Sir William Lyons was born in Blackpool in 1901, the namesake of an Irish father and an English mother. A bright boy, he was curious about machinery and good at school work. His family secured for him an engineering apprenticeship at Crossley Motors where he developed an intense interest in the burgeoning automotive industry. In 1919, he left his apprenticeship to work for a Sunbeam dealer in his hometown and met William Walmsley two years later. The industrious Walmsley had been adapting surplus military surplus motorcycles for civilian use and manufacturing sidecars to use with them. Lyons was impressed with the quality and workmanship of them and bought one for his own use. The two became friends and decided to go into business together and obtained from their fathers the necessary funding to start their company.
As soon as Lyons reached legal age – 21 years old – he formed the Swallow Sidecar Company with Walmsley and was staffed by three men and a boy. The sidecars were well made and sold in sufficient numbers to keep the company afloat but the firm decided to place greater focus on producing automobiles as the 20s progressed. Having outgrown several manufacturing plants, the company relocated to Coventry and increased car production to 50 units per week.
In 1931, the legendary SS line was established and the company changed its name to SS Cars Limited two years later. The first Jaguar reached the market in 1935 and during the war the firm focused on aviation work and other military contracts. When the war ended, Lyons changed the company name to Jaguar to avoid any mental connections with Hitler’s SS and the company developed the legendary XK engine in 1948 that would power Jaguar’s into the 90s.
The XK120, originally designed as a limited production halo car entered volume production when it was met with near universal acclaim and it was followed by a succession of Jaguar sports cars that culminated with the iconic E-Type in the 60s. Under his watch, the company was successful in international motorsports with a string of victories in some of the grandest events of the day. The XJ6, introduced in 1968, was one of Lyons’ proudest accomplishments as it married sports car performance to a family sized salon car.
A difficult man to get along with and work for, Lyons was responsible for styling many of the cars that would bear the Jaguar name and his talent for selecting – and retaining for long periods – quality personnel speaks to the real measure of the man. Although he was reluctant to do so, he allowed Jaguar to become part of the conglomerate (British Motor Holdings) that evolved into British Leyland thereby losing much of the autonomy that he had joined when Jaguar was an independent company. Knighted for his services to the United Kingdom in 1956, he spent most of the years from 1972 to his death in 1985 playing golf, traveling and tending to livestock on his estate.