Let us pray for good weather on 3 August 2020. On that day, Jaguar’s evergreen former chief test driver, Norman Dewis, will reach his 100th birthday – and the only present he wants is a chance to lap the famous MIRA banked track at 100mph at the wheel of his favourite car, the late-1960s experimental mid-engined Jaguar XJ13 he developed there.
The 2020 experience, when it happens, will take Dewis straight back to the place where he amassed more than a million miles in prototype Jaguars, driving at 100mph-plus average speeds.
Dewis joined Jaguar from Lea Francis in 1951, just after the C-Type delivered its first Le Mans win, and worked on all the classic Jaguars: the XK140 and XK150 sports cars, the D-Type and XKSS sports/racers, the peerless E-Type, the Mk1 and Mk2 compact saloons, the full-sized MkIX and MkX and the seminal XJ of 1968.
Along the way, he helped to feed Jaguar’s appetite for advanced engineering. During his most influential years, the company used racing and record breaking to improve its road cars, perfected disc brakes, adopted monocoque chassis for rigidity and lightness, took aerodynamics to a new level and developed an advanced independent rear suspension in the XJ to outrefine the opposition.
Dewis stayed at Jaguar for 35 years, retiring in 1985 at 65. So far so usual. But after the sad death of his wife Nan in 1993, Dewis, heading for his mid-70s and still amazingly fit and vital, began to get involved in Jaguar affairs again.
It dawned on the company’s management that this man knew all the great cars and could reliably recall meetings with the great men of history, especially the founder, Sir William Lyons. He became a historian, an enthusiast magnet and a Jaguar icon and has been flourishing at it ever since. Now 95, with a recent OBE behind his name, he still travels and talks, and expects to be doing so when he reaches treble figures.
Born of a hard-up Coventry family, Dewis left school early and begged himself a job at Humber, just across the street. He soon moved to Armstrong Siddeley and won an apprenticeship, which duly equipped him with invaluable knowledge of all the facets of car manufacture. He also learned to drive.
When war broke out, Dewis joined the RAF and trained as an air gunner, but he was discharged in 1943 after experiences of which he rarely talks. An Air Ministry aircraft parts inspector’s job put him in touch with Alvis and Lea Francis and netted him a job with Lea Francis when hostilities ended.
Soon he was testing and assessing newly built cars – and spotting faults even his superiors missed because he showed such an instant, natural flair for the job. “I wanted to do well,” he says. “These cars were hand-built – 20 a week was a good number – so there was plenty to be done.”
Late in 1951, Dewis took a call from Bill Heynes, Jaguar’s engineering director: would he take charge of their test programmes? Dewis quibbled a bit over money and the reporting structure (“I’d be criticising people’s work, so I only wanted one boss”) but eventually agreed.
No one understood the historic significance back then, but Heynes was building a legendary technical team that would drive Jaguar to its post-war heights: Malcolm Sayer (aerodynamics), Claude Baily and Wally Hassan (engines), Lofty England (racing) and Bob Knight (suspension). “We made a good team,” says Dewis with quiet understatement.
Developing the disc brake
Dewis’s first Jaguar job was to develop Dunlop’s disc brake for Jaguar’s racing cars. The test mule was a C-Type, its performance a big change for a former Lea Francis man. But he loved the extra power and speed.
“We didn’t want to go to MIRA because others would see us,” he explains, “so we built our own circuit on a disused aerodrome. The disc brakes were promising but needed work. They were powerful and the car stopped straight, but the fluid boiled, the pads suffered from knock-back in corners [which meant the pedal went to the floor] and the cast iron discs wore quickly.
"After three months, we were just about getting it right when Sir William appeared in my office and delivered an ultimatum: ‘Finish this in three weeks or we’ll end the programme’.” They worked night and day and met the deadline. And the rest is history.
Driving the XK120 at 172mph
Dewis’s graduation to big performance was rapid. Just months after his arrival, he was Stirling Moss’s co-driver in the 1952 Mille Miglia, typically producing a list of end-of-race faults rather than dwelling on the scarier aspects of retiring with broken steering.
In October the following year, as the climax to a series of Jaguar top speed runs on a Flanders motorway called Jabbeke, he drove a streamlined XK120 at an amazing 172.412mph, faster than any 120 before or since.
Developing the D-type
Mention the D-Type, especially the 1955 long-nose, and Dewis’s expression softens. It’s one of his favourite cars, its sophistication distilled from lessons learned from the various experimental models that followed the C-Type and from the less aerodynamic short-nose D-Type of the previous year.
“That ’55 was some car,” he recalls. “The D was our first car to use a monocoque centre section with bolt-on tubular subframes, like an aircraft, and you could feel how rigid it was. The ’55 had better weight distribution, a full wraparound screen for high-speed comfort, and its aerodynamics were better than the short-nose. And we did a lot of detail development to make it better to drive.”
Racing at Le Mans
Dewis’s love for the long-nose has much to do with the fact that he was chosen in Jaguar’s six-man Le Mans driver line-up that year, the fateful event during which Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes crashed into the crowd, killing more than 80 people.
The race continued, remarkably, but Dewis’s partner put their car off the road during the night while running fourth – although not before Dewis pulled off a famous pass on Karl Kling’s Mercedes 300SLR by slightly over-revving his engine on the Mulsanne Straight to notch up an official 192mph.
Knowing Sir William
Dewis first met Lyons a few weeks after arriving at Swallow Road, predecessor of Browns Lane.
“Sir William always walked around the works after hours. I was in my office one evening and he just walked in. ‘Are you Dewis?’ he said. ‘I’m Lyons.’ From then on, he’d occasionally drop in. He was always a very formal sort of man. Not impolite, or particularly autocratic, but you could never get close to him. I always had the feeling he was shy. He certainly hated making speeches.
“Over in the body shop, they always had a body he was working on. He did the saloons and Sayer did the sports cars. Sir William would mark things in chalk on his body and ask for them to be made the next day. That’s where the Jaguar power bulge came from. He wanted the bonnet lines so low they couldn’t get the engine in.”
Dewis worked at Jaguar until 1985, participating in the long, continuous development of the XJ saloon. He retired halfway through the John Egan revival era, two years short of the launch of the XJ40.
By 1994 he was back in his new, iconic role. Today, he drives the current cars – still making comments and “hearing things” – but is profoundly impressed with the quality and detail of the latest products, apart from one thing: their tyre noise.
“I’ve talked to our engineers about it,” he says, “but it seems to be a modern problem. Mercedes and BMW have it, too. I know today’s cars have low profile tyres and need bigger contact patches than ours did, but I still think it could be reduced if they moved it further up their priority list.”