Friday 19 July 2019

Obituary: Norman Dewis

Legendary Jaguar test driver who helped to develop the life-saving disc brake

Norman Dewis in a D-type
Norman Dewis in a D-type

Norman Dewis OBE, Jaguar test driver, who in a 33-year career at the Coventry car maker played a key role in the development of the disc brake, has died aged 98.

While at Jaguar he tested and developed over 25 cars including: the Le Mans-winning C-type; the three times Le Mans-winning D-type; the XK140/150; the 2.4/3.4 and Mark 2 saloons; the Mark VII and VIIM; the E-type; the XJ13 racer; XJ and XJ-S and the XJ40 models.

As well as his friendly, self-effacing nature, perhaps Norman should be most celebrated for his part in the development of the disc brake, a development which has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the years. It was a risky and time-pressed undertaking. Dewis didn't think much of the C-type when he first tested it, but it became nevertheless the disc-brake development car.

"They'd been fitted to a XK120," said Dewis in an interview in 2014, "and were terrible things, burning out, boiling the fluid. I was asked to help out and said we needed to fit them to the fastest car we made, the C-type."

This was January 1952 and prototype C-Type 001 was converted and the small team of Dunlop and Jaguar engineers was set up.

"Oh yes, it was dangerous," recalled Dewis quietly. "Sometimes I'd be driving at 130mph and there'd be no brakes, the pedal would sink to the floor and I would have to take to the grass."

It is estimated that Dewis had put in over a million test miles at speed in excess of 100mph and he and Jaguar had long harboured an ambition to have Dewis drive the prototype D-type at 100mph when he was 100 years old. But when met by The Telegraph's motoring editor last year, Dewis admitted that he hadn't been feeling too well, saying: "So perhaps we should make it 97mph at 97 years."

Born in Coventry, Dewis came from a heroic generation. A talented artist, he had hoped to go to art college, but when his father died in 1934 aged 41, Dewis became the household's main breadwinner working first at the Co-op, then Humber and after that Armstrong Siddeley, where he found his forte in chassis development.

He did wartime service as an air gunner on Blenheims, a twin-engined bomber with a parlous survival record: "If they did two months they were lucky," Dewis said. He developed a severe kidney infection and back problems as a consequence of spending hours in the draughty unheated turret and saw out the rest of the war in the experimental department of Armstrong Siddeley, which was engaged in war work.

After the war Dewis worked at Lea Francis, where in his spare time he built his own motorcycle and raced cars in Formula 500, where he first met Stirling Moss, a life-long friend. Then, in 1951, a phone call from Bill Heynes at Jaguar, offered him a job he didn't really want.

"I thought if I asked for lots of money they'd never give it to me," he says. "So I said I wanted £4 a week on top of what I was earning. They said yes."

His career at Jaguar was legendary. Each car he drove was carefully documented each evening in Norman's concise hand in a series of exercise books, which it is to be hoped will be acquired for the nation by the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust.

Painstaking and something of a perfectionist, Dewis knew he had two nicknames at Jaguar. "I did meet a colleague after I'd retired," he once recalled. "He said I'd had a nickname 'High-Speed Norman', then let slip there'd been another, 'LBH' - it stood for Little Bloody Hitler."

He achieved results though, and also respect. Legendary Jaguar race team manager Lofty England once invited works driver Mike Hawthorn to an early test of the D-Type. "He arrived," recalled Dewis. "He saw I was there and said to Lofty; 'Why am I here? If Norman's satisfied with it, I'm satisfied.'

"I was always happy that I had the right touch and the D-type did feel special, a compact beautiful car. Once we'd got it right and I'd done 24 hours at racing speeds, I said to Bill Heynes; we should be able to win at Le Mans, but I can't test your drivers."

Dewis was awarded an OBE in 2014.

Sunday Independent

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