On February 8, 1985, Sir William Lyons, the founder of the British luxury automaker Jaguar, dies at the age of 84 in Warwickshire, England.
Lyons was born in Blackpool, England, on September 4, 1901. In 1922, the motorcycle enthusiast co-founded the Swallow Sidecar Company with his neighbor William Walmsley. The company started out making motorcycle sidecars, then turned to producing its own cars. In the early 1930s, the company was renamed SS Cars Ltd.; its first Jaguar automobile, the SS Jaguar 100, debuted in 1935. During World War II, the company’s plants were used to make airplane and auto parts for the British military. Following the war, the company changed its name again, to Jaguar Cars Ltd., to avoid any association with the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi paramilitary group also referred to by the initials “SS.”
In 1948, Jaguar released the XK120, which was capable of reaching speeds of 120 mph and helped the company stake its claim as a sports car brand. By the 1950s, Jaguar was exporting its high-performance cars to America. In 1961, the automaker introduced the E-type (known as the XK-E in the U.S.), a sleek two-seater with a bullet-like silhouette that was the fastest production sports car on the market at the time of its launch. The iconic roadster won accolades for its design and in 1996 an E-Type became part of the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (it was only the third car to do so).
In 1956, Lyons was knighted for his contributions to the British auto industry. A decade later, Jaguar merged with the British Motor Corporation to form British Motor Holdings, which later became part of British Leyland Ltd. Lyons retired from the business in 1972 and spent his remaining years raising livestock on his farm. He died in 1985. In 1990, Jaguar was acquired by the Ford Motor Company. Ford sold Jaguar, along with fellow British luxury brand Land Rover, to India-based Tata Motors in 2008, for approximately $2.3 billion. For Tata, the maker of the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, the deal was referred to by some as a move from “mass to class.”