1938 Jaguar SS100
1938 Jaguar SS100. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

In the 1950s and 60s, the two Jaguar sports models that really established the Jaguar name in North America were the 1949 XK120 and the 1961 E-Type. While both were stunning, they were not the first famous Jaguar sports cars. The pre-war SS100 had also been an outstanding, “coming-of-age” sportster for Jaguar when it arrived as a 1936 model.

Jaguar advanced quickly in the automobile field after its modest roots were planted in 1922 when William Lyons and William Walmsley formed the Swallow Sidecar Company in Blackpool, England. They built stylish, aluminum, zeppelin-shaped motorcycle side-cars, and business flourished. By 1927 they had branched out into making custom bodies for Austin Sevens and other small cars.

Swallow relocated to larger premises in Coventry in 1928, and by the early thirties had progressed into full fledged automobile production using Standard Motor Company chassis and engines. They showed their first production cars in 1931, the ultra-low SSI and SSII models (it was never clarified what SS stood for). Both were on Standard platforms and were priced very attractively, a feature that would become a Jaguar tradition.

The SS Car Company was formed in 1934 to take over the car building operation, leaving sidecars to Swallow Coachbuilding. SS produced its first sports car, the SS90, in the spring of 1935, powered by a 2.7-litre, 90-horsepower side-valve six. It was derived from the original SS 1 roadster, and only a few were made.

The Jaguar name first appeared in the fall of 1935 on the SS Jaguar sedan and roadster, followed a few months later by the SS100 Jaguar roadster, essentially an SS90 powered by a more powerful 2.5-litre Standard-based six. The engine was fitted with an overhead valve cylinder head developed in collaboration with Harry Weslake, the leading English expert in cylinder head design at that time. The result was a lusty 102 horsepower. It had a sturdy seven bearing crankshaft, aluminum pistons and twin SU carburetors, and would be the basis for all Jaguar engines until 1948 when it was joined by the fabulous new XK120 twin overhead cam six.

The SS100 was a dashing sports car of the classic 1930s English genre. Its traditional clamshell fender line swept back to the running boards, arched over the back wheels and curved around the rear of the car. It ended in a pert tail that carried the spare tire. The very long hood was accentuated by four extended rows of louvres and the front end was dominated by huge Lucas headlamps. These and the radiator, were protected by wire-mesh stone guards.

The two bucket seats were clothed in leather, and the driver viewed a large tachometer and speedometer through the customary big, black, high-mounted steering wheel.

Underneath was an X-braced frame, mechanical brakes and solid front and rear axles suspended on semi-elliptic springs. A four-speed manual transmission was fitted, and the 18-inch Dunlop tires were carried on handsome wire-spoke, centre-lock wheels.

While the 2.5-litre SS100 had all the panache and glamour of the classic English roadster, and certainly looked fast, it fell short of the magic “ton” (100 mph; 161 km/h) that was suggested by its name. This would be rectified in the fall of 1937 with the arrival of the 3.5-litre version.

The 3.5 engine was a heavily revised version of the 2.5, with larger bore and stroke, bigger valves and larger diameter main bearings. It developed 125 horsepower at 4,250 rpm, and like the 2.5, breathed through two SU carburetors.

Autocar magazine reported a fast zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 10.4 seconds for the 1,134 kg (2,500 lb) roadster and a top speed of 163 km/h (101 mph). The SS100’s spirited performance finally lived up to its name.

SS 100s were campaigned widely in competitions like rallies and hillclimbs and acquitted themselves well, particularly the 3.5-litre version. They returned to rallying following the Second World War, and were still competitive. Rallyist Ian Appleyard, in the only SS 100 to be built after the war, came in third in the Alpine Trial. Even as late as 1949 he managed a first in the over 1,500 cc class in the Dutch Tulip Rally.

The SS 100’s time was coming to a close, however. It was superseded in performance and technology by its successor the Jaguar XK120, which was a vastly better car, and by such models as Allard roadsters fitted with big American V8 engines.

In its four model year run (plus the one car built after the war) just under 1,000 SS 100s were produced. With classic English lines, outstanding performance for the period, and the unmistakable quality of character, Jaguar SS 100s are now very desirable collectibles.

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