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Jaguar's heritage museum

From sidecars to braking innovations, the museum tells the fascinating history of the marque.

You think you know somebody, and then you visit their museum and the once familiar becomes the complete stranger. I've been covering (and coveting) Jaguars for some 25 years now and yet, after 20 minutes with Neil McPherson, administrator of the Jaguar Heritage Museum, I have all manner of anecdotes that add a whole bunch of personality to what I thought was really a somewhat crusty past.

The company that would later become Jaguar didn't even start out making automobiles. In 1922, William Lyons (later to be Sir William) and William Walmsley formed Swallow Sidecars, building third wheels for the popular motorcycles of the time. Even their first car, a rebodied Austin Seven, bore no hint of the Jaguars to come. It wasn't until 1935 (hence 2010 being celebrated as the 75th anniversary of Jaguar) that Sir William Lyons produced his first car, the 2.5 Litre Saloon. Even that is a bit of a misnomer, as the production of the frame and engine for the new sedan was farmed out to Standard (but to Jaguar specs).

Lyons' design might not be the first Jaguar, as the original use of Jaguar wasn't even the company name, but rather rather it was the name of that specific model. The aforementioned 2.5 Litre's full name was the SS Jaguar 2.5 Litre Saloon. According to McPherson, only after the Second World War and the subsequent unfavourable connotations of the initials SS was the company's name changed to Jaguar.

Sir William was said to hate the abridged "Jag" name, no matter how lovingly applied. However, it was, says McPherson, perfectly alright to say that you worked at The Jag. Jaguar E-Type engines once powered a British tank. Some of the company's 4.2L inline sixes - albeit detuned from 265hp to 195 - powered more than 1,200 Scorpion treaded armoured reconnaissance vehicles. Armed with 76mm cannon and 7.62mm machine guns, the Scorpion featured much use of aluminum and other lightweight alloys in order to make it airplane portable. The result was a top speed of 87kph and it could accelerate to about 50kph in a quick - for a tank - 15 seconds. Scorpions were in service from 1973 to 1994, though some were later retrofitted with Perkins diesel engines.

Jaguar's famed inline six was designed as a "moonlight" project. With war efforts sometimes requiring them to service aircraft and other wartime products, engineers William Heynes, Walter Hassan and Claude Bailey all conspired to simultaneously work the night-time "firewatch" shift so they could design a replacement engine for the aging Standard unit. The end result was the XK, produced from 1949 until 1992. Earlier iterations of the same engine were labelled XF and XJ, both familiar names for modern Jaguar lovers.

Jaguar's greatest contribution to road safety is most assuredly the disc brake. A carryover from aircraft technology, they were first fitted to a C-Type raced by Stirling Moss and Norman Dewis in the 1952 Mille Miglia. According to Jaguar lore, the Italian scrutineers were so mystified by the new apparatus that they demanded a demonstration that they were in fact brakes. Dewis was Jaguar's chief development engineer for 36 years and 26 distinct Jaguars. He was also something of a hero. When development of its show car ran well into the wee hours, Dewis drove the then-brand-new E-Type through the night to deliver it in time for its debut at the 1961 Geneva auto show. One of the all-time great motor show introductions, the E-Type is still considered by many reputable automotive journals to be the most beautiful car of all time.

The very same Dewis crashed the rarest Jaguar's of all time, the XJ13. The first Jaguar V12, the 13's motor was essentially two XK blocks on a single crankcase. Dubbed XJ, for Experimental Jaguar, it displaced 5.0L and produced 500hp, though 7.0L and upwards of 700hp was said to be in the realm of possibility. It was later mothballed and, when pulled out for a promotional campaign for the then-new V12 E-Type Series 3, one of its experimental magnesium wheels disintegrated at well in excess of 200kph. Both car and driver were severely, but not terminally, damaged, and went on to live another day.

Perhaps the second most desirable Jaguar almost died an ignominious death. When Jaguar quit racing in 1956, Sir William decided to morph the then dominant D-Type into a "Super Sports" road car, the XKSS. Only 50 were to be produced, but in February, 1957, Jaguar's Browns Lane Factory was razed by fire. All the jigs and tooling for the D-Type and XKSS were destroyed. Nine completed cars were also unsalvageable. Only 16 remained; 12 went to the United States (film star and auto racer Steve McQueen was one owner), two to Canada, one to Hong Kong and only one stayed in Britain.

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