[Editor’s note: Long-time Jaguar test driver and engineer Norman Dewis died last weekend, age 98. His career at Jaguar officially spanned 33 years, from 1952 to 1985, but as recently as 2016 he was still serving as a global ambassador for the brand at key motoring events. Dewis helped to develop such legendary models as the C-type, D-type, and E-type, and miraculously escaped injury in the 1971 crash of the stunning XJ13, developed as an endurance racer but never campaigned. In 2013, David LaChance interviewed Dewis for an article in Hemmings Sports and Exotic Car magazine, reprinted below. We can think of no finer send-off for the man who helped define the very character of Jaguar for six-plus decades.]
Norman Dewis well recalls his first meeting with William Lyons, just a week after joining Jaguar on New Year’s Day 1952. “I was in the experimental shop–that’s where my office was–and the door opened and this guy came in, and he said, ‘Dewis?’ He never called anybody by their first name, you see. He said, ‘Dewis?’ I said, ‘Yes?’ He said, ‘I’m Bill Lyons, I’m the boss of the company. I’m very pleased to accept you in the company. I hope you can do a good job for us, but we do work hard here, you don’t get much time off, you know?’ And I thought, ‘That’s a good start.'”
What the dour Lyons meant by “a good job,” we can only guess. But he could not possibly have foreseen a 34-year career in which Norman would be responsible for the development of some of the most remarkable road and competition cars that Jaguar–or any company–would produce. From his first day of work until his retirement in 1986, no production car was introduced, no race car set tire to track, before Norman had pronounced it good. That’s a list that includes the D-type, the XK140, the XK150, the Mk VII through Mk X sedans, the E-type, the XJ6 and the XJ-S, for starters. Oh, and by the way, he also found time to help develop the modern disc brake, drive the 1952 Mille Miglia with Stirling Moss and hit 172.4 MPH on the Jabbeke Highway in 1953, setting a speed record that’s unlikely to be broken.
It’s pretty clear that Norman didn’t need anybody’s encouragement to work hard. He was just 14 when he walked across the street from his grandparents’ Coventry home and through the main gates of Humber, landing a job doing bodywork. “That’s how it was in those days. You had to get out to work to earn some money,” he says with a laugh. He was disappointed when, after nine months, Humber refused to give him an apprenticeship, but saw that he had other opportunities. “Coventry was the main car manufacturer of the whole of Britain,” he says. He approached Armstrong Siddeley–“they were a very nicely made car, beautiful car”–and was offered a five-year apprenticeship.
He still had 18 months to go when World War II interrupted. As a Royal Air Force reserve, he was immediately called to active duty, becoming a turret gunner in the twin-engine Bristol Blenheim bomber. Grounded from flying in 1943, he was returned to Armstrong Siddeley, which needed skilled labor for its production of the Whitley heavy bomber. The Air Ministry, recognizing his talents, tapped Norman for another job, inspecting aircraft components made by Coventry’s car manufacturers. One of his stops was at Lea Francis, which was building throttle boxes for the Short Sterling bomber.
After the war, as he prepared to return to Armstrong Siddeley, Lea Francis offered him a job helping to design the company’s first post-war cars. “That seemed more interesting to me than going back to finish the apprenticeship.” He worked with a small team to develop the company’s 1.5-liter four and a new chassis, and was then asked to do some test work on the chassis. That’s how his development work began.
Norman had been with Lea Francis for several years when the phone call came from Bill Heynes, the director of engineering at Jaguar. Would he be interested in joining the company? “[Heynes] said, ‘We have not got now a chief test engineer, and we’d like to offer you the job. So I said, ‘What sort of money are you paying?’ He gave me the figure, and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that’s hardly any different to what I’m getting at Lea Francis.’ And he said, ‘Well, what would you want if you joined us?’ I said, ‘I would like another two pound a month.’” Norman chuckles. “It’s laughable now, two pound, but two pound was quite a bit of money in those days.”
His first assignment was to work with Dunlop on developing a disc brake. Jaguar provided a C-type for testing, and the work progressed at a disused airfield, away from curious eyes. “We’d been working hard at it from 7 in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, and seven days a week. We had lots of problems–overheating, and fluid boiling, and various problems. But we were getting through it, slowly,” he says. Too slowly for Lyons’s taste, it turned out. “He said, ‘You’re not doing anything back here at Jaguar; you’re spending all your time on it. I think, if you haven’t resolved it in three weeks, I think we’ll pull out.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Three weeks. That’s it. If you haven’t got it done by then, we pull out.’
“So we worked flat out for three weeks, and we finished up with a brake, which we considered wasn’t completely perfect, but we thought it was good enough to say, yes, we could use it, probably in some form of racing,” Norman says. “We then sat ’round the table, Heynes, myself and Malcolm Sayer, the aerodynamist, and we said, ‘well, what do we do with the brake now?’ It was too risky to put it in for the ’52 Le Mans, because that was our main race. We’d got to win Le Mans all the time, you see. So we looked at the calendar and we saw the Mille Miglia, the thousand-mile race around Italy.”
They recruited Stirling Moss, who had become acquainted with Norman from his racing days at Lea Francis, and drove their disc brake-equipped C-type to Brescia, Italy, the starting point for the Mille Miglia. The scrutineers were curious about the new brake, which they had never seen before, but it was Mercedes-Benz team chief Alfred Neubauer who tried to throw a wrench in the works. “They’d entered three Mercedes in the Mille Miglia, the 300 SL model–that was a brand-new model, incidentally. He said, ‘Oh, no, that car must be disqualified, because we don’t know anything about the brake; it could be dangerous for my drivers.’” At this point, one of the main organizers came over, and brushed aside Neubauer’s concerns.
Moss was hugely impressed with the C-type’s brakes. “Whereas the Ferrari and Mercedes could all brake once pretty well and then overheat, the Jaguar could repeatedly stop later and faster over and over again,” he later wrote. But he and Norman did not finish the race. “We’d got about 123 miles to go for the finish, but unfortunately we went around this curve, a very sharp, tight right-hand turn, and the water was running off the mountains across the road. We hit the water, and, of course, it skidded us off the road. We crashed the car–the front suspension was all damaged, so we couldn’t continue any farther,” Norman says. He long believed that the Jaguar was in third place when it crashed, but was corrected by a race official after publication of his memoirs: He and Moss had been lying second. The first win for a disc-brake car would come later that year, in the 12-hour race at Rheims.
“When I look at all the cars on the road and I’m thinking, 1952, when we first developed the disc brake, I wouldn’t have thought all these years later that every manufacturer of every car on the road now would be on disc brakes. It’s a great feeling to be part of that progress.”
Disc brakes helped Jaguar secure a win in the 1953 Le Mans, but one incident during that race reveals how heavily Lyons leaned on his chief test engineer. Lofty England, the team manager, noticed that the C-type driven by Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt didn’t sound right, and Norman had the car brought into the pits, correctly diagnosing a faulty spark plug. He was accosted by Lyons. “He said, ‘Why has the plug failed? Were they new?’ I said, ‘Yes, we always put new ones in before we start the race. They’re all brand-new.’ He said, ‘Where could it be faulty?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s just one of those things.’ ‘Nonsense,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe you done the job right, Dewis.’ He said, ‘It’s all your fault, Dewis. We’ve lost two laps now, and it’s all your fault if we don’t win.’” Norman can afford to laugh today; Hamilton and Rolt won with an average speed of 105.85 MPH, the first time Le Mans had been won at an average of more than 100 MPH.
The chairman was more restrained in victory. “In 1953, I broke the production sports car record in Belgium [on the Jabbeke highway] with the XK120–I shattered it, I put it up to 172.4 for the flying mile, you see. Lofty said, ‘I’d better ring the old man and tell him how successful we’ve been.’” Back at the hotel, England put Norman on the phone. “He said, ‘Well done. I’ve told England he can take you into Brussels and have a bit of a party over it. But don’t forget, Dewis–champagne’s very expensive.’” The memory still makes him laugh. The record appears safe; the Belgian officials decided to halt any further speed trials, deciding that they were too dangerous for the spectators.
Jaguar withdrew from racing in 1957, choosing to focus all of its efforts on production cars, and Norman believes it was the right move to make. “We’d got to look after the market, the American market. People wanted to buy Jaguars, so we’d got to be developing them and making them and selling them. Otherwise, the company would have gone under, I think.”
“I feel very proud to be a part of these cars because I spent a lot of my life developing them. You see, the thing is, when you build the first prototype, it all looks good, but then you’ve got to shake it down and you’ve got to make it into a car, and when you first go out with these cars, it doesn’t matter what they look like, you’ve got the suspension problems, steering problems, handling problems, which you now have got to sort out and put it all together, and try to make as good a car as you can out of what you’ve got. That’s where my skill came in,” he says. He would introduce more than 600 test procedures. “I used to spend hours and hours and hours on trying to get the handling right and the steering and all this. I had to sign everything off. It wouldn’t go into production or we wouldn’t race it until I’d signed it off. So it was my responsibility then, and I mean it’s a big responsibility.”
Today, Norman travels the world as a goodwill ambassador for Jaguar. He expects to be in Monterey this August for Pebble Beach, and to take part in his friend Terry Larson’s annual tour for C- and D-types in September. He gets to drive a new Jaguar, too; when we talked, a new XF two-liter diesel was parked at his Shropshire home.
“It’s a beautiful motorcar,” he says. He sounds wistful for a moment, musing on how robots have taken over the production line. “Don’t get me wrong–the tolerances they build them to, every one is the same, you see? In the old days, you had differences on the door fit and things like that and the fitter would have to go out and fit the door properly. They’ve got a wonderful car now, the Jaguar range, and they’re doing well in China, and you know, it’s just wonderful to see that they’re still producing good cars.”
It’s unfair to ask Norman to name his favorite Jaguar, but we did anyway. He gave us three picks:
Before the tragic crash at Le Mans in 1955 that killed driver Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators, prompting Mercedes’ withdrawal, Norman hit 194.2 MPH on the Mulsanne Straight as he passed Karl Kling’s 300 SLR. “[That was] phenomenal speed for the size of the engine and the car,” he says. “That was the best low-coefficient of drag we ever made, that one. It had a full wraparound screen, and it was 7 inches longer in the nose.”
Developed in 1966 for Le Mans, the V-12 XJ13 never raced, blocked by a change in rules. Norman was driving the only surviving example in 1971 when a wheel disintegrated, leading to a terrible crash. “That is all fully restored, we still have the car, and I drive it occasionally–only demonstration, of course. That is an incredible car,” he says.
“What a wonderful design [Sayer] built out in 1961. So far advanced,” Norman says. “I always remember when we launched it at Geneva, I had to go over there and demonstrate to the press people, and I always remember Enzo Ferrari coming up to me. He walked around the car. He said, ‘Norman, it’s the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. But there is one mistake on the car. It hasn’t got a Ferrari badge.’ Which I thought was a wonderful compliment, coming from him, you know?”