Britain’s Aerodynamic Pioneers – Frank Costin and Malcolm Sayer profiled.
In the years prior to World War Two, developments in aeronautics led to rapid growth in the science of aerodynamics. Through the war years, aerodynamicists continued the pioneering research begun during the 1930’s into streamlining, but now with an added dimension – applied science. The use of wind tunnels allowed engineers to properly assess the behaviour of aircraft in simulated flight and more accurately determine the most efficient shapes.
But as the aviation industry began to contract in the post-war era, large numbers of highly skilled aeronautical engineers found themselves vastly over-qualified for work in the civilian arena. Many subsequently found their way by osmosis into UK motorsport, where marginal gains could quickly be translated into race victories. Amongst such figures, two in particular cast by far the greatest shadow: Frank Costin and Malcolm Sayer, twin alumni of UK aerodynamic theory as applied to the motor car.
Born in Cromer, Norfolk, 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 the experimental department developing amongst others, the Blenheim and Beaufighter aircraft. Having left Filton in 1948 he travelled to Iraq to set up an engineering facility at Bagdhad University, where he learned a unique method of mathematical formulae using datum points plotted numerically to determine optimum three-dimensional curved shapes. He never divulged the name of the German engineer who taught him this method nor shared this methodology with anyone. In 1950, he returned to the UK where he initially attempted to make a living as a landscape artist.
Frank Costin was born in Middlesex and was attracted to the purity of calculus at an early age; describing Euclid’s theorem one as “the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my whole life” He studied for a BSc at Acton Tech before War intervened and enrolled as a fitter at General Aircraft, rapidly rising to the drawing office. Specialising in wing design, he worked at Airspeed, Supermarine and when the former was taken over by De Havilland, became involved in experimental aerodynamic flight testing – eventually given overall responsibility for this at their Chester division. By the late 1950’s however, the industry was changing and by 1958, Costin was gone.
With a young family to support, Sayer replied to an advertisement from Jaguar, 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 as aerodynamicist under 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 evident in the D-Type’s body and structure; with it’s stressed alloy fuselage and tail fin, it was more aircraft than motor car. Metalworkers in Jaguar’s competition department came to appreciate Sayer’s unorthodox methodology, not least because he was so exact in his measurements. According to colleagues, you could put your finger or a drawing pin at any point on the skin of a Sayer car design and he could give you the dimensions to within a thousandth of an inch.
Described as essentially a longhand version of modern CAD, the understanding of pure mathematics required to produce this kind of design depth was beyond the scope of most outside of Bletchley Park. Certainly, nobody at Jaguar had seen the like. An experimental department colleague who worked with Sayer explained how he would determine the coordinates, which would then be printed onto paper, board, or aluminium, as required. Once skinned, it would be the shape Sayer wanted, describing him as “quite a miracle”.
The real miracle for Jaguar was that with a tiny budget, they were capable of besting vastly better funded operations in what was the World’s most prestigious motor race. Without Sayer’s aerodynamic prowess, 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