We profile a man who did more to define not only the XJ40 concept, but also Jaguar’s overall engineering direction than perhaps any other single individual – Bob Knight CBE.
“The idea that development towards the ultimate should ever stop is anathema to Bob Knight. [He] never failed to use every last available moment to perfect some detail. So it was hardly surprising that without any curb on modifications, any car in Knight’s sphere of control was ever signed off unconditionally.” Andrew Whyte (Auto historian)
Were I to suggest that an entire generation of Jaguars embodied the character and personality of one man you’d probably immediately leap to the conclusion I was talking about Jaguar founder, Sir William Lyons. But while Lyons’ creative vision formed the core of Jaguar’s being, it was Bob Knight who largely dictated the engineering direction and character of virtually every model from his appointment in 1944, through to his departure 36-years later.
Perhaps the most valuable asset in Jaguar’s engineering arsenal over three and a half decades at Browns Lane, Knight was recruited by (Engineering Director) William Heynes to bolster his chassis engineering team. Heynes, lacking a theoretical education, was a highly respected instinctual engineer whereas by contrast, Knight was a formidable theoretician who thought nothing of grappling with the most obtuse contemporary automotive stability and dynamics theory.
He quickly became viewed as something of an alchemist due to his uncanny ability to solve intractable engineering and developmental problems. Throughout the 1950’s he became deeply immersed with the chassis design and development of the C and D-type racing cars, developing a close working relationship with Malcolm Sayer, whose unique method of determining body envelopes by applied mathematics fascinated the technically curious Knight. So much so, he once attempted to style a car using coordinates plotted on a Casio pocket calculator. His design for a double wishbone rear suspension, originally schemed and built in 27 days to win a bet with Sir William became the backbone of Jaguar’s superb road behaviour for decades.
By 1960, Knight was placed in charge of vehicle development, working closely with proving chief, Norman Dewis. Neither a fast nor exceptionally keen driver, Knight deferred to Dewis on the outer edges of the performance envelope, but when it came to ride quality and the suppression of noise and vibration, Knight was pre-eminent. His methods were unorthodox, Dewis recalling he adopted a reclined posture in the passenger seat of the development vehicle, apparently sensing unwanted vibrations through his stomach. The results however, spoke for themselves. The suppression of NVH would become an area of unparalleled expertise and would make Jaguar leaders in this area.
In 1964, he was tasked with the most ambitious project to date; one which would cement his reputation. Knight poured his heart and soul into the XJ saloon programme and even if it didn’t quite turn out as intended, the result was world-beating. He assumed the top engineering role in 1972, quickly developing a rapport with the BLMC-appointed Geoffrey Robinson.
Robinson faced a mixed reception within Jaguar, but the esteem between the two men was real and mutual. Following the disastrous Ryder report in 1975, Knight unofficially took over the running of the company, precipitating a protracted campaign of non-cooperation and stubborn refusal which saved Jaguar from being crushed in the motor giant’s death throes. Knight was not a natural to these Machiavellian stratagems, but his intellect and mischievous sense of defiance meant he become an adept, if reluctant operator. In recognition of his efforts, he received a CBE in 1977.
Knight often drove his colleagues to distraction, endlessly refining chassis settings, finessing styling models and generally gaining a reputation for procrastination that sometimes paralysed development. His personal habits also caused some bewilderment. A chain smoker, he thought nothing of working through the night if a problem demanded it – or if a decision needed to be made. A solitary character, it seems few within Jaguar truly got to know him well; his successor, Jim Randle describing him as “taciturn – a real deep thinker.”
He was promoted to Managing Director in 1978, which in retrospect may have been a mistake. Getting the XJ40 project off the ground after years of fits and starts became his primary focus during this time. Perhaps other areas were neglected; a view BL chief Sir Michael Edwardes certainly seemed to share. He wasn’t really cut out for such a role and probably found the multitude of crises facing the company beyond his capabilities. Despite this, his efforts kept Jaguar alive during the worst of the Leyland era. In the spring of 1980, Edwardes appointed John Egan to the top job, shunting Knight sideways. That July, he cleared his desk, handed in the keys to his beloved Daimler Double Six and trudged to the bus stop on Browns Lane, taking with him three decades of unparalleled expertise. It was a poignant and desperately unfitting end.
Following his departure, he negotiated a favourable severance package (which included that Daimler) and would later carry out consultancy work for, amongst others, Rolls Royce and Dunlop. Such was the man’s modesty that some years later, at a gathering of former Jaguar luminaries, Knight reportedly expressed surprise that anyone remembered him. He became an excellent source of horse’s-mouth testimony for historians, his anecdotes laced with his trademark impish humour. Knight never married and quietly lived out his days working on secret engineering projects – many of which would remain so until he quietly passed away in 2000, aged 80. There was barely an obituary.
Every Jaguar revered by enthusiasts today owes its quintessence to Bob Knight. Indeed, Jaguar itself owes its very existence to his dogged resistance to the forces massed against them during the Ryder years. Without him, not only would Jaguar’s back catalogue be less revered, but the soul of the marque would probably have been expunged. A matter which Jim Randle would attest to, latterly telling this author, “I think he singlehandedly saved the company.” Sadly he remains something of a marginal figure in the wider Jaguar narrative – but given his character, he’s unlikely to have wanted it any other way.
Editor’s note: Elements from this article which appeared in the December 2015 issue of Octane magazine were used without the author’s permission.
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