Jaguar Cars during World War Two

This is the story of a car company adapting to the destruction of the demand for private passenger cars thanks to restrictions on non-essential journeys. It is also the story of the direct effect on the perception of a brand's name by changing world affairs beyond its control and a story that has many parallels with current challenges.

SS Cars Limited had their production facilities requisitioned during the war like so many others, but their ability to adapt quickly to serve the engineering requirements of the war effort and to re-brand at the end of it all, arguably contributed to their ultimate success.

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The first reference to a sleek, black jungle cat appearing on a car from William Lyons’ SS Cars company came in 1935, with the arrival of the gorgeous SS Jaguar 2.5 Saloon. Lyon’s business partner, who had founded the company with him, William Walmsley, had left by this time, having objected to SS going public in 1931. Despite all that internal turmoil and the grim global economic depression of the 1930s, the company still seemed to be going places.

SS Cars went yet further and produced their first open two-seater sports car, also in 1935. It was called the SS 90 and it despite being stunningly good looking, to many a motoring journalist at the time, the aesthetics wrote cheques the engine couldn’t cash. Under the louvred bonnet, sat a side-valve, Standard Motor Company derived, six cylinder engine which had also been used in the SS1. But, at 70hp, it just didn’t deliver enough performance to satisfy the wealthy speed freaks of the 1930s.

Customers agreed and only 23 were made before the engine was developed by Harry Weslake to feature an overhead valve cylinder head and twin SU Carburettors. Initially, the increase took the car over the 100hp mark but later, further development into 3.5 litre guise would see the cat reach 125bhp and a reach a top speed over the magical 100mph mark, getting to sixty in less than 9 seconds. These were astronomical performance figures for the era and compared to just about everything else on UK roads at the time, it was lightning quick.

The SS Jaguar badge on the radiator was a bold statement of what the future would hold for the company and the ‘100’ badge on the headlamp crossbar reminded onlookers of the car’s phenomenal abilities.


By the time the famous Neville Chamberlain “This country is at war with Germany” speech had rung out on wireless sets across the land in 1939, 191 of the 2.5 litre cars had made their way to wealthy owners and the SS 100 Jaguar would go on to sell 309 examples in all.

The British motor industry in 1939 was larger and more economically essential for the UK as a whole than it is today. But in 1939, everything changed. Car manufacturer’s factories were to be requisitioned and many others in the supply chain would also turn their attentions to war production including SU carburettors, Dunlop tyres and Smiths gauges - to name but a few.

Virtually no personal cars, commercial vehicles or even parts for private cars were made during the war and fuel was heavily rationed. Non – essential car journeys were discouraged (does that sound familiar?) and many private motor cars went into storage for the duration of the war. The fact that we have examples of pre-war vehicles to enjoy to this day is itself, nothing short of a miracle, as almost anything metal that wasn’t in regular use was either re-purposed or recycled into products for the war effort.

What is certain with historical hindsight is that, without the active British motor industry, the war could well have had a very different outcome. Although not able to make their core product, motor companies like SS Cars were responsible for everything from bullets and helmets to guns and aircraft.

What SS Cars did during the war varied. But, their expertise in building very sturdy and solid motorcycle sidecars was known widely of course. They were a natural fit then, for producing the more than 30,000 lightweight military trailers that the MOD needed for the war effort. These trailers, when fully loaded to their ½ tonne capacity, floated in water! An example of one of these trailers can still be found within the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust collection today.

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SS Cars also produced a further 16,000 trailers designed specifically to be dropped from a great height, by parachute, onto the front line. SS Cars also went back into production on sidecars in a big way and it is estimated they ended the war having built around 10,000 military sidecars for various applications.

But, the majority of the wartime work related to aircraft. For SS Cars, this would predominantly be involved with the repair of Whitley bombers which were flight tested at nearby Tachbrook aerodrome. By 1945, the company had made aircraft wings, fuel tanks, tails and other components for Whitley bombers.

They also had a hand in bomb doors for the iconic Lancaster bombers and even components for the legendary Spitfires including more fuel tanks, wing tips, oil sumps and metal components for Meteors and the Mosquitoes that the Standard Motor Company had been pressed into action on.

In 1945, SS Cars changed their branding company-wide to Jaguar Cars Ltd. It is widely accepted now that this move was taken in response to the fact that “SS” had become an unsavoury phrase associated with Nazi Germany. An example then, of world events imposing quite a different meaning onto a company’s brand in a damaging way. A modern parallel can be found when you consider the challenge that must now face the makers of Corona Beer in the post-Coronavirus pandemic world!

Unsurprisingly, all the extra capacity required during wartime production could not all be contained at the companies premises on Swallow Road in Foleshill. During the war, aptly named ‘shadow factories’ were set up to help increase capacity. For SS Cars, one of those was a shoe factory near Leicester!

Many of these 'shadow factories' had already been built before the war in anticipation of it all kicking off and after battle was declared, were run by the motor industry specifically for the Air Ministry. The workforce was made up of predominantly women as men were conscripted and headed for the front line.

It is fair to say that Coventry was seriously 'duffed up' by the Luftwaffe. On the 14th November 1940, the city suffered a monumental aerial attack codenamed Moonlight Sonata by German forces. Nearly 600 people died, 863 were badly injured and 4,300 houses were quite literally flattened. Even Coventry’s medieval cathedral was set on fire.

Regardless of the onslaught, the 'shadow factories' remained important long after VE Day and by 1945, newly renamed Jaguar Cars Ltd had completely outgrown their existing premises. William Lyons attempted to develop the existing factory, but was refused planning permission. So instead, settled on what had been the Daimler No.2 factory at Allesley. In the time immediately after VE Day, Daimler had moved most of their activities away to their number 1 site on Radford Road in Coventry. So, this facility had become vacant and had all that William Lyons needed for his post-war expansion plans.

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As the site was still classed as a 'shadow factory', William Lyons was required to take out a 5-year lease from the Ministry of Supply on the new site in 1950. The move was completed with a press and dealers party to launch it in November 1952 and by the arrival of the 1960s ‘Sir’ William Lyons, as he had by then become, bought the site for a reputed £1.25 million. That site was situated on what would become a famous location for the Jaguar brand in Coventry. It was of course, Browns Lane.

Back to 1950, and the then Technical Director of Jaguar Cars, William Heynes, interviewed a certain Malcolm Sayer for a job at Jaguar. Sayer had worked as an aircraft engineer with the British Aeroplane Company during WW2. A job that had saved him from conscription as he was classified as an 'essential worker'.

Heynes, who had a mathematics honours degree, apparently spotted Sayers' talent for taking an aerodynamic approach to his work. They had a lot in common, as Heynes had also been involved during wartime with aircraft production working on alloy fuselage construction. Malcolm Sayer got the job and started work in the Jaguar Cars engineering drawing office in early 1951.

Lessons learned during the war developing aircraft with the science of aerodynamics would shape the style of Jaguars over the next two decades. It was a styling approach that would start of course, with the aero-styled C and D Types and ultimately lead to one of the most beautiful cars ever made, the Jaguar E Type.

Written for the Jaguar Enthusiasts' Club by Wayne Scott

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