SS100 Jaguar

It takes something else to drive the legendary SS100 Jaguar

Those were the days when men were men. I am certainly no woman, but it’s just that some parts of my anatomy are not made of the right materials. For instance, I wish I had nerves of steel, arms of heavy duty bunched copper wire and loins (am just being politically correct) of lead. And that’s just to experience being driven in this awesome 1938 SS100 Jaguar, let alone drive it. 

Well, what do you expect when you are stretched out deep into the cockpit (and smothering your er, loins in the process), have barely enough shoulder room to free your hands to adjust the same, being jounced around and careening around corners, perhaps uncontrollably... all the while being exposed to the busy
machinations of the straight six and the rest of mother nature? 

An unforgettable moment, to say the least. But the experience was just beginning.
We were in Pune, having come for the sole purpose of seeing and driving the legendary SS100 in the flesh. The car belongs to film star, and more importantly, a true automobile connoisseur, Jackie Shroff. It was restored by Prakash Kunthe, who also takes care of it for him. It was Kunthe who was driving the car out of the city, with me tightly squeezed in the passenger seat, and going through the motions and emotions I told you about.Back in the late 1930s – in fact even now – it would have been the perfect, most enjoyable automotive moment. Making it happen was the most perfect of all British roadsters, yes, you could call it a blueprint for future open-topped, two-seater models, be it from Britain or from anywhere in the world. And the SS100 is historic too, for this is the model you have to say thank you to, every time your heart skips a beat when you see the leaping cat hood ornament. Ornament? A silly sounding,mundane word for what is the most evocative and powerful automotive symbols of all time, the Jaguar. More on the SS100’s place in
automotive history later.

We drive down a lovely stretch of road, and pause for these gorgeous photographs you see here. I take in the entire looks of the car, it’s so perfect (that word again!). What else can you expect from the pencil of SS/Jaguar founder William Lyons himself? The proportions convey power and speed – almost two-thirds of the car is a long hood, the rest is just the passenger compartment and the tail with the stepney mounted at an angle. These characteristics are typical of fast cars of that era – a long bonnet and a low chassis – but it was Lyon’s nifty touches like the long flowing wings/running board instead of the traditional ‘cycle’ fenders, large headlamps, low cut doors and the sharply inclined fuel tank at the rear that makes it look as if its moving just standing still. A feature that would be the hallmark of all cars that ever emerged from Coventry.
If it looks as if it’s in motion, how is it in motion? Let me tell you all about my memorable but brief stint behind the wheel. Wheel? It’s a large four-spoke wonder that could function as a stepney in case of emergencies, it’s that big. Getting in requires physical fitness and assiduously working out – you slide your left leg as deep as possible, plonk one-half bum on the seat, pull your other leg in and close the ‘suicide’ door. All this while, the steering wheel is pushing hard against your tummy, preventing you from getting in. Somehow I get inside and figure out the gear lever, which is placed somewhere near Mumbai. Reverse is a lifting dog-leg and the four forward gears are the standard H-shift. I press the well-worn starter button – I love starter buttons – and the growl emanating from the twin exhaust pipes at the rear is promising. 

In front of me are the two large gauges – the tachometer, redlined between 4500 and 5000 revs and the speedo, calibrated to 100 mph. Both Smiths’, but the dash is cluttered with various little buttons and gauges, and that too, from various other manufacturers like Jaeger and Lucas (who have conveniently provided a fuel main/reserve tap!). Shift into first, rev her hard – no pussyfooting around here – and the SS100 Jaguar shows her eagerness to move. The reason for that is the straight six underneath that louvered hood that displaces 2664 CC to develop 102 bhp. The engine, as significant as the car, features overhead valves, a first for Jaguar. 

Since it’s an all-new experience for me, it feels as if it’s the car which has taken over and not the other way round. Kunthe, who’s sitting next to me, urges me to shift to second. So be it. The pedals are so close-set that in case I had worn my boots instead of my keds, I wouldn’t have been able to drive this historic machine. I press the clutch, reach out into the dark abyss for the lever, and shift. With a sense of freedom, the SS100 moves forward, and by now, I have settled in and get an idea of how to steer this monster. 

The second is an extremely versatile gear to be in, especially on this road, which has its shares of straights and corners. Since shifting is off my mind now, I concentrate on manoeuvring the car around. If today’s best cars are judged by how telepathic their steering is, this is at the other extreme end. A corner comes up, and I have turned the wheel, but hey, the car’s still bent on going straight. Some more steering inputs, and finally the message reaches through the mechanical maze to the wheels, and slowly the SS100 turns
approximately in the direction you want to get to. Yup, it was very much as if I was piloting the Titanic. But soon I got used to it, and in fact, started enjoying it.

By now I have assumed the typical peering position of drivers of that era, chin up, and trying to look beyond the curvy wind-deflector and judging the car’s wings at the opposite end. I could stay in second all day, and the machine would keep moving without losing its cool. The only inclination to move to the next cog is a nice, clean, straight stretch. Third it is, and the sports car then defines the sports in its description. It picks up speed, suitably supported by the exhaust note at the rear. I have by now left my trepidation far behind and am beginning to enjoy and re-live the good old motoring days I never had. Can you imagine it – a long, louvered hood stretched in front of you, the two really large chrome headlamp cowls reflecting and distorting the passing scenery, and the breeze ruffling your face because the windshield’s been folded down?
British magazine The Autocar, in an issue dated 9th July 1937, road-tested the SS100 and said, “It is largely a top and third gear sports car – not that the engine will not rev, but because it can perform most of its work softly and efficiently, except in slow traffic, on those two ratios. This quality makes it satisfactory in and around towns or motoring gently through by-ways.” Amen to that. 

The Autocar’s report was for much praise of the SS100’s handling, road-holding and cornering, but for me to parrot that would be difficult. Mainly because we are not used to such raw motoring, and cars have evolved so much since then. But one thing I can definitely tell you is that the ride is superb. Sitting on
18-inch wheels and with leafsprings all around, the ride is firm without being hard. Again, the magazine says that the brakes deserve high marks, but excuse me, that’s so different from what I felt. Even to shave off speed, let alone stop, you have to depress the brake pedal all the way to the deepest recesses... and the car goes through the similar, long-drawn process of deciding when to slow down. Phew, that was close! If the magazine was so confident of the braking, no wonder they managed to get a top speed of almost 95 mph (which is 152 kph). 

And it was precisely speed that led to the development of the SS100 Jaguar. Lyons and his Swallow Sidecar Company were building some competent and good-looking cars on existing Austin, Standard, Wolseley and Fiat bodies. But that was not enough. Lyons persuaded Standard Motor Company to give him special low-chassis frames on which he built his first car, the stunning SS1 in 1931. Three years later, he hired William Heynes as chief engineer, who developed an overhead valve head over Standard’s side-valve inline six. Another engineer, Harry Weslake, who worked on Bentleys, was signed on to assist Heynes. With a high lift camshaft and twin carburettors, the virtually new engine – Jaguar’s first – displaced 2½ litres (as it was called) and developed 102 bhp over Standard’s donor side-valve engine’s 70 horses.    

Now for the car. With mechanicals borrowed from their bread-and-butter SS four-door saloons, Lyons created the beautiful SS90 roadster, which still was powered by the old Standard engine. Yes, it was not powerful enough for a car that looked so good, and could attain ‘only’ 90 mph. Out went the old engine, and in came the new 2½ powerplant. That happened in September 1935, and after some styling changes, the car was called the SS100 Jaguar. While it did develop over 100 horses, it still couldn’t attain Lyon’s dream 100 mph (160 kph) mark, staying in and around 95 mph, as The Autocar report showed. Even then, the SS100 went on to notch several wins in various rallies and competitive events, and the legend of Jaguar was just beginning.

A legend was being created, and that too, without burning a hole in the prospective buyer’s pocket. With performance and looks comparable to Bugattis and Alfa Romeos of that era, Lyons’ shrewd business acumen ensured that his cars would not be over-whelmingly expensive. As the magazine report says, “A driver... is somewhat astonished that so good a car of this description can be offered at that price.” Which was £395 plus £15 tax, back in 1937.

But that magic 100 mph figure was still haunting Lyons. So in 1937, the same engine was rebored to displace 3485 CC, and develop 120 horses. With the 3½ SS100, Lyons’ dream finally came true. Both engines were available for the SS100, and it would be Jaguar’s last significant model before WW II.
If you have noticed, the SS name has slipped away and Jaguar has slowly crept in. Though no one knows what the SS could have specifically meant in the model nomenclature, it could have been anything to do with Swallow or Standard or whatever. But during the war, thanks to the negative connotations of SS, the name of the manufacturer and all the cars changed to Jaguar – the hallowed word which made its first appearance in the SS series of cars. It was a new beginning.