To the bright side of the road – The Jowett Javelin meets the world
In little more than a year, the Javelin emerged as a production debutante and established itself as one of the brightest stars of a reawakening British motor industry. Charles Callcott Reilly, Jowett’s swashbuckling joint Managing Director, had made an extraordinary effort to ensure that the company’s post-war product lines were early to the starting grid, but the Javelin was not the first all-new British mass-market car.
That distinction belonged to Austin’s dollar-chasing A40 Devon and Dorset duo, on sale from late 1947. Comparisons with the Javelin are appropriate. Both cars have American-influenced styling, but the Jowett is far more graceful and pleasingly proportioned.
The Austin’s engineering was at best unadventurously progressive, with independent coil-sprung front suspension and a live rear axle on longitudinal leaf springs, and lever-arm dampers. Even in 1947, a separate chassis frame seemed like an antebellum throwback, as were hydro-mechanical brakes. At least there was a new overhead valve engine, built on pre-war tooling, but with a new cylinder head drawing heavily on the design of GM’s Stovebolt Six, licence-built by Austin during the war years.
The Austin and Jowett were not direct competitors, but the comparisons are telling. The larger firm’s car was born of expediency, to win hard currency first, with quality and profitability well down the ranking of priorities. Production rapidly ramped up to 2250 per week, with 75% of A40s going for export. Sales were strongest in Canada, followed by the USA and Australia.
Although it had been revealed far earlier than the A40, the Jowett Javelin was exhibited at the Brussels Motor Show in February 1948 and the Geneva Salon in March, with delivery of British customer cars the following month.
The Morris Minor, the most significant and enduring British mass-produced car of the late 1940s, made its debut at the Earls Court Motor Show in London on 20th September 1948. The 918cc side-valve Minor was priced at £359, the 1.2 litre ohv Austin A40 cost £416.
Slightly upmarket of the Austin was another Earls Court newcomer, the £505 Hillman Minx Mark III with all-new unitary bodywork in the full-width Ponton style, but powered by the outgoing model’s feeble 1185 cc 35bhp 4-cylinder side-valve engine.
Those familiar with the Minor’s development will recognise the similarities between the Morris, codenamed ‘Mosquito’ and the Javelin, and more particularly the flat-four powered all-torsion bar sprung car Issigonis wanted Morris to build.
As Palmer and Issigonis were both employed by Morris Motors between 1938 and 1941, and undoubtedly exchanged ideas, the parallels between their post-war designs should not be any surprise. It is a larger story than this headlong dash through the life of Palmer’s masterpiece can accommodate, so it must suffice to say that although the two designers had inspirations and aspirations in common, their application of ideas were quite different.
With the Javelin, Jowett looked to the future, and the part they would play in it. Their production capacity was far below even the smallest of the UK ‘Big Six’, so trying to compete directly would have been futile. In 1950 Austin were making 2250 A40s per week and Morris produced 48,435 Minors over the year. In 1951, its best year, 5658 Javelins were built. Gerald Palmer’s distinctive and advanced engineer’s car, aimed at the discerning and enthusiastic driver, was the perfect product for the revitalised and ambitious Bradford company.
Even before the Javelin’s first public exposure at the SMMT Cavalcade of Motoring in 1946, Jowett took many opportunities to hint subtly to the media that something exceptional was on the way.
In May 1947, ‘The Autocropley’ was given access to a pre-production car, and rightly pronounced it “a car which bristles with novelty”, summing it up as “an entirely new and advanced design that can be described as a post-war model that has no direct association with 1939 and all that…” Unembargoed pre-production test opportunities for the media seem to have been rare in these days, although seven decades on they are a commonplace, and rather irritating phenomenon.
The other large-circulation British weekly assessed a production Javelin in July 1949. The Motor praised “Remarkable passenger space on a wheelbase of moderate dimensions”, and went on to state that “The Jowett is outstandingly comfortable on rough roads at all speeds. The performance on corners is considerably superior to the normal family saloon” and summed it up as “A high-performance small car which will stand the most searching comparison with products of any other country”.
Despite being developed as a ‘utility car’ – a pretence laid bare by its premium pricing – the Javelin’s advanced engine and chassis engineering had obvious motor sport potential, which was soon recognised by competitors and constructors. Although Gerald Palmer expressed misgivings about the unproven alloy-blocked flat-four’s ability to cope with the stresses of competitive use, the company was keen to exploit racing and rallying as a publicity tool. Despite petrol rationing, and high-performance cars being unattainable objects of desire in the export-or-die era UK, motor sport was back, and it was big news.
Tommy Wise, an experienced competitive driver and garage owner in Hornsea, a seaside town in south Yorkshire, bought a new Javelin in October 1948 with the intention of entering the January 1949 Monte Carlo rally. He persuaded future Formula 1 driver Cuth Harrison to join his team, along with one G M Palmer as second co-driver and token non-Yorkshireman.
It’s not hard to imagine the Colonial Engineer’s anxiety as Wise and Harrison thrashed the Javelin mercilessly over the passes and around the hairpin bends, yet nothing broke and no points were lost in the road section. In the Elimination Test, a speed hillclimb on le Mont des Mules, Wise was pleased with the performance on the two climbs, but the Javelin was beaten in its class by Maurice Gatsonides in a Hillman Minx. At this point Palmer richly earned his place on the team by spotting a mistake in the organisers’ calculations which had placed the Javelin 3rd in the 1.5 litre class and 27th overall. Duly corrected, the Javelin moved to 1st in class and 14th overall.
Third place in the class, and 22nd overall went to a Javelin driven by Ron Smith. Four other Javelins entered the rally, of which only one failed to finish.
There was to be no respite for the victorious team. After staying overnight in Aix-les-Bains, they drove all day to Amiens, returning to Britain the following day.
The company was keen to build on the publicity value of the success in Monaco, and following the 1949 Brussels Motor Show, a plan was put in place for a Jowett factory team to enter the 24 hour Spa-Francorchamps endurance race to be held on 9 July 1949.
Ambitious notions for a three car team were soon abandoned, and instead a single Javelin was prepared, in close to standard specification apart from permitted alterations. By then there was even a Jowett service bulletin giving “recommendations for competition”. The work included completely stripping and reassembling the engine, increasing the compression ratio, fitting larger carburettors, racing tyres and less compliant shock absorbers. The Meadows gearbox was modified to provide higher and closer gear ratios.
The race-prepared car was driven from Bradford to south–east Belgium accompanied by a back-up Javelin towing a trailer loaded with replacement parts. Jowett’s Engineering Manager, Charles Grandfield and Works Manager Horace Grimley manned the support car, but this was not intended as a leisurely management treat. The technical support was minimal and everybody present was expected to play their part. Motoring journalist Anthony Hume, who first proposed the idea, and Tom Wisdom were the drivers.
What followed was the stuff of boys’ comic adventures. Three hours into the race, the Javelin had built up a commanding lead in the 2 litre Touring Car class ahead of Lancia, Citroën and MG competition. In the 21st hour, the team realised that they could beat the leading car in the 4 litre Touring Car class, and increased the precautionary speed limit they had set. The car performed impeccably, and decisively won the 2 litre Touring Car class with an average speed of 65.5mph inclusive of pit stops, and 1572 miles distance covered around the demanding nine mile Ardennes circuit. The overall winner was the Ferrari of Chinetti and Lucas, with an average speed of 76.61mph.
Gerald Palmer took a keen, but now detached, interest in the race.
The advanced design of the Javelin, and the favourable reception it had received in the media had enhanced its creator’s reputation and recognition. Not long into 1949, he received word from an industry contact that Morris Motors were interested in employing him a senior position in their design office. In ‘Auto-Architect’ he described his reaction to the news as “surprise and elation”. An interview was arranged with Morris’s Deputy Chairman R F Hanks, and Palmer was offered a post which he described as a “glittering prize” and which he accepted without hesitation.
In July 1949 Gerald Palmer returned to Morris to take responsibility for the future MG, Riley, and Wolseley design programme. He considered that he had “fulfilled his contract” with Jowett by designing the Javelin, although he recognised that development was still required, and this would be better accomplished by engineers specialising in this type of work. There was no prospect of work on a Javelin successor, and the future Javelin-Jupiter sports car was at that time a joint venture with the revived ERA company, designed by a jobbing German engineer of some distinction, Robert Eberan von Eberhorst.
In any case, the Colonial Engineer was moving on from an outbreak of turbulence at Five Lane Ends. Charles Callcott Reilly had been dismissed from the company at a board meeting in January 1949, the Javelin concept team had been disbanded and Chief Engineer Steve Poole – described by Palmer as “ever-helpful” – had been forced into early retirement shortly afterwards.
With Gerald Palmer’s departure to Morris, his part in the Javelin story came to an end. Despite his forebodings, the Javelin did receive further development, most of it beneficial. However ongoing change and ‘continuous improvement’ can also have a detrimental effect, and one major post-Palmer change was to have catastrophic results for both the car and the company.
Part 7 follows.
Reference sources: See part 1.