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Life in the fast lane - tributes paid to legendary Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis

By Thom Kennedy | Church Stretton | News | Published:

Racing legend and Jaguar developer Norman Dewis, who has died at the age of 98, was somebody who lived all of his life at high speed.

Norman Dewis in Belgium in 1953, by the Jaguar SK120 he drove at a record 172.4 mph

Maybe it was his time as an air gunner in a plane with the highest casualty rate in the Second World War, but Norman Dewis appeared to be a man without fear.

Whether it was racing in the gruelling arena of Le Mans, or setting the world speed record for a production car, he loved life in the fast lane.

Tributes have poured in to the former racing driver and Jaguar chief test driver who died peacefully at his home in Church Stretton on Saturday at the age of 98.

His life was one long tale of drama, excitement and derring-do, and right up until his death he worked as an ambassador for Jaguar, regaling captivated audiences with anecdotes about his colourful life. Sometimes he pushed the boundaries with his employers, too, but his talents and sheer force of personality meant he was never anything less than a highly valued member of staff. He was appointed an OBE in 2015.

During his time with Jaguar, he completed more than a million test miles at an average speed of 100 mph and survived high-speed crashes in the days before seatbelts, without ever breaking a single bone.

Norman Dewis at home in Church Stretton in 2012

David Barzilay of Bridgnorth-based Classic Motor Cars (CMC), a long-time friend of Dewis, recalls a man with a burning passion for Jaguar cars, and a brilliant raconteur.

Only last month he had hoped to make a personal appearance at company’s party to celebrate 60 years of the Jaguar Mk2, but ill health prevented him from attending. He was, though, delighted to hear that money from the event would go to his favourite charity, Hope House Children’s Hospice in Oswestry.

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“Norman always wanted to know about anything that was Jaguar, whether it was from his friends and colleagues at Jaguar Land Rover, or from CMC and his memory on all things Jaguar was amazing,” says Mr Barzilay.

He says only last year he spoke at an event to mark the company’s 25th anniversary.

“He held the room for over an hour with his recollections and anecdotes and could probably have talked all night,” says Mr Barzilay.

Cars were in Dewis’s blood almost from the moment he was born in 1920. Growing up in the shadow of the Humber motor works at Coventry, he watched the workers entering and leaving the factory each day, and longed to be part it. Forced to leave school at 14 following the death of his father, he went to work for the Co-op, but his heart wasn’t in it. Then one day he walked up to the gatehouse at the Humber factory and asked for an apprenticeship. He started the following Monday.

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Air gunner

Life at Humber was not all he had hoped for, though. He felt he was learning little.

And after speaking to friends at nearby Armstrong Siddeley, he asked about becoming a formal apprentice, beginning a five-year course aged 15.

But as tensions rose in Europe, he followed some of his older friends into the RAF Volunteer Reserve. Of course, he wanted to be a pilot, but had to settle for becoming an air gunner instead.

After being called up for service following the outbreak of war in September 1939, where he flew in the Bristol Blenheim Mk IV planes on various sorties over enemy territory. Having lost many good friends, he rarely talked about the war, and he was invalided out of active service in 1942 after sustaining kidney damage in battle.

After the war, he took up a job in the engine works at Lea Francis, also in Coventry, but after a few years he once more found restless and confided in his sales manager Jack Ridley that he was looking for a new challenge. Ridley knew William Heynes, Jaguar’s chief engineer, who had previously worked at Humber, and Heynes mentioned he was looking for a test engineer. Ridley suggested Dewis, and he started as Jaguar’s chief test driver and development engineer on January 1, 1952.

Development

Here Dewis at last found his true role in life, and over the next 33 years he would be responsible for the development of every new Jaguar from the XK140 performance car of 1954 to the XJ40 saloon which remained in production until 1994. He also developed the legendary C- and D-Type race cars which cleaned up at Le Mans during the 1950s. Co-driving a C-Type with Stirling Moss in the 1952 Mille Miglia, he pioneered the use of disc brakes in cars – much to the irritation of Jaguar’s German rivals – a design which has now become the norm.

The following year he set the world speed record for a production car when he drove a Jaguar XK120 to 172.4mph at Jabbeke in Belgium. In 1955, along with fellow driver Bob Berry, he drove a Jaguar D-Type in the Goodwood nine-hour race, taking fifth place. He then played a major role in overseeing the development of the C and D-Type racing cars into the E-Type production car.

Sometimes his maverick tendencies landed him in hot water.

Returning from a race in 1953, Dewis, a mechanic and Jaguar’s PR officer stopped off in an hotel at the foot of the Alps, but didn’t have any money to settle their bill. So Dewis sold a spare set of tyres for their C-Type racing car to a local garage, but Jaguar’s formidable founder Sir William Lyons was less than impressed on his return to Coventry.

Rolled

In January 1971 Dewis was driving the only Jaguar XJ13 around the Motor Industry Research Association track near Nuneaton for a promotional film when, reputedly against the instruction of Jaguar director Lofty England, he drove it at high speed with a damaged tyre. The tyre failed, and the car hurtled into the safety fence at 135mph.

“Even though it was on the grass it showed no signs of slowing down,” Dewis later recalled.

“It rolled, went sideways and turned over several times but landed on its wheels.

“I was not strapped in and had dived under the scuttle and hung on to anything that was there. This saved my life, if I had been strapped in I would have been crushed and killed.”

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