The man responsible for developing some of the most iconic Jaguars ever, Norman Dewis OBE, has passed away aged 98. Over a 33-year career with Jaguar, Dewis’ fearlessness, extraordinary talent and friendly, humble demeanor helped establish him not only as Britain’s greatest ever test driver, but a veritable legend and a dedicated friend to the Jaguar brand.
Dewis’ history with Jaguar is remarkable: he developed the multiple Le Mans-winning C- and D-type racing cars, the classic XK 140 and 150 sports cars, the pioneering 2.4/3.4 and Mk 2 saloons, plus the Mk VII and Mk VIIM models, the legendary E-type (including the Lightweight E-type), the XJ13 mid-engined prototype, the world-class XJ saloons, the XJ-S and the ‘XJ40’ models. Each and every model developed with Dewis’ help remains an icon of the automotive world to this day for its impeccable blend of comfort and handling.
Unusually, Norman reported directly to Jaguar Chief Engineer, William Heynes; this arrangement was probably unique in the motor industry for a test engineer and it enabled the company’s chief engineer (later engineering director) instant, first-hand feedback on the proving process. Norman also sent copies of his reports to company founder Sir William Lyons. Both placed considerable store by what Norman said.
Born in Coventry, Dewis began working on cars at age 14, fitting wings and bonnets at the Humber factory. At just 15 he moved to another car manufacturer, Armstrong Siddeley, where he spent time in the chassis department and first learned to drive while taking cars on their shakedown runs. During wartime, Dewis was drafted into the RAF, working the gun turret of a Blenheim bomber, and finally joined Jaguar after a post-war stint at Lea-Francis.
Besides the many cars Dewis helped develop in his career, one of his first automotive projects is without doubt the one with the greatest effect on the automotive industry; the disc brake. Dewis became involved with Jaguar and Dunlop’s development of the revolutionary braking system, famously trialed in a C-type at the 1952 Mille Miglia with Sir Stirling Moss in the driving seat and Dewis navigating.
Dewis also, in 1953, set a 172.412 mph production car speed record in a modified Jaguar XK120 on a closed section of the Jabbeke highway, Belgium. He also drove a 190mphworks D-type in the dramatic 1955 Le Mans 24hr race with greats like Moss, Hawthorn and Fangio.
Famed racing driver, Mike Hawthorn, had such faith in Dewis that when he was asked to attend a test session and saw that Dewis was already there, asked the team manager: “Why am I here? If Norman’s satisfied with it, I’m satisfied.” And so it was, through a mutual respect and an instant likeability, that Dewis struck up life-long friendships with the likes of Hawthorn, Moss and Sir Jackie Stewart.
Outside of racing car development, Dewis is also famous for his legendary night-time dash from Coventry to the Geneva Motor Show in 1961 for the launch of the Jaguar E-type. Covering roughly 700 miles in another E-type sourced from the factory for the for press demonstration runs, Dewis arrived roughly 15 hours later having not stopped once (aside from fuel) – hugely impressive at a time when there were no motorways.
In an era without seatbelts or crash safety, Dewis was fearless. In total, it’s estimated he completed more than a million test miles at an average speed of 100mph-plus, with a number of heroic anecdotes as a result. Whether it was the D-type that flipped and landed on top of him while testing glass fibre panels or the XJ-13 that rolled end over end during a high-speed run, Dewis managed to walk away without a scratch, didn’t tell his wife and then was back to work the next day.
In the years before his retirement Norman built up a small but highly dedicated vehicle proving department which he headed until his retirement in 1985. He also oversaw the establishment of a dedicated Jaguar test facility at Nardo in Italy and, in 1984, a major base at Phoenix, Arizona for durability and environmental testing in the all-important United States market.
Even outside of retirement – and in more recent times – Dewis spearheaded Jaguar’s 60th anniversary celebrations for the race-winning D-type. Wherever Jaguar was during the year, Norman was present too, chatting with fans and friends, wearing his distinctive bootlace tie and cowboy boots. At the 2014 Goodwood Revival, Dewis – aged 93 – demonstrated a D-type, his speed illustrating that he hadn’t lost his touch behind the wheel. Dewis then consulted with the Jaguar Classic Works on the launch of the continuation Lightweight E-type, a car that he originally helped develop in the 1960s. To his 98th year, Dewis continued to be a global ambassador to Jaguar cars and a great friend to the brand.
In recognition of his services to Jaguar and the British motor industry, in 2014 Norman received the Order of the British Empire (OBE).