DTW takes a look at the advanced and stylish Jowett Javelin on the seventieth anniversary of the delivery of the first car, with some reflections on the machine and its creators.
The psalmist’s full three score years and ten have passed since the happy owner of Jowett Javelin serial number D8 PA 1 received his or her keys on 16th. April 1948. It is therefore appropriate to do a little scene-setting before considering the labour and sorrow which led to this remarkable car’s production, and followed it to the end of its days.
What do we think of when we think of Jowett? A family firm? A provincial carmaker? A worthy but vainglorious enterprise inevitably doomed to failure? None of these are wholly true.
The Jowett Motor Manufacturing Company was founded in 1901, to produce light internal combustion engines. Passenger car production commenced from 1910, with light commercial vehicles following in 1922. At the heart of most of Jowett’s pre WW2 products was a water-cooled flat-twin four stroke side-valve engine which started out at 816cc, growing to 946cc by 1937.
The company’s first flat four appeared in the 1936 Jowett 10hp Jason and Jupiter saloons. Before car production started, Jowett’s earliest engines had been V-twins, and in the same year a short-lived dalliance with an in-line four. In 1935 an ill-judged public flotation of the business caused a schism in the Jowett family, with the younger brother Benjamin leaving the company in 1936, and the older brother William retiring in 1940.
In the immediate fallout from the flotation fiasco, the Jowetts at least had the presence of mind to appoint three independent directors, one of whom, Charles (or Peter to those closest to him) Calcott Reilly was appointed Managing Director in 1939. Calcott Reilly came from a Home Counties family which had distinguished itself in military service and civil engineering and had earlier in his business career been involved in an enterprise making Austin Seven-based ‘specials’.
At Jowett, he instigated much-needed engineering improvements to the existing products, flat-twin cars and vans which were dependable and had a loyal following despite technology mired in the 1920s. The developments included synchromesh gearboxes and new – but still side-valve – cylinder heads designed by Cornish combustion chamber wizard Harry Weslake.
By the time these upgrades arrived for the 1940 model year, the British nation had other preoccupations. Calcott Reilly had, some time earlier, set in motion a plan to re-purpose The Jowett Motor Manufacturing Company for war production, providing a flexible facility capable of making heavy ordnance, ammunition, aircraft parts and machine tools.
The well-connected Calcott Reilly and his family moved from their riverside home in Teddington, Middlesex to Bramhope Manor, a short drive from Jowett’s factory. The Managing Director’s efforts in procuring war supply work were astoundingly successful. At the Five Lane Ends site in Idle, an oxymoronically named industrial suburb of Bradford, employee numbers increased to four times those working there in the pre-war era, and production space was expanded substantially in the early 1940s.
Two years into hostilities, and with no certainty about the outcome, Calcott Reilly turned his mind to a post war future, and Jowett’s future products. With the company’s engineering staff fully occupied on war work, the Managing Director placed advertisements in the technical periodicals for a “Chief Designer”.
Histories do not record how many responded to the advertisement, in which no mention was made of the company offering the post, nor is it known whether Calcott Reilly was aware of the record and reputation of the favoured candidate.
Gerald Manley Palmer was 30 years old at the time, and had already established himself as a precocious talent, diligent, well-informed, and highly ambitious, although mild-mannered in character. Born in England in 1911, Palmer grew up in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia where his father was a District Engineer for the Beira, Mashonaland, and Rhodesia Railway, with responsibility for the track form Salisbury to Beira in Portuguese East Africa.
Motor cars were a relative rarity, but the Palmer family were affluent enough to afford an American Saxon sedan, followed by a Ford Model T. These modest machines instilled a lifelong passion in young Gerald, and at the age of sixteen he secured a place at Regent Street Polytechnic, and an apprenticeship with Scammell Lorries in Watford, in defiance of his father’s wish that he pursued a career in architecture.
Scammell was a fortuitous choice for the young aspiring engineer. Not long before Palmer arrived in August 1927, Oliver Danson North had been appointed as Chief Designer. North was talented and technically skilled, and a relentless innovator who realised that automotive engineering was still in its infancy, and its future wide open. In his autobiography Gerald Palmer wrote:
“He captured my total admiration and implanted in my mind, in no small measure, how to assess and solve design problems – ‘How would O.D.N do it?’ one would ask”
Throughout their existence, Scammell operated in the specialist areas of the industrial vehicle sector, and North’s design office produced machinery ranging from all-terrain prime movers to the ultra-manoeuvrable Mechanical Horse.
As a place of useful learning for a mechanical engineer it could scarcely be bettered, but the young Gerald Palmer’s great love was sports and racing cars, and in pursuit of this a number of “specials” were built at the home of his uncle and aunt, with whom he lodged.
The experimentation moved to a business footing when a like-minded fellow student Chalenor Barson, with useful connections in the English upper middle class, secured £1000 of funding to set up the Deroy Car Company to produce a two-seater sports car with some very advanced ideas in chassis design.
Scammell were supportive of the project, granting Palmer leave from his job in the drawing office to visit Barson at Deroy’s modest premises once a week. They also provided a – not wholly appropriate – Mechanical Horse engine at a favourable price. In 1935 Palmer left Scammell, despite there being little prospect of sales success for the Deroy car. The following two years were spent in trying to interest established manufacturers in the Deroy’s patented suspension ideas, but impending war inevitably placed such things low on his prospects’ lists of priorities.
In 1938, Palmer secured an interview with Cecil Kimber the Managing Director of MG, and drove to Abingdon in the Deroy prototype. Kimber was impressed by Palmer, and his undeniably elegant creation, and contacted Vic Oak, Morris’s Technical Director. Shortly afterwards, 27 year old Palmer was put in charge of the MG section of the Morris Drawing Office.
His first design project was the MG YA, a small saloon derived from the Morris 8 Series E. At the outbreak of war all car design work was shelved, and Palmer’s talents were re-deployed to aircraft manufacture and repair, and the design of an anaesthetic vaporiser.
When Jowett’s offer arrived, Palmer was diffident. He had been taken aback by the identity of the mystery company. Jowett were idiosyncratic in their engine designs, but their products were seen as utilitarian, decidedly unsporty, and old-fashioned in their styling and engineering. Another concern was that Jowett had no bodywork production facilities – this work was sub-contracted to Briggs Motor Bodies in Doncaster.
Calcott Reilly’s persuasive powers won Palmer over, and he made the momentous move to Bradford in January 1942, with his wife and infant daughter following six months later.
Charles Calcott Reilly had found his engineer, but the brief for his task was far from set.
To be continued…
Auto-Architect: The Autobiography of Gerald Palmer (1911-1999) with Christopher Balfour. Magna Press 2004
Jowett Javelin and Jupiter – The Complete Story – Geoff McAuley and Edmund Nankievell. The Crowood Press 2003
Roads to Oblivion: Christopher Balfour. Bay View Books 1996.