Sir Norman Dewis OBE 3 August 1920 – 8th June 2019
Sir Norman Dewis, OBE – Jaguar test driver and development has passed away. A legend at Jaguar, he was fundamental in the development of some of Jaguars most iconic cars. I first met Sir Norman Dewis at the Goodwood Race Circuit in June 2015, as he prepared to hurl an anxious prize winner around the circuit at breakneck speeds in a classic Jaguar XK150. When he was 94. He drove the XK150 round Goodwood circuit like he was back there, in the 60’s, in black and white, with a Pathé news commentator recounting his progress round the track.
Norman took it in his stride, it was a normal day for this charismatic raconteur. His stories, gathered from decades in the motor industry, were fascinating – and never stopped coming. I photograph a lot of people, but this really was photographing a living legend.
As a test driver for Jaguar, he was an integral part of the development of many of Jaguars iconic cars. In a 33 year career he tested and developed an intimidating list of Jaguar cars. Jaguar XK140, Jaguar XK150, Jaguar C-type, Jaguar D-type, Jaguar Mark VIII, Jaguar Mark IX, Jaguar Mark II, Jaguar E-type, Jaguar XJ13, Jaguar Mark X, Jaguar XJ6, Jaguar XJ-S, Jaguar XJ40. It reads like a list many people would compile of iconic British cars. Cars that wouldn’t exist the way they are without Norman Dewis’ input.
At the Festival of Speed in 2015, in his unofficial capacity as Jaguar Ambassador with Jaguar Heritage, I met Norman for a second time. He was on astounding form talking, reminiscing and holding court, dominating the Jaguar Heritage pit much more than his diminutive frame should have allowed. Surrounded by fans, (all hooked on his every word) and many of the cars he was involved with testing throughout his 33 year career at Jaguar.
Norman Dewis OBE is most famed for his epic continental blast from Brown’s Lane in Coventry to Geneva in a convertible E-Type in 1961. The E-Type had been launched to huge acclaim. Test drives were demanded and the press were clamouring to get drives, photos and a scoop on the fascinating new car from Jaguar.
William Lyons (co-founder of Jaguar Cars Limited) ordered Norman to drive the other E-Type directly to the Geneva Motor Show. Immediately. Having just finished a days track testing, Norman was tired, but as he puts it; “ The boss wanted it, so you just did it. That was the task in hand”.
He filled up the E-Type, jumped in and powered off at 7:30PM towards a 10pm ferry crossing at Dover. Streaking down the main roads South (there were few motorways in 1961) and through central London, he made the ferry as the loading gate was closing.
Pleading with the guard, who didn’t know what it was Norman was driving, he explained, in the torchlight, “It’s the new Jaguar, it needs to be at Geneva for the morning!” Understanding the urgency in his voice, the guard waved him through.
Filling up on coffee and scoffing a cheese sandwich on the ferry, Norman departed Northern France in a blast of exhaust and with 1960’s candles for headlamps, drove through the french countryside in the dark.
Across the Alps, and descending to Geneva, he made the press launch with 10 minutes to spare. “I knew you’d make it, Dewis!” was all that William Lyons said to him.
Norman had made it, from Coventry, without motorways, to Geneva in a staggering 11 hours. (plus three on the ferry) His average speed, was 68MPH. I’ll let that sink in. Think about it, through central London, too. It was an epic journey, never to be repeated. The E-Type was a huge success, remaining an Icon of British design to this day.
You can see more of the story here: https://www.topgear.com/videos/top-gear-tv/tgtv-s23-race-geneva-jag-f-type-svr
Jaguar XJ13 1966
Testing prototype cars is dangerous. Having had a fair few crashes already, he knew the risks. But, maybe it’s a generational thing, safety was a concern, but there was a job to do. So, with a warning of a tyre problem, Norman still pushed the developmental Jaguar XJ13 to it’s limits. A limit he found and exceeded.
I’ve seen Norman recount this story several times. Each time I am more and more impressed with is resolve. The fact he just crawled down into the footwell and considered his fate whilst the car rolled and rolled, dug itself into the mud in a hail of noise and bending metal from 140 mph says a lot about the man. Yes, the only XJ13 was rebuilt. It is by far my most favourite car. It is a beauty.
It’s the only one in existence. There are some marvellous replicas but this is the original. Built in 1966, with a 5.0L V12 engine, it was developed to beat Ferrari 250GT’s and the ever fast Fords. The Ford GT40 made whilst this car was still in development made the XJ13 redundant, but for its time, was a remarkable car. Jaguar was offered £7 million for it in 1996. The offer was declined.
So farewell, Norman. On the brief occasions I met you, you made me feel welcome and accommodated my ridiculous demands as a photographer.