Driven To Write concludes its examination of Britain’s aerodynamic pioneers – Frank Costin and Malcolm Sayer
We’ve seen how both Costin and Sayer’s career trajectories dovetailed but the similarities between the two men run deeper still. Both men emerged from the aircraft industry – a place where ego and self publicity were frowned upon. Hence both were publicity-shy, quietly spoken men with broader interests outside the automotive world.
Both were keen musicians – Costin composed music, and in his earlier years, was an Olympic-standard swimmer. Sayer was a talented multi-instrumentalist, watercolour painter, and cartoonist. Both men were nonconformists – in their approach to their work and their personal lives. Former engineering colleague, Norman Dewis latterly described Sayer as a gentle giant with a ‘bohemian’ homelife, his family speaking warmly of a loving and devoted father. Costin’s reputed prickly character masked a kind, thoughful man with committed christian beliefs who suffered many reversals and betrayals, so if he choose to shield himself behind a somewhat spiky persona, it’s perhaps understandable.
Costin increasingly lost interest in motorsport, becoming embroiled in the TMC Costin sportscar project in Ireland during the 1980’s, ultimately retiring to Cork’s West Coast where he designed and built his own house. Unsurprisingly, Costin used his skill and experience with materials – especially wood; carefully calibrating and calculating the necessary stresses and loadings. He continued to work as a consultant and became involved in altruistic work with disadvantaged children, living out his days quietly and modestly, before passing away aged 75 in February 1995.
By 1970, Sayer had become de-facto design chief at Jaguar. It remains tempting to imagine what could have been achieved had he not died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 53; he had already started taking the styling of Jaguars in a very different direction. Sayer’s family have latterly suggested that his premature death was hastened by despair at a lack of wider recognition; at the time of his death in April 1970, he was virtually unknown. Certainly by then, he was facing a crossroads. To accept the mantle of design leader at Browns Lane despite being on record saying he was not a ‘hairdresser’. Nor was he likely to have been a political animal. It is certainly difficult to imagine a man of his character thriving amidst the poisonous environment within British Leyland as the decade progressed.
Arguments have raged in recent years about Sayer’s design legacy – especially when subsequent wind tunnel tests have illustrated the D and E-Type’s drag coefficients to be less impressive than previously thought. However, like Costin, it’s likely Sayer was not particularly interested in Cd figures, more the complete aerodynamic package. It is also worth remembering that late-era D-Types were achieving straight line speeds of almost 190mph at Le Mans, well in excess of what rivals were managing with more power. Moreover, the D-Type was a stable, relaxing car to drive over a 24 hour race, which counted as much as outright speed. Norman Dewis is also on record saying the prototype XJ13 remained aero-stable at speeds well over 200 mph.
Would he have remained at Jaguar? It’s equally possible he could have made a switch to academia – somewhere that may have better suited his temperament. Former MD at Lotus, Mike Kimberley worked closely with Sayer at Jaguar during the 1960s and described him as a “…brilliant, brilliant man with a tremendous depth of thinking. He was a very fundamental thinker”. Costin himself described him as the “first serious aerodynamicist”, while Norman Dewis commented, “I still class Malcolm Sayer as one of the best aerodynamicists we’ve ever had in this country”
If we view Frank Costin’s career in purely commercial terms it has to be seen as a failure – he barely made a living as a car designer, having little by way of commercial acumen and was perhaps overly trusting of more worldly individuals; once telling a journalist; “My religion is engineering but I’ve often dealt with people whose religion is money and there have been conflicts when each of us has been true to his own creed.” However, in pure engineering terms, his work remains fascinating and stands as pure aerodynamic thought – without dressing or frippery. Sayer too was endlessly thwarted – few of his designs making it past the drawing board and many that did being altered and compromised by aesthetic or legislative dictates – notably his designs for the E-Type and particularly that of the XJ-S.
Neither man made anything but a modest living from their craft, Jaguar being notoriously penny-pinching, while Costin as a freelancer, would have been at the mercy of his client’s whims. Sayer has only latterly been widely recognised for his talent. Costin too remains little known and unheralded outside enthusiast and motorsport circles – perhaps his designs failing to sufficiently resonate with the wider public – unlike the universally adored E-Type.
Both men however remain a pivotal link in the development of automotive aerodynamic theory during a period of profound change and technological progress. British motorsport in particular, owes both men a huge debt. As do motor enthusiasts everywhere. Driven to write salutes two giants of aerodynamics.
Malcolm Gilbert Sayer: 1916-1970: Francis Albert Costin 1920-1995.
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