Britain By Car - A Motoring History

Swallow Sidecar Company

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The creation of William Lyons and William Walmsley, and the forerunner of Jaguar Cars.

Location
The Swallow Sidecar Company, 5 Bloomfield Road, Blackpool; also Woodfield Road, John Street, and later Cocker Street, Blackpool.

Date
1922 – 1928.

Commentary
William Lyons was born in 1901.  He went to school first in Poulton-le-Fylde and then Blackpool, leaving at 17 to begin an engineering apprenticeship at Crossley Motors in Manchester. However, within a matter of months, he was back home, initially working in his father’s piano repair shop and then, locally, at the Metropole Garage in Blackpool. 

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During his childhood, the family lived on Newton Drive, not far from the centre of Blackpool, later moving to King Edward Avenue, in the North Shore area of the town.

Ten years older than William Lyons, William Walmsley was the son of a Stockport coal merchant.   On leaving school, he joined the family business, and later served in the Army during the First World War.  In 1918, after demobilisation, he returned home to 5 Flowery Field, Stockport (then known as ‘Fairhaven’), where he began refurbishing ex-War Department motorcycles in a shed at the back of the house.

It was here, in 1920, that he built his first sidecar; a distinctive modern design, using alloy panels over an ash wood frame.

About a year later, the Walmsley family moved from Stockport to Blackpool, setting up home at 23, King Edward Avenue.  William used a garage behind the house to continue building sidecars at a rate of about one per week.  Although orders had initially just come from friends and family, they were now being received from further afield - although his work was still more of a hobby than a business.

However, all this was about to change.  It was not long before William Lyons, himself a motorcycle enthusiast, noticed sidecars being driven down the alley alongside his neighbour’s house – and was soon drawn to buy a Swallow sidecar for himself.

Despite their shared passion for motorcycling, it took some time for the men to decide to work together and place the sidecar business on a more commercial footing.

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William Lyons, it appears, was the main driving force behind this.  With a loan of £1,000, underwritten by their fathers, the two young men established the Swallow Sidecar Company, initially based on the upper two floors of a three-storey building at 5 (although some sources say 7-9) Bloomfield Road, Blackpool.

Now with six or seven employees, the company aimed to build ten sidecars per week.  However, extra space was soon required, and two further buildings were rented nearby: on Back Woodfield Road and John Street, where sidecar bodies were attached to the bought-in chassis.

In 1923, Lyons and Walmsley took at small stand at the Motorcycle Show in Olympia, giving rise to further sales and the beginnings of a dealer network.  It was not long after this that they reached an agreement to supply sidecars to George Brough – maker of the Brough-Superior motorcycles and cars. 

By this stage Swallow Sidecars had also taken to the track – largely as means of promoting the product. 1924 brought some success at the Isle of Man TT and other races.

However, it appears that coach building, and ultimately car production, had been in William Lyons’ mind for some time.  In 1923, he had bought an early Austin Seven and had apparently given some thought as to how the car’s comfort and fittings might be improved. 

 

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The catalyst for the further expansion of the business came in 1926 with a move to the Company’s final premises in Blackpool, on the corner of Cocker and Exchange Street.  It seems to have been prompted largely by William Walmsley’s father, Thomas, who – as Andrew Whyte explains – “knowing the desperate muddle his son and partner were in, trying to run a rapidly expanding business in three places at once, purchased a large building on the north side of the town, … and leased it to what was about to be called The Swallow Sidecar and Coach Building Company.”

By November 1926 Swallow’s were advertising their services for coach building, painting, and trimming from their new premises on Cocker Street which, coincidentally, had been used for a similar purpose by a previous occupant, a Mr J. Street.

The first motor body built at the new works was based on the Austin Seven; a two-seater model, with a rounded nose and tail, and a hardtop, hinged at the rear.  After becoming detached on a test run, the roof was redesigned with fastening clips at the front and two fixing bolts at the rear.

There are no pictures of this first car, and initial production of the Swallow-bodied Austin Seven was reportedly relatively low – a maximum of two per day.  Selling for £175 (£10 more for the closed coupe) the car was steadily developed throughout 1927.  A re-bodied Morris Cowley-Swallow was also offered for £210.

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Swallow’s real breakthrough into car production was created from two major contracts.  Fifty cars were ordered by P.J. Evans, Standard’s main distributors in Birmingham, and 500 cars by Henly’s Ltd. of London, to be supplied at a rate of 20 per week, with an Austin Swallow saloon also to be included in the range.

It was clear that the Blackpool premises were no longer big enough for such a venture, leading William Lyons to start looking for a larger, permanent site.  This, he decided, should be in the Midlands, the main centre of British car production.

After some searching, he chose to lease two units on the Whitmore Park industrial estate.  Situated on the northern edge of Coventry, they were formerly part of the No. 10 National Filling Factory, built in 1915 for the manufacture of munitions during the First World War.

The move to Coventry was completed in November 1928, with production levels at the new factory rising to around 50 cars a week.  Sidecars continued to be produced at the new location, albeit with a slight change to company’s name to the Swallow Coachbuilding Company.

Further details   
• Jaguar: The history of a great British Car, Andrew Whyte, Patrick Stephens Ltd., 1980.
• The Jaguar Heritage Trust, www.jaguarheritage.com.

Other locations   
Halewood, Merseyside

 

 

 


Cocker Street, Blackpool, Lancashire.
FY1 2DW
The creation of William Lyons & William Walmsley, & the forerunner of Jaguar Cars.