March 27, 2008 | Times of India

Cats with grace, space and pace

The biggest cat in the automotive world is a prize catch for an Indian predator but to term Tata Motors that would be grossly unfair.

Ratan Tata and his team were as stunned as the rest of the industry when Ford put both Jaguar and Land Rover on the market. The result of this has culminated in Tata Motors now effectively the new owners of two of the motoring world's greatest brand names and given its recent tumultuous history, I am sure that Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons would be smiling on the deal.

Who would have thought that a firm started in Blackpool to make sidecars for motorcycles would one day end up in Indian hands?

When William Lyons and his partner William Walmsley set up Swallow Sidecars in 1922, they hadn't that faintest idea that they would be still in the business eighty years on, making some of the best cars to epitomize grace, space and pace, ride out the mess that was British Leyland ownership, restart its climb back to the top, get taken over by Ford, do well for a while before Ford's troubles resulted in it being put on the selling block.

Heck keeping the sad stuff aside, lets concentrate on why Jaguar is so strongly perceived and respected by automotive enthusiasts the world over.

From making sidecars of great quality and worksmanship, it was inevitable that the two Williamses got off to clothing some of the sporty small cars in vogue in England at that time.

MGs, Morrises, Austins, Satandards, etc, etc were given the Swallow Sidecar treatment and when from there on Williams Lyons headed into exciting but unchartered waters of breathing his specially bodied cars, the world got a whiff of what was to come in the heady days after the second world war.

By the early 1930s, the company had changed its name to SS (an abbreviation of Swallow Sidecars), got the Standard Motor Co to build a special chassis to its own specifications but powered by a Standard engine suitably breathed upon by SS of course.

This combination clothed in rakish sporty bodywork did the trick and SS was up and running. Orders poured in thick, for a small firm that is, but Lyons knew that he had to get going on all fronts. Having a Standard engine compromised the performance so Lyons introduced two great automotive men into SS Harry Weslake guru of cylinder head design and combustiontechnologies, and William Heynes as the chief engineer.

From then on the firm never looked back, halted of course in its stride by Hitler getting everyone involved in bitter
contretemps for six long dark years.

An inevitable fallout of WW II was that the name SS had to be dispensed with, obviously any mention of the German dictator's dreaded Gestapo was a big turn-off and so the name of this British firm was changed to Jaguar Cars and the firm had its premises up and running at Coventry.

A new model development programme came in and the classic six-cylinder inline engine displacing 3442cc was the jewel which emerged.

This was the classic XK engine and it could develop 160bhp! The engine came first but William Lyons was not content to slot it into any body. An all new design was pencilled in by Lyons and this appeared as the classic XK120 at the end of 1948.

There was no looking back thereafter. The XK120 with its flowing splendorous lines and tremendous performance captivated enthusiasts in Europe and the US.

Lyons next went racing and with derivatives of the XK120 literally shook the established set on the continent. With the XK120C (better known as the C-Type) and latterly the D-Type, Jaguar got a stranglehold on the tough Le Mans 24 Hour race in France, winning it five times in the 1950s. No one, not even Ferrari could muster such a record until of course after Jaguar pulled out of the sport at the top level, mission accomplished that the Scuderia went after Jag's record, winning nine times at Le Mans. Of course Jaguar returned to Le Mans in the 1980s, winning twice again.

In the 1960s it was its evocative E-Type, probably along with the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing and the legendary Gerrari 250 GT, the most sensuously-styled automobile ever. And it had both the oomph to go with the glitz.

A breathed on version of the classic XK mill and the E-Type rivaled the best Ferraris of its day. Giving the E-Type company in the Jaguar range were the XJ series of sporty premium saloons which more than anyone else epitomized the classic Jaguar ethos of grace, space and pace.

Heynes and another great engineer Harry Mundy kept Jaguar at the cutting edge in engine technology. Having acquired Coventry Climax, the maker of among other things great F1 Grand Prix engines, Jaguar came up with their twin overhead cam 5.3-litre V12 which first appeared in the mid-engined but ill-fated XJ13.

This was later sanitized with a single ohc and it started powering road going salons and sports cars. The XJS sports coupe came on the scene while the next gen XJ saloons were improved mightily.