It is with extreme sadness that the Directors of BSF were informed that Norman passed away last night, the industry made sure his last months were comfortable as Norman struggled with the symptoms of Cancer. We were honoured that he chose to appear in April at Bromyard Speed Festival, and chose to take a ride in Clive Beecham’s XKD603 round the town.
His Autobiographer Paul Skilleter tells the story of Jaguar’s famous test development driver.
When I was a boy many years ago we had the Reader’s Digest passed onto us by a family friend. One of the regular features was called ‘The most unforgettable character I ever met’ – and for me, Norman Dewis comes at or very near the top of my list of unforgettable characters!
I first encountered Norman at his ‘second home’, the Motor Industry Research Association’s test ground not far from Nuneaton. This would have been 1966 or 1967 and while Norman was testing Jaguars, I was there on behalf of the motoring magazine I then worked for (Motor, which like its weekly rival Autocar, used MIRA’s facilities for such as recording performance and fuel consumption). Strange to relate, few at that time realised that this business like, almost brusque, engineer had just twelve years before driven a works D-type Jaguar at Le Mans, and in 1952 had accompanied Stirling Moss in a C-type in the Mille Miglia…
Norman was born in Coventry on 3rdAugust 1920, and his career in the motor industry started in 1934 at Humber. He soon apprenticed at the highly-respected Armstrong Siddeley concern where he worked until war broke out. After serving in the RAF during the war (which included the perilous role flying as a gunner in Blenheims), he joined Lea-Francis and eventually became the chief tester there.
But he knew that the days of low volume, coachbuilt cars were numbered and jumped at the chance to work for Jaguar. The invitation had come in 1951 from Jaguar’s chief engineer William Heynes, and (after a further interview with Jaguar’s founder, William Lyons!) Norman started at Jaguar’s Foleshill works in January 1952. From then on until Bill Heynes CBE retired in 1969 Norman reported directly to the chief engineer, a unique arrangement in the motor industry.
Norman’s own career at Jaguar spanned 33 years, and until he retired in 1985 Norman played a crucial role in the development of some 35 different Jaguar models. Amongst these were not only the road cars but also the works racing C-types and D-types which brought Jaguar such success in the 1950s. His influence on the safety and reliability of the road Jaguars produced in this period was profound.
Norman, was a World speed record holder of 172.41 mph in a “production car” an XK120 at Jabbeke in Belgium. He sat on the floor, with no seat to save weight, and was bolted in as the aerodynamic canopy was from a glider!
One of the most important test programmes Norman became involved with early on was the development of the disc brake, initially for Le Mans but then for road cars. When he first came to Jaguar his new boss William Heynes charged him with the further development of the C-type Le Mans car, and with it the new Dunlop/Mintex disc brake – an invention of worldwide significance and which helped Jaguar win Le Mans in 1953, 1955, 1956 and 1957. It was to test the new brake in racing conditions that resulted in Norman accompanying Stirling Moss in a C-type on the 1952 Mille Miglia, that amazing 1,000-mile race in Italy (they retired near the end, after being on course for second or third place, but most importantly the new brakes received a most thorough test!).
Norman then went on to play a key role in the development of the highly advanced D-type, circulating MIRA’s banked circuit for thousands of miles at averages often exceeding 130mph, and drove for the works team in the tragic 1955 Le Mans. With Bob Berry, he drove a privately-entered D-type in the Goodwood Nine Hours race that same year. He was also responsible for signing-off all Jaguar’s road cars including the XK 140 and 150, Mk VII series, 2.4 and 3.4 saloons, Mk 2s, Mk X, XJ and XJ-S and, perhaps most notably, the E-type of 1961.
The last production Jaguar he was associated with was XJ40, the new XJ6 launched the year after his retirement in 1985. His final brush with competition cars was the 5.0 litre V12 mid-engined XJ13, Jaguar’s still-born Le Mans car of the late 1960s which he famously crashed at a three-figure speed in 1971.
This was when in March 1971 XJ13 had been brought out of retirement to make a film promoting the new V12 E-type. The accident happened because, Norman thinks, a wheel broke up. “It did a complete gyration on the banking itself and headed for the infield”, he remembers. “I could see what was going to happen, so I switched off the ignition, just before it did two nose-to-tail rolls in the air. It came down, went sideways, turned over several times like a ball rolling, and ended up on its wheels.
“Not being strapped in I’d got under the scuttle and hung on to whatever I could… I’m sure that’s what saved me – I had bruises but didn’t break any bones.”
One of the most extraordinary things about the incident was that Norman didn’t tell his wife about it, and was at work again the next day! But that is typical Norman!
In 2008 Norman’s life was documented in a book which he and I co-produced, and five reprints later it’s still available! It also relates how in more recent years Norman has travelled the world as a sort of unofficial roving ambassador for Jaguar, addressing car clubs, attending functions and enthralling audiences with tales of his adventures at Jaguar. Places visited include Australia, New Zealand, North America and many European countries. He was held in special regard by Dr Ralph Speth, CEO of Jaguar Land Rover.
Yes, Norman really was an unforgettable character!