Norman Dewis – Jaguar Legend
Norman Dewis is one of the true legends of the British motoring industry. During the course of almost 70 years in the business, 35 years of them as Jaguar’s chief test engineer, Norman was responsible for the development of some of the most fantastic British cars ever to grace road and track.
Now in his ninth decade, he remains a passionate and eloquent advocate of British engineering brilliance.
Influx Magazine caught up with Norman at his Shropshire home, just before he was due to embark upon a three-week transatlantic tour, to meet members of the Jaguar Clubs of North America.
Influx Magazine:How did you learn your trade?
Norman Dewis: I started at Humber cars when I was 14. I worked there for nine months, fitting bonnets and wings, but I wanted an apprenticeship and they wouldn’t give me one, so I went to Armstrong-Siddeley and they offered me a five-year apprenticeship.
I wanted to learn about building engines, building gearboxes – everything that makes the vehicle go. I don’t think there’s any way you can be a truly competent car tester unless you really know how all the bits of the car work.
When the war started, I had done three years of my apprenticeship and I was on the reserve for the RAF, so I was called up straight away. So I ended up flying until 1943.
IM: What did you fly?
ND: I flew in Bristol Blenheims, as a gunner. I sat for the pilot’s course and failed that, so I sat for the observer’s course and failed that. So all that was left for me was the hot seat – the air gunner! But I wanted to fly, so that was it.
With the Blenheim, the gun turret was in the top of the fuselage, so I managed to avoid being a rear gunner. We’d fly sorties out over the fjords of Norway from the east coast of Scotland. The Short Sunderland bombers would go out and recce, then we’d go out and bomb any build up of German Navy vessels they’d located.
I was grounded in 1943, and the Air Ministry gave me a job inspecting aircraft parts.
IM: How did your involvement with Jaguar begin?
ND: They approached me in 1951. I was chief test engineer for Lea Francis. I had a good job, and was working on good cars – better than Jaguars at that point.
Bill Haynes, who was the director of engineering at Jaguar at the time, asked me to come in for a chat, and so I went to see him. He showed me around the experimental department. There we were at six o’clock at night, everyone had gone home. I was a bit underwhelmed and I told him so.
The experimental department was a bit scruffy, nothing like the facilities I had been working with at Lea Francis. So then Bill talked about the money, and I still wasn’t very impressed, so he asked me what I was after. I said, “Well, stick another two quid a week on, and I’ll take the job.” I joined the company in January 1952.
Two extra quid was a lot of money in those days. There were no benefits and healthcare, etc, like you have today, so you had to go for the money. They were some tough times. The country was just coming out of the war.
Jaguar didn’t have such a thing as a test engineer, so they were happy for me to join and to start their development programme. That was the start of a 36-year career, during which I tested and developed 26 Jaguar models.
IM: Do you primarily consider yourself an engineer or a driver?
ND: I consider myself both. For some unknown reason, I had this talent. I had the ability to see a machine and feel something, to feel some sort of insight.
You can train to be a test driver – I had test drivers working for me. But to be responsible for picking something up that had never been seen – a new car, with new design – and to be responsible for bringing that car up to the point that it was good for the customer or good for racing, that was something special.
Fortunately, I was able get into a motor car, spot any problems and have them corrected to the point that they were ready for sign-off to go into production.
The other unusual thing was that, at Jaguar, I was chief test engineer for both race and production cars. Most companies, like Ferrari, Mercedes and BMW, they had two test engineers – one for the production cars, and another for the racing team. But that was simply because [Jaguar founder] Sir William Lyons didn’t want to spend any more money on another chief test engineer!
But having the advantage of being able to test certain elements on racing cars and then feed them into Jaguar production models was one of the things that made their cars so special. So much of what we developed on the track – gearboxes, axles, engines – all rubbed off into the production cars.
I don’t think that applies so much today. The racing car is usually a completely separate entity from the production version, no matter who the manufacturer is.
IM: That must have been a lot of a responsibility, even for that extra two quid a week!
ND: It was a lot of work. I didn’t mind it, but I used to work all hours – Seven days a week at some points, going overseas, testing for all the suppliers, too.
For example, I used to do all the testing for Dunlop down at Silverstone, and also the people supplying material for the brake linings, hydraulic parts – you name it.
So that’s how I built my name up. But I was lucky that I had this talent for getting a car just right.
IM: So how did you go about your job as chief test engineer at Jaguar?
ND: I had to build up a whole department. There was one guy there when I arrived, but he just used to run the cars up and down the road.
There were all sorts of people driving the cars and giving Haynes pieces of paper with feedback and suggestions. He knew it had to stop and there needed to be someone in charge of drawing it all together.
So, I started by writing out the test procedures from the ground up. So between 1952 and 1975 I introduced over 600 test procedures. What that meant was that staff could pick up a book and read exactly the way that you needed to do tests for any particular bit of the car.
The procedure would detail exactly how to prepare the car, how to set up the instrumentation, and then how to do the test itself. It was a lot of work, but it resulted in some of the great cars that Jaguar produced.
Once we had signed off the prototypes, then the factory went ahead and produced the first couple of production vehicles. Then my team would take those and check them up to the level of the original sign-off standard.
We employed test drivers on three round-the-clock shifts, just to drive those first production cars through 50,000 miles of ‘shakedown’. We had to find out what happened when these cars actually started being used under normal conditions – what goes wrong, what goes right. Do the wipers carry on working? Do oil leaks develop? Things like that. All this to stop the customer finding out that things weren’t up to scratch.
IM: What was your proudest achievement during this time?
ND: I was very pleased with introducing the first disc brake into a production car after 1955. It was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the automotive industry, akin to the development from solid tyres to pneumatic tyres.
Drum brakes were pretty good, but they certainly had their problems. What was happening was that speeds were going up and up on the average car, but the brakes weren’t keeping up.
It was one thing getting them going, but stopping them was the tricky thing. When we finally got the disc brake right, it was an incredible leap in safety for customers, because we proved it in racing before we put it into production.
IM: What part of your career with Jaguar do you revisit the most in your memory?
ND: Driving at Le Mans in the 1955 24 Hour race always sticks in my mind. There was an accident that killed 82 spectators.*
I saw this happen from the pits, and then I had to get into the car and carry on the race. You shake it off, but it stays with you. It’s like in the Royal Air Force – you see things, and you don’t forget.
After that accident, the whole scene around motor racing changed. They said the sport was safe, but it wasn’t. Cars were driving at really very high speeds just an arm’s distance away from spectators, with just a little bit of earth bank or some straw bales to protect them. In that 1955 race, most of the cars still had drum brakes.
IM: What do you think of the safety levels in today’s motorsport?
ND: Well, the safety aspect is very important, but there have been so many driver aides introduced in motor racing these days – I do think it might be overkill. There’s traction control, no clutch, no gear lever – they don’t have to read the oil or the water temperature. It’s all done in the pits.
When I was involved in racing, the pits were only for refuelling or for sorting out a problem with the car. The driver ran the race. All he needed from the pit crew was the lap board, which showed his position and his lap time. You had to work everything out and drive that race for yourself.
You had a clutch and a gear lever to operate, plus you had to watch the temperatures. There was no traction control, so the back would go out, the lot. A 24-hour race was particularly tough because, throughout the race, the fuel levels changed so much that you had to constantly recalibrate your driving, based on the way the car was handling, due to the weight of the fuel.
As you got tired, it was easy to fail to notice the subtle changes of the weight on the back end, and so that was when drivers made mistakes.
We used to drive the cars over to Rheims, down to Le Mans, or over to Spa, win the race then drive them back! So people would see these racing cars on the road, driving next to them at 30-40 mph, and they could identify with them.
As you went through London, on the way to the ferry, we used to get a standing ovation. There was something very real about racing in those days. The classic racing events we’re doing now are becoming very popular because they’ve reintroduced so many of the things that made a good racing driver.
When you consider that cars like the Jaguar C, D and E-types, which were racing 40-50-years-ago, are still out there on the circuit, and aren’t hanging about, either. The entrants to the classic races are going faster now than when I was in them.
They’ve made big changes in the materials so that they can rev much, much higher. We could rev those old Jags at around 5,800-6,000 rpm. Now, some of the classic Jags out there now are revving as high as 7,000 rpm and going faster than they ever did in the 1960s.
IM: What do you think of the new XF?
ND: Well, I haven’t spent much time with the car, as of yet, but I think this is going to be the one to put Jaguar back on the map. The company’s new management seem to be the right sort of team to take Jaguar back to the top.
It’s important that they won’t interfere too much in the engineering and development side – that they just pump the money in where it needs to be. That’s what the company needs.
I think the future for Jaguar needs to be at the top level of the market. I said to the representative of Ford, when I met with them, that to get into mass production was always wrong-headed with Jaguar.
I mean, who needs 200,000 S-types? They’re great cars, but there should never be that many Jaguars out there on the road. You have to give the customer that air of aspiration. They have to feel special when they make the decision to buy a Jaguar.
So you have to treat the customer as if they’re a special person. Spend a lot of time with him, talk to him, and then give him a real high-end car when he finally gets his hands on one.
You used to have to wait to get a Jaguar, and the customers didn’t mind. In fact, they liked it. It was all part of that special thing of owning a car like that.
IM: What is your favourite Jag of all time?
ND: Ha! I get asked that all the time, of course. I think the E-type was one of the best we ever made, but as far as personal feeling goes, the 1955 D-type – the one I drove at Le Mans – is one I feel a real attachment to.
And then, of course, my real special lady is the XJ13. I loved driving that car like no other. Ok, I crashed it, but she got out of hand and went a bit wild, like a lot of beautiful ladies!
Seriously, though, the XJ13 is a beautiful car. It’s the perfect shape. We created that car in 1963 or 1964 and, even all these years later, you put it next to any sports car, even the newest, and it still has the lowest drag figure of them all.
You can’t get a better shape for racing. It was superb to drive, too. I got 209 or 210 mph out of her. I got the all-time speed record in Britain for any circuit, with an average speed of 161 mph – all seat of the pants, too, no driver aids!
We were hoping to go back to Le Mans with this car as a works entry. But British Leyland messed us about, and they stopped all racing. Then, when we moved back into racing, once Leyland allowed it, FIA [Federation Internationale de L’Automobile] had altered the regulations, and had limited the maximum engine size to three litres.
The XJ13 had a five-litre V12. When you opened that up, it was a real Jaguar growl.
* The Horror of Le Mans, 1955
The 1955 24 Heures Du Mans, which began on June 11, saw Frenchman Pierre Levegh driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. American John Fitch was Levegh’s partner, and would take over driving duties later.
The competition between the Mercedes, Jaguar, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Maserati entrants was close, with the teams fighting for the top positions early on.
After just over two hours of racing, at the end of the 35th lap, Levegh was following Mike Hawthorn’s leading Jaguar D-type along the pit straight. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin’s slower Austin-Healey when he began slowing to make a pit stop.
Hawthorn’s Jaguar had disc brakes and slowed much more quickly than other competitors. Hawthorn’s sudden braking caused Macklin’s Austin-Healey to swerve to the centre of the track.
Unfortunately, Macklin hadn’t noticed both Pierre Levegh and Juan Manuel Fangio, both driving 300 SLRs, approaching quickly from behind. Levegh didn’t have time to react and made contact with the left rear of Macklin’s Austin-Healey.
The Austin-Healey boasted long, ramp-like rear bodywork so when Levegh hit Macklin from behind, his Mercedes became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it hit an earthen mound built to protect spectators.
The 300 SLR somersaulted when it hit the mound, which caused its loosened and damaged parts to be flung away from the car. These errant parts included the Mercedes’ bonnet and front axle, both of which separated from the frame and landed in the crowd.
With the front of the Mercedes’ space-frame chassis – and thus the crucial engine mounts – destroyed, the car’s heavy engine block also broke free and slammed into the crowd. Levegh was thrown free of the somersaulting car, fatally crushing his skull when he landed.
As the remains of the 300 SLR slowed its somersault, the fuel tank, situated behind Levegh’s seat, ruptured. The ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining bodywork past its flashpoint, which due to its high magnesium content was already very low.
Magnesium’s properties mean that combustion in oxygen is possible at relatively low temperatures, allowing the alloy to burst into white hot flames, sending searing embers onto the track and into the crowd.
Rescue workers attempting to put out the burning wreckage were initially unsuccessful, as they unknowingly used water on the magnesium fire, which only intensified the inferno. As a result, the car burned for several hours.
A total of 82 spectators were killed outright during the crash, with a further 76 maimed by the incident.
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