Everyone loves Jaguar cars. Their trademark silver jaguar rampant on the bonnet and their distinctive grills are famous to millions. Less well-known however are Jaguar's connections to the seaside town of Blackpool. Today a glitzy international organisation producing several series of ultra-luxury car models to purr through the roads of Britain, Jaguar has origins which although grounded in trained engineering, formal mechanics and general tinkering with motors, were surprisingly humble and provincial.
In the early 20th century, a local family, the Irish-Manchester Walmsleys had settled in King Edward Avenue, establishing Swallow Sidecars Limited in town. Returning home from serving in World War I, the son, William became in his new leisure, very keen on messing about with motorcycles and engines. In 1920 he produced the sidecar, the 'Ot-as-Ell', an aerodynamic sensation in its day. Meanwhile, another William, William Lyons who had attended Poulton-le-Fylde Grammar School and South Shore's Arnold School, trained at Crossleys Motors Ltd. learning about chassis for military vehicles, before studying engineering at Manchester Technical College. As Lyons gradually focused on the business side of things, Walmsley was left freer to design the vehicles.
Lyons and Walmsley developed the business to create in 1927 the Austin Seven 2-Seater 747 cc car. Their imagination and foresight resulted in fabulous motors in ever improved versions over subsequent years. Making inroads into present local history and contributing significantly to the post-war workforce of this era, the early Blackpool sites employed considerable numbers of local people – a notable achievement during this economically unstable period.
Sadly for Blackpool, Jaguar decided for reasons unclear today to leave the seaside for Coventry in 1928. It is almost a century ago now but those interested in the history of this company or in heritage stories generally, can view remnants of the old sites around town. Parts of walls and brickwork of the Jaguar sheds and workshops are still visible at Exchange Street and on Bloomfield Road by the No.1 club, almost opposite Blackpool Football Club but of its premises on Cocker Street and in North Shore there is no trace of their brief lives.
By 1934 William Heynes, yet another William, joined Jaguar as chief first engineer. The grand vision of Lyons, Walmsley and Heynes produced fleets of sleek sinuous cars which purring through British country roads were quickly ordered from abroad as status symbols of wealth and power.
Information on Jaguar history is widely available in such car magazines as Autocar or Classic Cars but absorbing hours can be had reading from three books particularly. Detailed lists of the many models from 1927 through the 1930s SS coupés and the XK series of the 1940s to the perhaps more familiar 1960s XJs are included in Andrew Whyte's 1980 Jaguar. the history of a great British car. In these pages are copies of original posters and advertisements which, in their unique art deco-ish character, are for collectors wonderful sources of contemporary arts and design. Black and white photographs are helpfully interspersed within the text in this mine of motoring history. In one lovely monochrome photograph of a cream and crimson Morris Cowley-Swallow car, sits Alice Fenton, Lyons' girl Friday PA and secretary who in her spare time promoted Jaguar cars by modelling for pictures. Here she is in cloche hat, parked outside Blackpool's Stanley Park whose gates can clearly be seen behind the glamorous motorcar with its elegant lines and swirls.
Philip Porter's 1992 oversize Jaguar sporting the outline of the poised, pouncing big cat on its green cover focuses more on the nitty gritty of individual models. Chronologically arranged, this book contains some amazing large-scale photographs in black and white and in colour. In 2001, Porter joined with Paul Skilleter to publish Sir William Lyons. The Official Biography. This relates the personal life and professional career of the man himself. Inside are also biographies of Jaguar people and helpful tables presenting figures of exports and other business records. From these the fluctuating fate of this international organisation can be inferred: its enormous investments in invention and artistry and how its prominent profile and constant high sales became offset by high taxes and frequently minimal annual net profits. Troubles too, erupting with trade unions, largely resolved in 1982, reflected the precarious state of British industry during the 1970s.
Lyons' career escalated over the decades, the two big cat names of Lyons and Jaguar forever intertwined, and as Director General he was knighted in 1956. One photograph depicts the Queen visiting the Jaguar factories just after his award.
Sir William and Lady Patricia, his wife, had already moved in the 1930s to Wappenbury Hall near Leamington Spa, having two children there but their lives were marred by the tragic loss in 1955 of their only son, John, in a car crash in France. In the same year, Simon Elwes painted Lyons' portrait. Despite all the information, the stories, the pictures and the humbug, Lyons remains an elusive figure. Grief stricken, business driven, obsessed with the cars, he appears shadowy, secretive but a family man with a close circle of friends and relatives. Lyons died in 1901.
In many of the older photographs, the vintage cars, aloof and elegant, personify the lost dreams of a vanished age with its idealized notions of life as it ought to be lived. Today the pictures and texts offer fleeting glimpses into remote worlds of extreme ambition, innovative design and clever marketing. They are poignant reminders of Jaguar's memorable history. The life of this near mythic company whose roots unexpectedly lie in Blackpool and the North West is every day renewed in the instantly recognisable motorcars humming along city streets or roaring through rural lanes in Britain and abroad.