You’ve heard of Jaguar, and maybe even the first company started by Jag’s founder, Sir William Lyons, the Swallow Sidecar Company. You may not, however, have heard about the car company that Lyons killed, Swallow Doretti. I’m about to change that for you.
Blackpool, England is historically known for three local icons; the 519-foot tall Blackpool Tower that stands over the beachfront boardwalk, the cottage car maker TVR, and Sir William Lyons, the founder of Jaguar Cars Limited.
TVR, as we all know, remains in some strange state of limbo. The Tower on the other hand, which opened in 1894, remains to this day as one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions. Jaguar came on the scene half a century after the Tower’s opening and is not yet nearly as popular (180,833 sales in 2018 vs. 8.65 million Tower visits that same year.) At least Jag’s notoriety extends well past the rocky shores of England.
Jaguar, however, wasn’t Lyons’ first rodeo. Back in late 1922 he—along with boyhood friend, William Walmsley—founded another venture in their hometown, the Swallow Sidecar Company. As its name intimated, the Swallow Sidecar Company built motorcycle sidecars. That though was only a jumping-off point for Lyons and Walmsley.
Within five years the pair had renamed their growing concern the Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company and had begun building distinctive bodies for existing chassis, initially on those of the Austin 7.
Inexpensive and elegant, the Swallow specials earned the company both recognition and revenue. So popular were the coach-built cars in fact that the company made the decision to move to facilities that would offer greater capacity and better proximity to their suppliers. They chose Coventry, a location that later would be the iconic home for Jaguar as well.
By 1929 Lyons and Walmsley had dropped the Sidecar portion from the company’s name and Lyons embarked on his longstanding dream of building his own wholly realized sports car. The result was the SS, which rode on a chassis Lyons commissioned from the Standard Motor Company and which was powered by four-cylinder engines from the same company.
Lyons’ cars proved popular enough that the S.S. Cars Ltd Motor Company was created as a formal manufacturing enterprise. Lyons’ strategy was to compete with established brands like Bentley or Alvis but at a lower price point and with greater volume. This proved to be successful, however with its negative connotations following WWII, the S.S brand name proved otherwise. Lyons changed the name to Jaguar Cars Ltd in 1945 and the rest is history.
Well, part of the history at least. The other part is that Swallow Coachbuilding continued as a concern. In 1946 Lyons sold the rights to the name and all goodwill to the Helliwell Group, and aviation maintenance company. Sidecar production was restarted and that very same year the Helliwell Group was purchased outright by the business consortium, Tube Investments. Here’s where the story gets really business-y and where eventually William Lyons reenters the scene.
Tube Investments, later the TI Group, continued production of the Swallow Sidecars at the subsidiary’s Birmingham factory. At the same time, Tube Investments’ other divisions were entering into supplier agreements with England’s automakers. Most notably for our story was a contract with one company, in particular, Jaguar.
The late ‘40s boom in sports car demand, especially in America, was one bright spot in what was otherwise a pretty dismal climb out of a post-war recession for Great Britain.
By the early 1950s, those exports to America were making tidy little profits for British car companies like Jag and MG. Their fun and frivolous products filled a niche in the U.S. that no domestic manufacturer had yet tapped into. In England itself, the market for small, affordable sports cars was also eating into the sales of motorcycle sidecars, and that imperiled Swallow’s bread and butter.
Seeing the shifting tides, Tube Investments embarked on a plan to expand their portfolio, offering a small, competitively priced sports car of their own. Their Swallow Coachbuilding Company would own the effort.
Enter into the picture Arthur Andersen and his daughter, Dorothy Deen. Andersen was the owner of a California-based business called Cal Specialties Company. They sold a line of aftermarket automotive parts—luggage racks, vent wings, and other accessories—under the brand name, Doretti. That name was a dress-up of Andersen’s daughter’s name, and in fact, Deen co-ran the business with her dad.
In early 1952, Andersen traveled to England to meet with Tube Investments executive Eric Sanders, nominally to discuss business opportunities the two had in common.
Their discussions meandered to Andersen mentioning how much he liked the British sports cars that were entering the market and how he would like to have a hand in selling them back home. Sanders told the American that he would let him know if any opportunities arose.
The opportunity actually came the very same year, and in December of ’52, Andersen returned to England to meet with Sanders and product designer Frank Rainbow regarding the development of a new sports car. The two-seat roadster they planned would be built by Tube Investments’ Swallow Sidecar division and would be sold by Andersen in the lucrative U.S. car market.
Just like William Lyons’ earliest Swallows, the new car would run Standard-sourced running gear in a unique frame and body. Now named Standard-Triumph, that company was at the time also making a name for itself in the sports car market with their TR2 following a failed attempt to purchase Morgan.
The Andersens would travel together to England in March of ’53 to review the new Swallow and to sign the agreement which would give Tube Investments the rights to the Doretti name and badge for a nominal $1.00 sum. In return, Andersen secured the rights to sell the Swallow Doretti west of the Mississippi.
Dorothy served as the company’s marketing director, and it was her direct efforts that generate buzz for the Swallow, as well as for the Triumph TR2, with which it shared floor space in Andersen’s Gardena, CA showroom. She arranged for both cars to be displayed at Los Angeles’ swanky Ambassador Hotel—yes, the same hotel where 14 years later Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated—and after that, the orders started pouring in.
The Doretti’s body was penned by Frank Rainbow and incorporated a number of styling tropes that were popular at the time. The car looked a bit Ferrari-esque in the front and rakishly XK120-ish from the back. A stout welded-tube chassis underpinned the aluminum body, the latter built by Panelcraft Ltd of Woodgate, Birmingham. One change that took place between prototype and production was the replacement of hand-crafted bumpers with off-the-shelf Wilmot Breeden units. Those were shared with the contemporary Austin Healey 100-4.
With the engine pushed back towards the firewall, the Doretti offered a better than average for its era 52/48 weight distribution and long-nose/short tail good looks. The Standard four powering the roadster ran a pair of ubiquitous S.U. side-draught carbs and, optionally, was dressed in an Andersen-sourced Doretti-branded valve cover. Performance was on par with or better than most of the Doretti’s contemporaries even if its overall refinement was not. This was, after all, a first stab at car building.
Everything seemed poised for success. Tube Investments had the small sports car they sought and Andersen and Deen had another cool two-seat convertible to sell in sports car-hungry post-war America.
Seeking to meet that demand, Doretti production took off in earnest in late 1953 and within a year had delivered more than 200 cars across England and the United States. This may seem a modest number by most standards, but for Jaguar, and for William Lyons in particular, it proved a threat.
Tube Investments’ main automotive business was in parts supply, with the Doretti seen as a marginal revenue generator at best. This dichotomy was leveraged by Lyons in late 1954 when he contacted Tube Investments executives and asked them what future they wanted for the company. Did they, he asked, want to continue to be a significant player in the British Motor Industry’s supply system? Or, did they want to be a manufacturer in their own right? His intimation left no doubt in the minds of the company’s executives that he would make sure they couldn’t be both.
In the end, Tube Investments went with the supply side of things, and 10 months after the Doretti production line began, it was unceremoniously shut down. 276 cars had been delivered over that short time, with about half of those making the sea journey to Freedomtown, U.S.A. An additional 12 unfinished cars were sold off as kits after the fact.
The end came, as ends often do, at an inconvenient time. Swallow Doretti and designer Frank Rainbow were putting the finishing touches on a Mark II model, the Sabre when the word came down. That car would feature roll-up windows and have been even stronger competition for Jag’s sports car line.
Today, Dorettis are coveted by collectors, and the whereabouts of about 178 cars has been documented. That’s a pretty good catch for such a little-known car, albeit one with such a cool life and death story. Models now regularly trade hands at six-figure prices, and one would hope that when their owners take them out on the street or to a show that they offer a bold middle finger to every Jag they pass.