Monday 3 August 2020 would have been the 100th birthday of the late Norman Dewis, the legendary test driver who played a pivotal role in establishing Jaguar as a leading global sports car brand. To mark the occasion, we're looking back at when we had the chance to hear about his experiences during a trip to the firm's Coventry HQ in 2018.
We’re standing in a group, chatting in the foyer of Jaguar Land Rover’s Classic Works, the company’s magnificent new Coventry home for old cars. We’re awaiting the arrival of Norman Dewis OBE, undoubtedly the greatest Jaguar classic of all.
The iconic former chief test engineer, who joined the company in 1952 with the brief of “signing off every competition and road-going Jaguar”, has just celebrated his 98th birthday as if it’s his 40th. He’s agreed to drop in to Classic for a bit of pre-Christmas cheer, and to take his first-ever drive in the new electric I-Pace with Ian Callum, the man who designed it.
It’s a gathering of the usual Jaguar suspects: CEO Ralf Speth, whose determination put this magnificent place on the map; Mike Cross, who aims to make every new Jaguar a driving classic; Callum and his all-important I-Pace; and Tony O’Keeffe, Jaguar master historian who will walk us through the latest revived and recreated cars and show us JLR’s amazing James Hull car collection. Our host is Tim Hannig, who runs this place day to day. These men are the successors of Bill Heynes, Bill Lyons, Malcolm Sayer, Lofty England and Bob Knight, who made Jaguar great in the first place. Dewis was one of them.
Suddenly he’s with us. A diminutive figure – whose secret weapon was that, in an era when nobody cared about race driver comfort, he fitted every car – Dewis remains impressively mobile and ‘on the button’. He’s immaculately dressed, sporting his usual custom-made walking stick topped with a large chrome Jaguar ‘leaper’, and ready to go.
Alone among us, Dewis has a direct connection with Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons, so while we’re all sipping tea, I ask him a cheesy but sincere question: what would Lyons have made of this place? The answer instantly shows the intimacy of his relationship with the old founder.