not cope, so sub-contracts were awarded variously to the civilian sector, the motor industry was one of those that benefited. William Lyons wanted some of this work for SS Cars and spent many months visiting government departments in search of contracts.
He knew that if war came, car production would stop and to keep the factory in work he had to act quickly. Later he wrote: ‘I was worried about the outlook for our company and as a machine shop was almost non-existent our only hope was to obtain some airframe contracts.’ Lyons made an appointment with the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) at their Harrogate contract office on 11 November 1938, to see if SS Cars could obtain some aircraft work. The MAP suggested Lyons would do better if he visited the aircraft maker Short Brothers at their Dorchester facility. At the time, Shorts were producing the Short Sunderland flying boat for the RAF and developing the Stirling heavy bomber. Although Dorchester was a long way from Harrogate Lyons made the journey.
The next day he visited Shorts though he did not have an appointment but his tenacity paid off and SS Cars were given a contract to build Stirling wing components. Although at this stage the prototype Stirling had not flown – that would take place on 13 May 1939 – the Air Ministry had already placed an order for 100 machines and it was for these that SS Cars would make the required sections. Having secured the work and confident that other war contracts would follow, Lyons added floor space by purchasing Motor Panels Ltd, who were based on the same estate in Foleshill, Coventry near the SS works. As the months went by and the prospect of war looked more likely, car sales slowed and so did the money to keep SS Cars in funds. The little war work that Lyons had obtained was not going to be enough to keep SS Cars afloat, so he began to search for further contracts, willing to undertake any work that may be offered.
Early in the war, Lyons was able to secure a contract to repair battle-damaged Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers, which, in 1939, together with the Vickers Wellington and Handley Page Hampden formed the backbone of RAF Bomber Command.
Waiting to enter RAF service was the twin-engined Avro Manchester and with a possibility of some work on the heavy bomber coming to SS Cars the factory was made ready. However, though production of the Manchester had commenced in July 1939 it was delayed into RAF service due to problems with the Rolls-Royce Vulture engines. After the initial contract for 200 machines had been completed in 1940 the aircraft was taken out of production and no contract was forthcoming for SS Cars. This meant that Lyons had to look for other work to ease the financial position; with no cars being manufactured and buildings to be paid for the Company was in a bad way. Indeed, William Lyons was obliged to guarantee the overdraft with the bank by putting up his holdings in SS Cars, Wappenbury Hall and personal possessions. However, the situation changed with a contract for an established Swallow product.
Military Sidecar & Trailer Production
H R Davies, TT race winner and founder of the motor cycle company HRD Motors was by 1940 an employee of SS Cars. He had sold his business and joined Lyons as sales and development manager of Swallow Sidecars which was now a subsidiary of SS Cars. Davies and Lyons continued to design and develop sidecars, which were still in demand as the 1930s drew to a close.
War brought a lucrative contract, secured by Howard Davies, for Swallow sidecars of various descriptions for use by the military. These machines were used by assorted war departments and apart from the standard version, there were specialist sidecars to carry RAF reconnaissance cameras to and from aircraft and to service departments, radio carrying versions and a folding sidecar to transport parachute-drop containers. Around 10,000 Swallow sidecars were manufactured for the Ministry of Supply.
The payment for the sidecars put SS Cars onto a better financial basis and a new contract for assorted trailers which arrived later in the war was also most welcome.
By the end of the war SS Cars had built over 55,000 trailers of various types from mule-towed carts for the Far East campaigns and small two-wheel trailers for transporting stores to substantial carriers for aircraft fuselages.
Aircraft Repair & Reassembly
Damaged Whitley bombers were delivered to Foleshill in a dismantled state on board long aircraft transporters which were nicknamed ‘Queen Mary’ due to their size. Lyons and the workforce at SS Cars knew nothing about the stringent rules that applied to repairing aircraft when they started work on the Whitleys. Initially, Lyons assumed that they would simply repair the damage and the aircraft would be fit to return to active duty. That was not the way the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate (AID) operated, they had very high standards as these aeroplanes had to be made airworthy and lives depended on the quality of the repairs. Learning from the AID officials and inspectors, SS Cars soon learned the art of aircraft repair, so much so that from simply carrying out rectification work they were entrusted with the responsibility of reassembling the Whitleys and making them ready for flight testing from nearby Tachbrook airfield.
The quality of work from Swallow and SS Cars was obviously recognised as further contracts were granted; to manufacture parts for the De Havilland Mosquito; Avro Lancaster and Supermarine Spitfire. These parts ranged from auxiliary fuel tanks and wing-tips for the Spitfire; bomb-bay doors for the Lancaster and various racks and brackets to hold instruments etc. inside the aircraft.
Engineering work was also secured with a contract from Hawker Siddeley to manufacture components for the Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah engine, which was used to power various aircraft such as the Avro Anson. The Foleshill factory was fully occupied with the various contracts, so additional floor space had to be found for the Cheetah engine work and then on 14 November 1940, during the worst period of the Coventry blitz, the Foleshill factory was damaged. Lyons heard about a disused former shoe factory at South Wigston near Leicester and with the assistance of Armstrong Siddeley set up a machine shop and under the management of Jack Beardsley, SS Cars moved into the aero engine business in late 1941.
Early in 1940 George Carter of Gloster designed a twin-engined jet-powered aircraft even before Frank Whittle’s revolutionary gas turbine engine had been flown. The Air Ministry had been sufficiently impressed by the brochure submitted by Carter that they wrote a Specification (F.9/40) to accommodate the Gloster design. In February 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production ordered twelve prototypes of the F.9/40 for test purposes and followed this up in June that year for 300 production aircraft. The first of the prototype aircraft, now named Meteor, was delayed and did not fly until March 1943.
All this work was top secret and known to a very few people at the time. William Lyons used his contacts with Hawker Siddeley to obtain further work and in July 1943 SS Cars was rewarded with a contract to manufacture the important centre fuselage, engine nacelles and inner wing sections for the new jet fighter.
In order to carry out the task specialist tooling was required. This was entrusted to Standard Motors but they delayed and it was not until early in 1944 that SS Cars were able to start work and deliver completed sections later that year.
Experimental Army Vehicles
Lyons had heard about engineer Walter (Wally) Hassan’s work for Bentley and with Thomson and Taylor at Brooklands and when he visited the Surrey track in September 1938 he asked Tommy Wisdom for his opinion on Hassan. Wisdom gave a glowing report on Hassan, which resulted in Lyons offering the job of Chief Experimental Engineer for SS Cars to Hassan. He joined the Company in October 1938 and went to work immediately on the new SS chassis and suspension. On the outbreak of war Hassan was seconded to work on aero engines at Bristol Aircraft, but was back with SS Cars in 1940 where he immersed himself in getting the various trailers into quantity production. However, the Ministry of Supply, now quite confident with the work from SS Cars, suggested a new vehicle that they were keen to develop. They wanted a range of lightweight vehicles that could be dropped by parachute alongside airborne troops, land without damage and be driven off straightaway without further assembly. Hassan was given the task of leading his four-man team with the design of such a vehicle.
The vehicle which emerged first was quite simple with a monocoque body (a first for SS/Jaguar) made from folded steel and with independent suspension all round. Power was supplied by a JAP (JA Prestwich) twin-cylinder air-cooled engine mounted on the right above the back wheels. Given the suffix ‘VA’ the two-seater was left-hand-drive (it was intended to be dropped into Europe) and trials were carried out. Hassan remembered: “It was very light, not top heavy like the American Jeep, and was very simply engineered, but it was strong and even though only two-wheel-drive it performed reasonably well but it was just not powerful enough and we moved on to the next idea.”
This was more conventional with four seats and power from a front-mounted side-valve Ford Ten engine driving the rear wheels. Known as the ‘VB’ the vehicle used many Ford and Standard parts, including the wheels, transmission and some instruments. Long travel independent suspension used coil springs and wishbones at the front and a swing axle arrangement at the rear. An option to fit twin rear wheels was also incorporated but there is no record of the VB being tested in this configuration.
Both the VA and the VB were driven on and off road and were tested against similar vehicles at the Wheeled Vehicle Experimental Establishment (WVEE) at Aldershot. Hassan used to test the VA and VB himself and often used one of the two as a daily driver to and from work. However, the two lightweight vehicles were not developed further, as the RAF and Army had mastered the art of air-dropping the Willys Jeep by parachute. Aircraft too had increased in size and could carry the Jeep to theatre as required. Hassan’s VB prototype was bought by the WVEE and appears to have been used by them for some years after the war. Wally Hassan recalled that “…many years later they actually wrote to the Jaguar Spares Department ordering some replacement parts!”
With the war coming to an end Jack Beardsley and his men completed their contract work in Wigston 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.
The XK engine was under development during the latter stages of the war and launched at the 1948 Motor Show in the XK120 Super Sports.
Author: François Prins
© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust