The cat's first growl

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As Jaguar returns to racing in Formula E, we spotlight the marque’s very first track success in what would be a proud record – and it’s a long way from Le Mans

writer Richard Heseltine | photographer Manuel Portugal

You could call it an overdose of self-confidence. Normally in these situations a certain degree of incantatory language is involved, but not here. There are no histrionics. It may be 79 years old, but ‘our’ SS100 Jaguar fires in an instant. Onlookers’ eyes widen, their mouths forming silent expletives as you flex the throttle. It sounds implausibly potent. As is to be expected, there is plenty to think about, not least the close proximity of the steering wheel to your favourite body part and the need to baby the clutch. The pedals are close-coupled so you are obliged to contort your ankles to an unnatural cant, but you’ve been here before, have driven other SS100s, so you know what to expect. Look and learn everyone, look and learn. Slot the gearlever into first with just the faintest ker-klunk, pile on some revs and… bunny hop. Stall. Bugger.

***

This is no ordinary SS100. The plaque atop the dashboard alerts you to the fact that this particular example was the first Jaguar ever to record an outright race win. This represents year zero, the jumping off point for a marque that has overachieved (and sometimes underachieved) in motor sport ever since. This car matters. It’s just that this milestone victory wasn’t racked up in one of the more celebrated venues synonymous with the marque. It was accrued by Casimiro de Oliveira at the daunting Vila Real street circuit in northern Portugal.

Strictly speaking, however, it was a win for S S Jaguar (sic). It’s an important distinction. Scroll back to the early 1920s, and marque instigator William Lyons had earned a degree of fame as a coachbuilder under the Swallow Coachbuilding Company banner. Over time, he made the leap from fashioning sidecars to clothing all manner of proprietary chassis before becoming a legitimate manufacturer of sporting cars. The forerunner to the SS100, the S S 90 roadster, was unveiled in 1934. This 2.5-litre Standard straight-six-powered device was rakishly attractive, the main hindrance to wider appeal being its lack of performance. To some, it had clearly been built on the principle of style first, purpose second. It was widely viewed as having little substance beneath the surface flash; as being a bit too ‘Promenade Percy’.

The Standard Motor Company had no plans to increase the horsepower rating of its decidedly non-sporting ‘six’, but Lyons was undeterred. He found a collaborator and foil in Harry Weslake who took the Standard unit and devised a new cylinder head that featured overhead valves in place of the previous side-valve arrangement. This and other tweaks resulted in a power hike from about 68bhp to an alleged 104bhp at 4500rpm. An agreement was then reached whereby Standard would supply engines built to this spec to SS Cars, the fledgling operation’s chances being boosted further in April 1935 with the arrival of Bill Heynes as chief engineer. The ex-Hillman man would go on to play a key role in the firm’s future success on road and track. 

It was at this juncture that all future models would be known as SS Jaguars (the gaps between SS having been discarded), but only after Lyons had brokered a deal with Armstrong Siddeley which had already registered the name. The SS100 was first seen publicly at the 1935 British Motor Show at Olympia. It was flanked by saloon models which, to Lyons’ mind, represented the firm’s bread and butter. Sports cars, he reasoned, were image-builders. It wouldn’t be the first time that the future knight underestimated demand. 

While perhaps not a runaway success, the SS100 Jaguar was well received by press and public alike, even if it looked almost identical to its predecessor to the untrained eye. The new strain represented remarkable value for money, too. At just £395, at a time when a bargain-bucket Ford Model Y saloon cost £100, the SS100 seriously undercut home-grown and Continental rivals. What’s more, it was fast. The ‘100’ part of the nomenclature was meant to denote a top speed of 100mph. That proved to be a bit optimistic: 94mph was closer to the truth, but it was still seriously quick given that most cars on the UK market struggled to get out of their own way. What’s more, it could reach 60mph from a standstill in 12.8sec. 

The first batch of cars left the factory in Coventry in 1936, the same year that the model was blooded in competition as Tommy and Elsie Wisdom won the Glacier Cup on The International Trial. A year later, the SS100 received a hike in displacement to 3.5 litres, this latest variation being more than capable of reaching the magic ton. Then Europe descended into hell with the arrival of World War II. What’s more, production would not recommence as Coventry dug itself out of the rubble. Some 308 SS100s had been made: 191 2.5-litre cars and 117 3.5s.

***

The car pictured here, chassis no18026, was built in 1936 and shipped to Portuguese Standard and SS Jaguar concessionaire Auto-Omnia. The Porto-based firm, operated by Edgar Ennor, in turn sold it to de Oliveira who entered the car in the III Rampa do Cabo da Roca on September 6 of that year. This event was the opening round of the Portuguese hillclimb championship, the SS100 being driven to 3-litre class honours. De Oliveira also claimed the second-fastest overall time for a sports car. At the end of the month he repeated the feat in round two, the II Rampa do Cabo do Buçaco, and on October 4 recorded his third straight category win and second-best sports car time at the inaugural Rampa de Santarém. Despite having only entered three of the series’ four rounds, his results were sufficient to make him class victor. He also claimed fourth place overall in the title race.

Fast-forward to June 6 1937 and the SS100 had its day of days on the 7km Vila Real International Circuit which featured bridges, level-crossings and sheer drops. Motor racing was first held on the road course in 1931, the inaugural meeting forming part of the town’s annual celebrations. Though the premier Corrdida de Automóveis encounter attracted only 10 starters, Gaspar Sameiro and Ercílio Barbosa coming home first in their Ford Model A, the meeting subsequently became an annual fixture and began to attract an international element.

Frustratingly, if understandably, little was written about the ’37 event in the British specialist press, although the Jaguar Journal, the firm’s own in-house publication, ran a four-page race report a full 10 years later. “The sternest opposition seemed likely to come from the two Adlers and the BMW since, with typical German thoroughness, these cars had received special preparation and were known to be extremely fast,” it recounted. “In fact, the Adler entered by Prince Schaumburg-Lippe had been brought specially from Germany and, when examined, was found to be several hundredweight lighter than the normal Adler production models and possessed all the characteristics of a specially-built racing car.
So much so, officials demurred at accepting its entry and only permitted it to start after the sporting Portuguese competitors had waived their undoubted right to object.”

***

The 20-lap race began at 4.30pm, with Adolfo Ferreirinha leading at the start aboard his Edford. He was chased hard by BMW 328 man Alfredo Rego and de Oliveira in the SS100. On the third lap, de Oliveira moved into second place and set about displacing Ferreirinha. According to the Jaguar Journal: “The seventh and eighth laps saw de Oliveira making determined and often hair-raising attempts to force his Jaguar into the lead, only to be foiled by the necessity for hard braking at the close succession of corners around the torturous course. With the Adler on his heels, de Oliveira had every incentive to overhaul the Edford and this he did on the ninth lap when the Jaguar streaked into the lead out of a bend which it had entered wheel to wheel with the Edford. If de Oliveira, now leading the field, hoped to have shaken off his German pursuer, he must have been disappointed, for scarcely had he reached the next bend when the Adler was again on his heels, having also outstripped the Edford which had so doggedly maintained the lead for eight laps. But now, with a clear road before him, de Oliveira set a cracking pace and pushed the speed for the 10th lap up to [an average of] 58.2mph.”

The Prince managed to make it past de Oliveira on the 12th tour, the Portuguese heading into the pits later that same lap after a stone shattered his goggles. He rejoined in fourth place and set about chasing down the lead trio. He was up to second by three-quarter distance and reclaimed the lead on lap 17, but the German blue blood wasn’t finished. He chased de Oliveira all the way to the line, with Rego in close proximity. Barely a second separated the lead trio as the chequered flag descended. 

And that was that. It is widely held that de Oliveira never raced the car again, switching allegiance to Bugatti for the following year. That, and the second (and last) SS100 sold new in Portugal, this time a 3.5. ‘Our’ car appeared at a concours in Estoril in 1951 and then disappeared into the ether until it was rescued by arch-collector José Albuquerque in the late ’80s. It has since been meticulously restored and fielded on several Mille Miglia retrospectives.

It really is an exquisitely proportioned car; a glamorous alchemy of the brassy and the beautiful that teeters on the edge of caricature. William Lyons may not have been a stylist in the accepted sense – he couldn’t draw, but he had an artist’s eye. The SS100 looks dazzling, and the same is true inside. As is to be expected, you sit bolt upright, but it isn’t uncomfortable. With so many cars of this ilk every part of you feels violated by journey’s end, but that isn’t so here. 

What is unexpected is the car’s outright performance. The exact state of tune remains unrecorded, but it is clearly packing more horsepower than when it left the factory. It just bolts off the line, all the while detonating sound like buckshot. Few cars sound as good as this as it nears the upper end of its vocal range. It isn’t the smoothest of gear changes, though. It doesn’t respond to tactility, but it’s relatively easy to guide once acclimatised. What’s more, it’s difficult not to grin like a loon as you double de-clutch, each blip threatening to tear the sky. It sounds strident; angry even.

While perhaps not a thoroughbred in the accepted sense, if only by dint of it featuring so many proprietary parts, the SS100 is more than a match for more exalted period rivals. It steers remarkably well, with no discernible kickback or flexing through the wheel. It does get a little jouncy, but it’s fun to hustle. At least it is until a wheel balancing problem ends play early. Not that this stops its owner from driving the car home, mind. 

There is so much to love about the SS100. It set the template for performance and value for money, while also helping forge Jaguar’s reputation in motor sport, witness back-to-back wins on the RAC Rally in 1937-38. The ex-de Oliveira car is a proper competition tool; one that doesn’t intimidate once you have overcome your initial hesitancy. It speaks volumes that Albuquerque – a man who has raced everything from a Maserati 250F and Ferrari 250LM – has kept it for more than two decades while other, more exotic, cars have come and gone. It may have created a bit of history on the quiet, but this is one Jaguar that roars.

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