Britain’s Aerodynamic Pioneers – Frank Costin and Malcolm Sayer profiled.
During the 1930s, rapid advancements in aviation were in no small way fuelled by a growing understanding of the science of aerodynamics. Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, with scientific interest supplanted by urgent necessity, the pioneering research into airflow management would now come with an added dimension. The increased application of wind tunnel testing allowed engineers to properly assess the behaviour of aircraft in simulated flight and more accurately determine the most efficient shapes.
But as the British aviation industry rapidly contracted in the immediate post-war era, large numbers of highly skilled aeronautical engineers found themselves not only out of work, but vastly over-qualified for the civilian arena. Many found their way by osmosis into UK motorsport, where marginal gains could be translated into race victories. Amongst such figures, two in particular can be rightly described as pioneers: Frank Costin and Malcolm Sayer.
Born in Cromer, Norfolk in 1916, Malcolm Sayer attended Loughborough University, attaining a first class honours degree in Automotive Engineering. In 1938, he joined the Bristol Aeroplane Company, spending five years in Filton’s experimental department developing the Blenheim and Beaufighter aircraft.
Sayer left Filton in 1948, accepting an offer to set up an engineering facility at Baghdad University. It was was here he is said to have befriended a German engineer who taught him a unique method of mathematical formulae using datum points plotted numerically to determine optimum three-dimensional curves – a discovery which would alter the course of his career. In 1950, with the academic position having proven to have been something of a mirage, he returned to the UK where he initially attempted to make a living as a landscape artist.
Frank Costin was attracted to the purity of calculus at a tender age, describing Euclid’s theorem one as “the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my whole life.” Born in Middlesex in 1920, he studied for a BSc at Acton Tech before the War intervened. He enrolled as a fitter at General Aircraft, rapidly rising to the drawing office. Specialising in wing design, he later worked at Airspeed, Supermarine and when the former was taken over by De Havilland, became involved in experimental aerodynamic flight testing – ultimately assuming overall responsibility for this work at their Chester division. By the late 1950s however, the industry was declining and by 1958, Costin was gone.
Meanwhile, with a young family to support, Malcolm Sayer replied to an advertisement from Jaguar in 1950, and a short term contract at their experimental racing department quickly found him immersed in a multitude of road and race car projects and a full-time position reporting to engineering chief, Bill Heynes.
Jaguar’s subsequent racing successes were in no small measure due to Sayer’s aptitude with slide rule and logarithms. Sayer’s aviation knowledge became particularly evident in the D-Type’s body and structure design, with it’s stressed alloy fuselage and vertical tail fin, it was to some extent more aircraft than motor car.
The skilled metalworkers in Jaguar’s competition department came to appreciate Sayer’s unorthodox methodology of plotting body co-ordinates, not least because he was so exact in his measurements. According to Experimental department foreman, Bob Blake, one could put one’s finger or a drawing pin at any point on the skin of a Sayer design and he could provide the dimensions to within a thousandth of an inch.
Described as essentially an analogue version of modern computer aided design, the deep understanding of pure mathematics required was beyond the scope of most outside of Bletchley Park. Nobody at Browns Lane had seen the like, an insider describing him as “quite the miracle”. Sayer would determine the coordinates, which would then be printed onto paper, board, or aluminium, as required. Once skinned, it would be the shape he wanted.
The miracle was that with a tiny budget, Jaguar were capable of besting vastly better funded operations in what at the time was the World’s most prestigious motor race. What gave them their edge was aerodynamics, and without Sayer, Jaguar’s Le Mans dream would most likely have remained just that.
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Sources: Loughborough University/Philip Porter/BBC/Motor Sport Magazine/Independent Newspaper
Images: Jaguarbooksite/Loughborough University/BBC/Jaguar Heritage