Storyline - All steel bodies

Storyline - All steel bodies

September 1937: SS Jaguar production is ‘in difficulties,’ i.e. at a halt. It seemed simple enough to make cars with all-steel bodies. At least, the leading shareholders thought so…


STORYLINE

All-steel bodies, husbands and wives-fact based fiction


WORDS: LINDSAY ROSS

ILLUSTRATION: ENAR SAYATOVA


HUSBANDS AND WIVES


Greta Lyons, of all people, knew something was badly wrong. Her husband wasn’t exactly secretive about his work, when things were going well, he was positively gushing. When things were going badly, he simply stopped communicating at normal levels, saying just enough to be polite. Always polite, never angry, she’d only seen him lose his temper two or three times in their whole married life. And they were nearly all to do with cars breaking down at inopportune times. Was there ever a right time?


Storyline - All steel bodies

The body parts don’t fit together. Production is at a standstill. That was all he had said to her. She had no answers, she felt powerless to help. All she could do was be there and act as normal as she could. And the fact that he was working crazy hours. There were long hours: 12 to 14 hours away from the house, that was normal. And there were crazy hours, sometimes sleeping at the factory, more often than not, when he did come home, she wouldn’t see him at all apart from in bed. A Saturday night meal after the dogs had been walked and the children were in bed was their sacred time together. He normally opened up a bit more with a glass of wine or two. She knew Jack Beardsley and his family, that Jack was the metalworker at SS Cars. Can he not help? She offered this in response that first weekend when he’d told her about the problems.

He pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘Jack’s not responsible for bodies. It’s between Holland, his team and me. And the sub-contractors. That is part of the problem, Rubery Owen make the doors and the roofs, Pressed Steel make the wings and Sankey make the quarter panels and door posts. We come to weld them all together and the whole thing distorts massively. To get any cars out the door we have to fill the panels with lead and smooth it all down before the paint goes on so you can’t see how far out they are. It’s a bodge, everybody hates doing it.’

At times like this she always thought she should have been an engineer instead of a schoolteacher in her previous life. She would have been able to help him a bit more. ‘It sounds like all car-makers will have gone through this level of pain,’ she said. ‘Yes, and we desperately need people with experience. And even then, we have to get tooled up to do the assembly. Jack and Harry Gill are working on precision jigs at the moment. It’s a costly investment and will take months. And all the time we’re not producing. Thomas Daffern at the Coventry Permanent is getting very twitchy. I sometimes think of going back to coachbuilding, we all know how to do it.’

‘No.’ she said, surprising herself. ‘You have sat here, and at Woodside and told me countless times that coachbuilding is a mug’s game. Volume production is the way forward, and you can’t achieve volume production and compete against the MG’s and the Triumphs and the Bugatti’s with wooden bodies. You can’t go back now William.’ ‘I know,’ he said with a sigh. ‘That’s what I keep telling the shareholders.’ ‘Well you tell them from me,’ she said, fire in her eyes, ‘they take the dividends during the good times, they can jolly well help you out until production gets back on its feet again.’ He looked at her and smiled. ‘Thank you, my dear. I will.’

‘Look, I know what you’re all thinking,’ William Lyons said, the Managing Director’s comments, as always, commencing the September board meeting. ‘We should have prepared better, made allowances for training our staff and working with suppliers, we should have anticipated a loss of production, etc, etc. I agree, with the benefit of hindsight yes, maybe we should have done all of those things. Instead we concentrated on giving our customers the best product we possibly could, and I make no apology for that. We are making the transition from coachbuilder to auto-builder as we’ve all previously discussed and agreed. However, it is proving more difficult than anyone ever envisaged.

Our labour force is adapting its basic skills from working with wood to forming metal. The more progressive employees have been learning how to weld in their own time at Coventry Technical College for some time now. Recruitment from other areas of the country with existing auto-builders is stepping up. Only today, Miss Fenton has placed an advertisement in an Essex newspaper for people with body assembly skills. So you see, Gentlemen, we are addressing the problem. The dividend will be lower this year, we may even make a loss. But we will be stronger in the future for all of this pain. The 3.5 litre car is a world beater, you can see that from initial press coverage.

Once production is resumed, you can be rest assured, Gentlemen, that demand for our products will grow and grow, and as a board we must ensure we will have the capacity to meet that demand. Thank you.’ He sat down and looked at each board member, drumming his fingers on the table. ‘The Coventry Permanent Building Society will have to review its investment strategy.’ Thomas Daffern said, looking at Lyons with an icy stare. ‘Our members have expectations that simply must be met.’

‘I understand.’ Lyons said. ‘This is a temporary situation as I explained. We appreciate your patience and understanding.’

‘You mention a loss.’ Daffern replied. ‘How much of a loss exactly?’ Lyons felt his blood pressure rising. He thought of Greta’s words, how she would take control in a situation like this. ‘Look, Tom. We all hope it doesn’t come to making a loss. The best case would be that quarter one and two production next year meets increased expectations and we are able to recover from this difficult period. That would mean no loss, maybe even a 5% dividend.’

‘And the worst case?’ Daffern said, pointedly.

‘There won’t be a worst case.’ Lyons said flatly. ‘Not while I’m in charge.’ Edward Huckvale stood as the rest of the board absorbed what the Managing Director had just said. ‘Thank you, Gentlemen. I think we are ready to move on to the next agenda item.’

Sid English was a panel beater by trade. Poplar, London E14 born and educated. He married Rosie in 1935 and moved to the Becontree estate in Dagenham, taking a job with Briggs Motorway Bodies building Ford Model A Car and AA truck bodies.

Sid was good, there wasn’t a panel he couldn’t straighten and smooth to perfection with his finishing hammer and dollies. So good in fact that Briggs made him foreman in charge of 200 body-builders. He liked the money and the respect, neither he nor Rosie though liked Dagenham, he missed being on the tools, they wanted a family and liked the idea of living somewhere vaguely resembling countryside. When he spotted the SS advert in the Dagenham Post he responded immediately, he had an uncle in Coventry who he had visited a few times, he always liked the feel of the place. Rosie was a hairdresser, she would be able to get a job anywhere. And SS Cars! Everyone wanted an SS Jaguar. Despite him taking a pay-cut, a better life was in view and the two of them didn’t hesitate.

Sid could tell straightaway that the body shop was not functioning correctly. ‘Where’s the jigs?’ he said to Cyril Holland, who he had been told to report to on his first day.

‘They’re being built right now. What we want you to do is straighten the panels on the welded-up bodies over there.’ Holland pointed to the production line where 30-40 car bodies stood with varying degrees of oddly angled panels.

‘Blimey.’ English said. ‘You’re doing this all the wrong way around.’ ‘I know. You don’t have to tell me,’ Holland said. ‘I’ve been building coach-built bodies for seventeen years.

Welding up whole bodies is all new to us. That’s why you’re here.’ ‘Yep, I see.’ English said, stroking his chin. ‘I’d like to see the jigs, I can tell you if they’re going to work or not.’ The two men walked over to the engineering shop where a large carshaped steel framework was being constructed. Holland introduced him to a large, jolly-looking fellow. ‘Jack Beardsley. Sid English. Sid’s a dinger from Briggs, but knows what to look for with jigs.’

‘Briggs eh?’ Beardsley’s eyes lit up. ‘You’ll have built a few steel bodies then.’

English smiled. ‘About twenty thousand or so.’

‘Oh, is that all?’ Beardsley cackled. ‘At our current rate of production, that’ll be about two century’s worth.’

‘Nah.’ English said. ‘Couple of weeks and we’ll have you up and running.’ He inspected the structure. ‘The frame certainly looks strong enough. It’s the clamping of the body parts that’s important. And the weld procedure of course.’

‘Yep. We realise that.’ Beardsley said. ‘I bet Briggs have got hydraulic clamps with push button high-tech. No?’ ‘Only in the last year or so.’ English said, sensing he had an audience. ‘Took a long while to get it right. Safety is quite an issue – Ford at Dearborn in the US insist on very elaborate guarding, they had a number of serious accidents.’ Jack Beardsley looked intently at the Londoner. ‘Interesting. This is going to be manual for the time being so no worries there yet awhile.’

‘You’re probably going to need ten of these for 5000 cars a year, unless you’re planning a 3-shift system.’ English said. Jack Beardsley looked at Cyril Holland with a blank expression, then at English. ‘To be honest, Sid, we just want to produce some motors with panels that line up first time. I think you need to talk to Mr Lyons about the numbers, he’d be keen to talk to you I reckon.’

‘OK. I’d be happy to. I’ll go and make a start on straightening some of those cars then. I assume there will be a team of us?’

‘You’re the first one, mate.’ Cyril Holland said. ‘Know any others keen to live the high-life in the beating heart of the British motor industry?’

Sid English laughed. ‘I do know I won’t be the only one responding to the advert.’

‘Me ‘usband’s in the motor trade. Moved up ‘ere from down south. I get a bit ‘omesick every now an’ again. Sid loves his job, says workin’ on SS Jags is much more fulfillin’ than knocking out those cheap ol’ Fords.’

Greta Lyons grinned broadly, looking at the reflection of the young hairdresser wielding comb and scissors, a frown of concentration on each cut made. ‘You don’t have children yet, Rosie?’

‘Nah. Not yet. We’re from the Isle of Dogs originally. Wanted to move somewhere nice before ‘avin’ kids. Dagenham was all right, but neither of us could settle. Typical over-spill town, neither one thing or the other. Everyone you meet works at Fords too, give me a break!’ She laughed with an infectious high-pitched shriek.

‘The Isle of Dogs sounds interesting, your families are still there, presumably.’ ‘Yeah, my old Dad, ‘e’s a docker. Brings more stuff ‘ome than gets to the warehouse,’ she laughed again, ‘But don’t tell anyone I told you that. Mum works in the seaman’s mission in Canning Town, she always says she could fill a book about the characters she meets. She likes to ‘elp people, and she gets paid for it. Gawd bless her.’ ‘When I was young, we did a tour of the London Docks on a small paddle steamer.’ Greta reminisced. ‘It was fascinating. Hundreds of ships from all over the world, thousands of people working on them too.’

‘Yeah, it’s busy all right. Sid didn’t want to work in the docks, he wanted a trade. Did an apprenticeship at Alford and Alder in Walworth making suspension and steering and doing a bit of bodywork for cars. The first time he took me out in one of them, I was in second heaven, a boyfriend, with his own car! The next day, he tells me he was only testing it to see if the steering worked proper. I nearly killed him!’

Greta hadn’t enjoyed herself at the hairdressers since, well, forever. That night over dinner she told her husband how Rosie English, the cheeky young cockney hairdresser, had transformed the salon atmosphere from mostly austere to fun, sometimes ribald. He laughed. ‘And you didn’t say who you were?’

‘No. That would have spoiled the fun. I can see the shock on her face and hear her laugh now though, when she finds out.’

‘I hope her husband is as good with car bodies as Rosie is with the scissors,’ he said glancing at her smart new hairstyle. ‘I shall have to let Heynes know about her husband, someone who knows about suspension and steering, as well as panel beating, will be a great asset to the company.’

She sipped her wine, ‘I’m glad the production problems seem to be easing.’

‘Yes, there are a dozen or so lads from Briggs now, and they’re all doing a great job for us,’ he said, pouring them each a second glass. ‘We’re starting to get a few cars out of the door thanks to their metal forming skills. Even Holland is impressed with how they can straighten up bodies just with a few simple hand tools. English is helping with building new jigs too. There’s no substitute for the right skill at the right time.’

‘And it’s all down to you. All of SS Cars I mean, and all of this,’ she gestured with upswept hands at the Wappenbury Hall dining room, their new home as of 1937.

‘And equally to you, my dear.’ They clinked glasses. ‘I love designing cars, that is what keeps me going. And with you supporting me through the difficult times, we will carry on together, designing more great cars.’

By the summer of 1938, full production of the fixed head SS Jaguar model including the much admired Weslake powered 3.5 litre version, was resumed. SS Cars produced just two thirds of the previous year’s deliveries but made a small profit and declared a 5% dividend to the shareholders.

NEXT TIME: The arrival of Walter

Thomas Frederick Hassan.

“...English is helping with building new jigs too.

There’s no substitute for the right skill at the right time.”

THE AUTHOR

Following on from previous instalments, Lindsay Ross, marine engineer, Jaguar enthusiast and novelist, continues to explore the fact based fictional possibilities of William Lyons automotive journey. These CJ pieces will morph into a future novel with the working title of ‘Lyons’ Circle’, copiously illustrated with the beautiful line drawing work of artist, Enar Sayatova. To view the full body of Lindsay’s work, visit: www.lindsayross.co.uk

“Our labour force is adapting its basic skills from working with wood to forming metal.”

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