Icons Part 3: Sir William Lyons


Sir William Lyons [Jaguar] 1901-1985.

In the book Auto Legends: Classics of Style and Design, the authors Zambrunn and Cumberford made these observations on Sir William Lyons “Britain’s finest ever stylist…………………..first and foremost a tough capable business man .He possessed an innate sense of line and form and an unbeatable sense of what would sell…………..His cars were rarely completely original and he improved on what he borrowed.”

Sir William Lyons rose from humble beginnings to become one of Britain’s foremost car manufacturers and pillars of the motoring establishment. He was neither an engineer nor draughtsman.

Sir William was in many respects very conservative and a typical English Gentleman but was not afraid to take calculated risks. He was possibly foremost an entrepreneur. There is perhaps the sense that Sir William may have liked to have been a formal stylist .He possessed a sense of good taste, but he neither drew or modelled .However despite this he created the Jaguar look.

In business Sir William was extremely successful and possessed single mindedness and considerable determination. Some have described him as enigmatic. He was certainly according to records cool, aloof and autocratic.

Jaguar under his direction displayed shrewd judgement for a combination of style with competitive price. These qualities were reinforced by business and assembly organisation enforced with strict discipline. In addition and complementary activities were Sir Williams’s demonstrated flair for finance, marketing, publicity, sales and customer relations.

Sir William purchased other companies to complement and enhance or perhaps reinforce Jaguar. These included Coventry Climax. It is interesting that there is a suggestion that c 1963/64 that Lotus was considered as an acquisition but the deal was not concluded.

Jaguar understood the importance of exports and the American market and vigorously pursued this. Sir William was a devoted family man and took great satisfaction from his farm and flock of prize sheep.


Sir William was knighted in 1956.He received an honory doctorate in 1969.In addition Sir William was formally recognised by prestigious design bodies the RDI and FRSA. He was awarded honory Fellowship of the Institute of Mechanical engineers

Personal Tragedy

Sir Williams’s son John died in a car accident in 1955. This must have been severe blow as Sir William had groomed and prepared his son to inherit Jaguar.

Motor Racing

Sir William was not a competitive driver. Neither did he pursue the sport as primarily objective or principle. He rather pursued racing as a means of enhancing sales. However his cars were used in competition from the SS in the 1930’s.The area of greatest success for Jaguar was in the 1950’s during the decade they were remarkably successful and consistent. Racing continued through the 1960’s but in the less glamorous saloon car racing.

Jaguar will perhaps be most indentified with sport racing cars that dominated Le Mans. The Jaguar started with the XK 120 and evolved the C and D Types .These cars also had the cmmon denominator of the superb and reliable straight six engine.

Jaguar cars also entered trials, saloon and national sports car events. Sir William never committed to FI- GP racing. He withdrew from racing probably for a combination of reasons that might include complexity, cost and that buoyant sales and demand did not warrant the publicity.

More recently Jaguar returned both to success and Le Mans. Although it has entered FI it has not enjoyed the same success.

Peer Influence and contributions

Sir William not being an engineer drew heavily on his engineering employees and craftsmen; specialist in their individual fields not least the development of the straight six twin overhead camshaft engine.

Although Sir William had considerable stylistic flair his greatest achievement borrowed heavily from other manufacturers. The SS looked somewhat like the Daimler Double Six; the XK 120 like the B.M.W and Bugatti’s. The aesthetics of the C and D types were functional and not stylistic and are attributed to aero dynamist Malcolm Sayer.

Although not an engineer Sir William might be given credit for engaging the considerable talent of others and having the commercial and aesthetic appreciation to market an attractive and overall competitive range of motoring products. Furthermore it was the commercial and design flair of Sir William that allowed the iconic cars like the E Type to be available to such a wide audience.

Industrial Design

Sir William was not personally involved in external industrial design; neither did he take out any patents. Perhaps it should be remembered that Jaguar did consider some utility vehicles for war use and also some lesser commercial vechicles.

Less than Expected

Jaguar did not have many failures. Sir Williams’s cars right from the start, including the sidecars and Austin Seven specials were very specifically targeted and priced for volume production. As such his cars sold well in the depressed era of the 1930’s.

The Mk.X and S Type were possibly the least successful; perhaps failing on appearance as much as the fuel crises.
It is of considerable speculation whether the XJ13 could have been competitive .It is probable that it suffered from lack of commitment from the top and might have been over late as a result. It was certainly dramatic in appearance. Some might make a comparison between the XJ13 and the XK220. The XK220 suffered from technical problems and other external economic forces although briefly one of the fastest cars in the world.

The author feels that the current range has been a mixed bag of design motif and the XK8 being rather bland and not really connecting with the distinctive style achieved in the past. Along with other manufacturers the retro style is not easily or successively adopted. The author would attribute this to the compactness of modern cars and in particular the transverse front engine. The shorter bonnet fails to articulate the power of the straight six engines etc.

The Iconic Cars

In design and market terms Sir William was something of a democrat. He made available to the public and enthusiast the types of car that they aspired to but could not otherwise afford. The early cars as such might have been slightly boy racer with economies on performance to enhance visual appeal.

Within a survey of the worlds one hundred most iconic cars; Jaguar are likely to record the SS100, XK120, DType [and XKSS]; E type and the XK220.In addition the XK engine will be remembered for its Stirling work in the Tojerio and Lister.

Of all of these it is perhaps the E type that will be remembered the most due to a unique combination of features; its aesthetic, performance, affordability and the era in which it was born and in many respects defined.