Norman Dewis in his own words - Andrew Noakes - Motoring Writer

Norman Dewis, who died yesterday, was ‘only’ 96 when I interviewed him in 2017 about his work as a test driver and development engineer at Jaguar from 1950 to 1985. The conversation gave a fascinating insight into the gritty reality of test driving, but there were a few laughs along the way, too.

Dewis on the Jaguar Mk1…

The body was designed by Sir William. Unfortunately he designed the body without giving any thought to the arrangement of the suspension. It was beautifully shaped but it had got too much of a pear-shaped taper which meant the car became crab tracked – the track at the rear was narrower than the front. We were not happy, but he would not change the body. I think the track was five inches narrower at the back than the front, and it tends to break away very easily. The press said it was a lovely car but a bit skittish at the back, and then he realised he should have listened to us.

We did away with the chassis. Therefore you were mounting the suspension onto the body. That works very well but you’ve got to do some work to isolate the noise from the road into the car. We used to spend days, weeks and months, even going into Europe, testing different hardnesses of rubber separating the suspension from the body.

Dewis on the development process…

If you get a new part in an engine or gearbox you’ve got to be concentrating all the time because if anything goes wrong you’ve got to be able to try to catch it before it wrecks itself

As soon as the first prototype’s built then I took over and started the development. I have a set of test procedures for developing any new model. They’re test procedures which I set up with the engineers in the company and if it was dealing with outside suppliers’ stuff I’d also discuss the procedure with them so they all knew what the vehicle had to meet. When you’ve done a test and feel it’s OK you sign it off. No prototype ever gets through any of the test procedures first time. You just go on and on until it meets that requirement.

You wanted good performance and good handling but you also wanted a comfortable car. We spent no end of time getting that comfort. We used to do special tyre tests at Dunlop – they had a track behind the factory ­– cornering and handling tests. They would produce the tyre and we would test. We had various surfaces at MIRA, the Motor Industry Research Association track, that we would run over at various speeds.

Dewis on test driving…

There’s no glamour. People used to think you just sit on your backside driving… they’d say “I’d love to do your job”. I’d say come and have a go – it’s maximum concentration. You’ve got something under your backside, it’s a one-off, it’s never been tried before, it’s all new. If you get a new part in an engine or gearbox you’ve got to be concentrating all the time because if anything goes wrong you’ve got to be able to try to catch it before it wrecks itself. If you feel something isn’t right you stop. It’s no good driving on and on until you blow it up because then you’ve lost all the information of the failure – and of course it’s a one-off, you’ve only got that one prototype.

The danger was there all the time. I finished up underneath an E-type, under a C-type, under a D-type. The XJ13 was a big one. It’s all part of the job. Something can go wrong at any time. Occasionally it catches you out but if you can catch it before it happens then you stop the test, strip it and you find out what’s gone wrong – a crack here or a weakness there. That’s part of the job.

Since I got involved in testing I always wanted to be the best – that was my aim. Better than Mercedes or Ferrari or any of them. John Wyer offered me a job at Aston Martin, and Enzo Ferrari offered me a job at Ferrari. I stuck to Jaguar – why I don’t know!

Dewis 113

Norman Dewis on the MIRA banking in a prototype E-type around 1960. Jaguar

Dewis on MIRA and Gaydon…

MIRA was the main proving ground for us until later on when we bought Gaydon. I was on the committee that first formulated the Gaydon facility – there were representatives from Rover, Austin Morris, MG and Jaguar. It was two farms we bought and started building it up into a proving ground. We got a corrosion test facility and a cold room facility which we didn’t have at MIRA. We had to comply with emissions for the United States, 50,000 miles on a set procedure, and we couldn’t do that at MIRA because of other traffic on the circuits. In the 70s I had five or six test engineers I trained and 12 or 14 what I called ordinary drivers, and they used to do this 50,000-mile test. I used to have a three-shift system and it didn’t take too long to get 50,000 miles up.

You could only do probably an hour on the Belgian Pavé before your stomach started to ache and you had to have a rest

At MIRA we had that 2.8-mile outer circuit, which was banked at each corner. While that is OK for continuing high speed endurance, it’s artificial to do tyre testing because you’re not level all the time. So one thing I did suggest was to use the maximum area of the Gaydon facility and build one big circuit, but flat without the banked corners. Leyland turned it down saying it would cost too much, so we never did get it.

We had a steering pad at MIRA with a 108ft radius. Any prototype I used to take on there first and get the handling sorted out before I started the high speed work. You stay on the white line and find out if it has understeer or oversteer.

Dewis on training new drivers…

When they first start they think they’re going to be race drivers going down to Silverstone and all that.

I used to get them as apprentices and give them the hard graft – the pavé test. When you get your first prototype, before you start thinking about performance, consumption and handling the first thing you want to know is, is it structurally sound? So 1000 miles on the pavé at 30mph – you could only do probably an hour before your stomach started to ache and you had to have a rest. I used to start these young guys on that first because that breaks ’em in.

Then you put them on brake testing. My final test which I developed for Jaguar was 30 stops from 100mph, 0.5G stops, at 45 second intervals. You’ve got to work quick to get all that in. They’ve got to read the gauges. Some could get up to 12 stops before being sick – some might last 15. I’d kick ’em out and say “get some fresh air – you’re not doing the job properly.”

Then you start to put them in the driving seat. We got some very good guys, like Dick Cresswell – he took over my job when I retired – and Peter Taylor who bought a second-hand E-type and raced that a bit.

Dewis on not racing…

Before I was at Jaguar I was racing at Lea Francis. At all the races [Jaguar] did at Le Mans I was always reserve driver so I had to do qualifying laps and I could be as quick as any of the team. One occasion at Le Mans Tommy Wisdom and some of the press people were talking to Sir William and said why don’t you put Norman in the race – he’s as quick as any of them, he’s dead safe, dead reliable. I always remember Sir William saying “Yes I know how good he is – but if there’s an accident and he’s laid up in hospital, what’s happening at Jaguar?”

We’d drive the cars to Le Mans, win the race and drive them back. After Le Mans at four o’clock on Sunday when we won, Sir William would just walk over and say, “Well done Dewis”. That’s all you got.

Dewis XJ13

Dewis with the V12-powered XJ13, a car that nearly killed him in a high-speed crash at MIRA in 1971. Jaguar

Dewis on racing drivers…

No disrespect to the race drivers of today – they are brilliant. But they don’t have to do the graft drivers did in the old days. Most of the races now are won from the pits. They're constantly talking to the driver. In my day all you got was a pit board with a needle as on a clock. If it was lifted up that meant you’d got to go quicker, if it was horizontal you stayed as you were and if it was lowered you slowed down. That’s all you got as you went past the pits.

Dewis on British Leyland…

I never liked the Leyland group. It was never a happy working relationship. It should never have happened, but we were drawn into it and made the best of it.

Dewis on the prototype Jaguar V12…

No disrespect to the race drivers of today – they are brilliant. But they don’t have to do the graft drivers did in the old days. Most of the races now are won from the pits

The V12 was an incredible engine. Wally Hassan had done all the work on a test bed and got the engine ready. The idea was we were going to introduce it in the E-type and unfortunately they hadn’t got the E-type chassis modified ready to take the V12 so it stood in the shop for two weeks. In those days we didn’t like a job hanging about and one evening I was in the workshop and there was a MkX with the engine out, and I thought “I wonder if the V12 would go in there”. I got my tape measure out of the office and worked out that if we moved the engine mountings three inches forward we could get the V12 in. The following morning I talked to Phil Weaver the superintendent, that was 8 o’clock in the morning and by five in the afternoon the V12 was in the MkX.

I used to take it home and one Sunday morning I went to see some friends at Luton, down the M1. I got behind this Mk2 saloon and just sat behind him. He must have seen me in the mirror and pushed on a bit, and we got up to 100, 110, 120, then I pulled out, got alongside and passed him. On the Monday morning I went in and security rang me and said “Norman, a guy’s been on the phone, said a MkX passed him when he was doing 125mph. Have you got a special MkX?” I said ring him back and say if he finds out who it was could he let us know because I’d be very interested! I never heard any more until years later I published my autobiography and the phone rang and the guy said “I’ve just read your book where you talk about the first V12 in the MkX. You’re the bugger who passed me and I’ve been waiting all these years to find out.”

Dewis on Sir William Lyons…

He was a very tough guy to work for. He wanted his pound of flesh, and always you’d got to watch spending. I was sitting in my office one night on one occasion, everybody had gone home, and he put his head round the door and said “Dewis,” – he never called anybody by their first name, “come out here.” We went into the Experimental Shop. “All these lights on – why can’t you come and turn them off?” I was writing a report in my office, I wasn’t thinking of the lights in the Experimental Shop – but he was quite right. He said “Make sure tomorrow somebody is nominated to switch the lights off.”

Dewis Jabbeke XK120

Dewis with the bubble-top XK120 in which he achieved 172.4mph for the flying mile at Jabbeke in Belgium in 1953. Jaguar

Dewis on modern Jaguars…

I’ve got an XF at the moment – lovely quiet, comfortable cars until certain road surfaces, and the tyre noise is atrocious. It spoils it. It’s a shame, because the car should be so much better.

Dewis on his proudest achievement…

I did several Jabbeke runs but the one I was very proud of was the XK120 when I achieved 172.4mph for the flying mile. That was a cracker.

I was under a Perspex bubble and the only thing was they screwed the bubble down when I was in the car. There was no bloody way I could get out if I got into trouble.

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