As we (somewhat belatedly) rejoin Robertas Parazitas’ commemoration of the Jowett Javelin, the design begins to take shape.
1943 has just begun, Britain is at war. Jowett has an ambitious visionary as its Managing Director, and a 32 year old engineer with an impressive record of achievement has joined the company to lead its most important project. Would extraordinary circumstances produce an exceptional car?
While Charles Calcott Reilly had found his engineer, the brief for his task was far from set. The design which evolved defined the aspirations of Calcott Reilly and Palmer – a compact but spacious saloon, was described by its designer as a utility car. The target price was £500, coincidentally Gerald Palmer’s starting salary when he joined Jowett in 1942. Exportability was a priority; despite the company’s characterisation as Yorkshire’s national vehicle, in the pre-war period, Jowetts were exported to at least 60 countries.
Beyond this, there were few constraints, and those identified related to a world reconstructing itself after a global conflict, rather than the expectations of customers when car production could re-commence.
On his arrival at Jowett, Palmer was granted a tiny office and two of the company’s most capable draughtsmen. Reg Korner, Jowett’s chief bodywork designer, was a willing and welcome contributor when he could be coaxed from his work on lightly reworking the 8hp van into the ‘Bradford’, set to be the company’s cash cow for the immediate post war period. In the midst of conflict, it would have been unacceptable even for thriving Jowett to put substantial resources into a project which had no relevance to the War Effort, yet extraordinary things were evolving in the back rooms at Five Lane Ends.
Were Charles Calcott Reilly and Gerald Palmer familiar with Raymond Loewy’s MAYA Principle – the acronym stood for ‘Most Advanced Yet Acceptable’? Whether or not they were, the idea seems to define the approach to the design of the Javelin. On a defining scale of one to ten, most comparable pre-war British cars would score one or two, the Javelin in production form would merit eight or nine, but some of the diversions on the road to production reality would go off the scale.
In mid-1943, Palmer’s old boss, O D North was invited to Bradford to talk about his 1922 North-Lucas radial engine, an air-cooled five cylinder designed to be installed horizontally with the crankshaft vertical driving a gearbox beneath.
Bristol Aero Engines designer Roy Fedden visited around the same time to talk about his work on a radial engine in a similar configuration, intended for light road vehicle use. Perhaps these were just cosy chats over tea and scones in the Jowett boardroom, but the very fact that they happened indicates a will to break with convention, more on the part of Calcott Reilly than of Palmer.
Fedden went on to design and construct one example of a six-seat rear-engined car powered by an 1100cc three cylinder radial engine with sleeve valves. The development of this car was near contemporary with the Javelin, and Alex Moulton and Gordon Wilkins were involved in the project.
Also in mid-1943 the Jowett company entered into an agreement with the London Design Research Unit, for émigré Russian Constructivist sculptor to develop an alternative body design to that being developed in-house by Palmer and Korner.
Gabo’s design is extraordinary and timeless, as other-worldly as Flaminio Bertoni’s Citroën DS which would appear twelve years later. The principal dimensions and mechanical layout had already been firmly set by Palmer when Gabo was invited to present proposals, with a £6000 contract in prospect if the design proceeded to production.
Writing in his 1998 autobiography, Gerald Palmer recalled that he did not welcome this development stating “I was concerned. I didn’t want to lose control”. His unease would have been short-lived. The decision makers at Jowett evaluated Gabo’s design, concluded that it was completely unbuildable, and terminated the agreement with the London Design Research Unit.
Palmer’s small team had taken a more pragmatic approach, with sharp eyes on the way things were being done in the USA. A monocoque bodyshell was high on the roster of desiderata, despite there being no certainty that the facilities to produce a unitary body from steel pressings would be available to Jowett, whose pulling power for materials and tooling was far short of the UK ‘Big Six’ carmakers.
The structural design pursued for the Javelin bodyshell was an ‘integrated chassis’ rather than a fully stressed monocoque, with strength derived from longitudinal rails and steel bulkheads. Plywood sheet was used for the passenger compartment floor. The principles applied could accommodate a superstructure using a material of lesser tensile strength than steel, such as aluminium or a reinforced plastic composite. The first three running prototypes, completed from August 1944, had an aluminium superstructure, not as a declaration of intent but through expediency at a time of desperate material shortages.
At the earliest design stages, Palmer considered using symmetrical doors, mirrored on the B-pillar. This would require two, rather than four sets of door and frame pressings as diagonally opposite doors would be interchangeable. The idea was not pursued beyond quarter-scale models, but vestiges of the idea resonate in the final design.
In deference to the expectations of the USA and the nations of the rapidly unravelling British Empire, Jowett’s plan was for a six seat saloon with a high ground clearance and compliant suspension. The mechanical components had to be durable and able to cope with continuous driving over long distances on badly-surfaced roads.
Raised in Southern Rhodesia, Palmer would understand better than his English colleagues the exigencies of motoring on the roads of developing countries. It is interesting to observe that he proposed a unitary body construction in the belief that only this type of structure had the inherent strength to cope with long distance driving on unmade roads. This goes against the conventional wisdom, held even to this day, that when the going gets tough, body-on-frame is the only answer. Only Vauxhall, with their 1937 10-4, preceded Jowett in adopting unitary construction for a British mass-produced car.
None of the foregoing would necessarily dictate an advanced or mechanically distinctive design, but Palmer’s track record as a suspension designer and Calcott Reilly’s personal enthusiasm –he chose a Citroën Light 15 as his personal transport – would ensure that the new Jowett would be very different from anything Austin, Morris, Hillman or Standard might offer in the post-war era.
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.
From Bristol to Bradford-on-Avon – A lifetime in engineering: Alex Moulton. The Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust 2009.
Roads to Oblivion: Christopher Balfour. Bay View Books 1996.