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The Early Years

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Home > JAGUAR HISTORY > The Early Years

The origins of Jaguar can be traced back to the northern seaside town of Blackpool in the early 1920s. It was here that a young motorcycle enthusiast, Bill Lyons (b. 1901), not yet 21 years of age, met William Walmsley (b. 1891) who was building attractive motorcycle sidecars and attaching them to reconditioned motorbikes. Walmsley had not long arrived in Blackpool with his parents from Stockport, and both families happened lived in the same street, King Edward Avenue.

As soon as William Lyons came of age, he and Walmsley formed the Swallow Sidecar Company on 4th September 1922 with a bank overdraft of 1,000GBP. Securing first and second floor premises in Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, they commenced commercial production of the sidecars together with a small team of eight employees, including a young Arthur Whitaker. Although initially employed to help with sales, Whitakers strength lay in purchasing and he was to remain with Lyons for some 50 years, proving himself to be one of the most shrewd purchasers in the business.

Lack of factory space soon became a problem, and two further Blackpool sites were taken over in Woodfield Road (mainly for despatch purposes) and, shortly afterwards, in John Street which was fortuitously situated close to the main Swallow premises.

In mid 1926, plans for producing motor car bodies were well under way, and this together with the year by year increase in production of the sidecars made it necessary for Swallow to move into a larger building. Lyons had heard that a building erected specifically for coachbuilding was coming on to the market. The previous occupant, Joseph Street, had run into trouble and the property was now up for sale, but at a price beyond which the partnership could afford. Fortunately, Walmsleys father had just sold his coal business and was looking for somewhere to invest the proceeds, offering to purchase the building and lease it to Lyons and Walmsley junior at an annual rent of 325 GBP.

The entire removal to 41 Cocker Street took just one weekend with no assistance from outside sources, other than the unofficial assistance of one pantechnicon and driver, which on the Friday had delivered new sidecar chassis frames from Haywards of Birmingham.

It was in late 1926, and announced to the public in May 1927, that the Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company first diversified by taking an existing car and bodying it with more fashionable coachwork. The first model to benefit was the popular, but basic, Austin Seven. Intended to bring motoring to the masses, the Austins were cheap and easy to run, but Lyons believed that it would also appeal to a lot of people if it had a more luxurious and attractive body. Lyons persuaded Stanley Parker, a dealer in Bolton, Lancashire, to supply him with a new Austin Seven chassis and the result, largely thanks to the efforts of Cyril Holland, a coachbuilder who had been hired from the Midlands, was the Austin Seven Swallow a distinctive open tourer, with its own cowled radiator, and at 175GBP (185GBP with the hinged hard top) remained well within the budget of many Austin owners.

The Austin Swallow proved popular and was followed in 1928 by the Austin Seven Swallow Saloon, a car that looked much more expensive than it actually was. By aping the style of the more luxurious cars of the era, the Swallows allowed their owners to keep up appearances at a time of economic hardship for many.

1928 also saw the brief introduction of the Morris Cowley Swallow. Relatively few of these cars were produced. Although the price was right, the Cowley Swallow was very slow, and would have struggled against the Oxford MG. This was not the only Morris connection, however. Produced as a one off, was the Morris Minor Swallow.

In 1928 the business was moved from Blackpool, where there was a serious shortage of skilled labour, to an old ammunition factory at Foleshill, Coventry. Capable of only producing 2 cars per day in the existing factory, an order from Henlys for 500 Austin Swallows effectively forced this move. With a fivefold increase in floor space, Swallow production could be upped from twelve to fifty cars per week. The move also reduced costs as it was no longer necessary to transport the chassis from their manufacturers in the Midlands up to Blackpool.

At the annual London Motor Show in 1929, three new Swallow models appeared for the first time. These were based on the existing Standard Big Nine, Swift Ten, and Fiat Tipo 509A chassis. The Standard Swallow was a rather larger saloon than the previous models, selling for 245GBP, but still offered a more extravagant body style than the manufacturers own car.

In 1931 the larger Standard 16 hp six cylinder Enfield chassis received the Swallow treatment, introducing the company to the 2054cc sidevalve engine, which they were to utilise for their next ambitious step forward. Meanwhile a model of rather more sporting pretensions was introduced with the Swallow version of the Wolseley Hornet, and in 1932 the even more sporty Hornet Special.

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