Beautiful Vision – Evolution of the Jowett Javelin (Part 6)

To the bright side of the road – The Jowett Javelin meets the world

Image: Jowett Car Company

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.

Image: Haynes Publishing

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.

Austin Devon cutaway Image: Autocar

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.

Image: Haynes Publishing

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.

Image: Morris Motors

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.

1948 Hillman Minx. Image: Auta 5P

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.

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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”.

Jowett Javelin Cutaway Photo by Magic Car Pics/Shutterstock

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.

Class-winning Javelin, Monte Carlo January 1949. L-R: Cuth Harrison, Tommy Wise, Gerald Palmer Image: Jowett Car Club

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.

Class-winning Javelin, Spa-Francorchamps 1949. Image: Jowett Car Club

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.

London Motor Show 1949 Image: Jowett Car Club

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.

16 thoughts on “Beautiful Vision – Evolution of the Jowett Javelin (Part 6)”

  1. Good morning Robertas. The Javelin was an extraordinary achievement for a small and modestly resourced company like Jowett. It really was the complete realisation of Palmer’s vision, unlike the Minor, which was compromised by William Morris’s insistence that savings had to be made on Issigonis’ design.

    The word ‘fateful’ is often used inappropriately, but Leonard Lord’s rash sacking of Palmer in 1955 and hiring of Issigonis to replace him is surely such an event. It’s fascinating to imagine how BMC might have developed under Palmer’s technical leadership.

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. The Javelin / Minor story is one I intend to return to.

    Although speculation about what would have become of BMC had Palmer not been sacked is an intriguing contra-factual game, the reality was that the mild-mannered Colonial Engineer had been promoted into two parallel roles (Local Director for Morris Motors, and Chief Engineer – Chassis and Body for BMC) to which he was completely unsuited, and was deeply unhappy about being so remote from the creative process at which he excelled.

    Palmer’s duties were taken over by Sydney Smith, a production and financial manager with no formal engineering qualifications, backed up by Chief Experimental Engineer Charles Griffin.

    Issigonis was not Palmer’s replacement, but – post-Alvis – was given a newly-created role within BMC which Palmer would have relished. The new department, very much an autonomous cell within Longbridge, was nominally in charge of future small car projects, but had a wider responsibility for early-stage conceptual design of a new range of BMC cars with advanced and unconventional engineering.

    The question which should be asked is why this enclave and its ringmaster became such a power in the BMC land.

    My guess is Len Lord’s paranoia – his fear of German bubble cars was no frivolous joke, and soon after he saw a real existential threat from technologically superior and visually appealing European rivals, which the very traditionally-minded core of BMC’s design department had neither the skill nor the imagination to counter.

    1. Good afternoon gentlemen. I am a little late to the party today, being up to my ears with the next edition of the Jowett Car Club magazine, but once again my thanks for this welcome appreciation of both Gerald Palmer and the car he apparently always considered to be his best work.
      I do have one very, very small challenge. Hardly worth mentioning in fact and I really hate doing it…. We in the JCC always claim that the Javelin was the first all-new car to be produced after the war, a couple of months ahead of the Standard Vanguard. It was launched in May 1947 (the Vanguard in July). Briggs produced another 30 bodies in 1947, followed by 1558 in 1948.
      I have to concede that sales of complete cars did not begin until February 1948, but the actual availability of new cars for customers is a whole different subject, regardless of manufacturer. In terms of launch date, the Javelin is a clear first.
      I am being very picky (I have a reputation to keep up!); this whole series has been an absolute joy. Keep up the good work!

    2. Gerald Palmer would have definitely been an asset to BMC at the high-mid to upper ranges with properly-developed Twin-Cam B-Series and C-Series, along with BMC analogues of the Vauxhall Viva HA and Victor FB/FC. OTOH his proposed cheap-to-build FWD car was to include a 900cc V4 SV at a time when SVs were falling out of favour, likely suggesting a flaw at the lower end of the range that is inverse of Issigonis’s inability to produce decent mid to high-end cars.

      Given Alec Issigonis’s flaws higher up the range, a better solution had it been possible would have been for BMC to retain both men and have each of them specialize in different areas to compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Which inconvenience aside would be pretty much accelerating the trend for cars no longer being designed by a single person.

      It would have also been interesting to see how a returning Gerald Palmer (after his stint at Vauxhall) and Roy Heynes (coming from Ford) would have worked together at BMC in developing the company’s new generation of models for the 1970s prior to Palmer’s retirement.

    3. This reads like a thriller – very enjoyable – thank you.

      I was surprised by how nice the Hillman looked – perhaps it’s a flattering photo.

      Here’s a brief film of the Javelin at the 1949 Monte Carlo.

  3. Fantastic article Robert, but what was the price of the Javelin at launch? Is there any indication that sales were constrained by production capacity or what was presumably a smaller dealer network and a lesser-known brand?

    The Wikipedia page notes that some cars were assembled in Australia; do you know anything about this?

    1. The Javelin (then a single model) was priced at £718.53 including Purchase Tax (£640 basic). I am indebted to Messrs McAuley and Nankivell for these numbers.

      The Javelin was much more expensive than the Minor, A40, and Minx, but well worth the extra. For comparison, the Rover 75 P4 was priced at £1106 including PT when introduced in 1949.

      The serious Jowetters should be able to answer the question about Australian Javelin assembly – I’m guessing CKD kits.

      A small number of Jupiter rolling chassis were exported to Australia and fitted with locally-made coachwork. Heavy taxation on completed cars favoured this arrangement.

    2. Thanks Robert. I have not come across Jowett CKD assembly but it is entirely possible; not so long ago we learned of Holden assembling Hillman Minxes for a short time before the Rootes Australia factory was established.

      I’ve seen a couple of Jupiters but only factory bodies. I probably know of someone who might know about these things, I’ll have to see if I can get in touch with him (in our current lockdown…)

  4. JTC – that had me delving back into the library:

    I’m using the 16 April 1948 first customer delivery date as the baseline for the Javelin, although EAK 111, described as the “first off the line” was registered and on the road in November 1947.

    As you say, the Vanguard was formally launched in July 1947. Owing to tooling delays at Fisher and Ludlow, and availability of engines also being behind schedule, sales did not start until July 1948.

    The Austin A40 had a rushed development process, and was shown at the Paris Motor Show in October 1947. The “The ships are waiting” picture is from late 1947, and 1000 A40s were reported to have been exported to the North America in March 1948. I can’t pin down a first customer delivery date for the A40, but – perhaps rashly – assumed that some of those cars being rushed to the ships would have found homes well before April 1948.

    I’ll amend the text in order to remove any confusion. The main point of the introductory paragraph was to demonstrate how compromised and patchily developed the major manufacturers’ first post-WW2 cars were when compared with the Javelin.

    1. I would question the date on ‘The ships are waiting’ as forward of the A40 Devon are some of the next generation models. Even if those are A70 Herefords (rather than A40 Somersets) they wouldn’t have been around in 1947 surely?

    2. Robertas, in turn you’ve sent me back to the factory records and they do support your assumptions about the Austin sales. They also add some confusing elements, but it has to be remembered that export sales had priority and new cars for the home market were rarer than the proverbial hen’s teeth – unless you knew the right people. Javelin production chassis number 2 was registered FAK 111, delivered on 26th March 1948 (EAK registrations date to 1946) to the Jowett MD & Chairman Harry Woodhead. The Javelin delivered on 16th April was DKY612, actually one of the prototypes pre-dating production although it’s chassis number is 5 (I said there were confusing elements!). I did discover that three cars were exported to Belgium in February 1948.

      The bottom line on all of this, of course, is that the detail is purely academic; it is the bigger picture that matters and you are painting it with panache. And only on DTW do we find such a wide range of joined-up thinking and information. We in the JCC are definitely going to have to be more carefully precise in our claims for the Javelin. Not that it changes the fact that a prototype in final production form (EAK771) appeared before the crowds in Regents Park on 27th July 1946 and again in Edinburgh on 7th October – but a sincere thanks for giving us cause to re-examine what is all too easy to take for granted.

  5. Well spotted Bernard – in photos it is very difficult to differentiate between the Hereford and Somerset from the rear, unless you can see one of each side by side. The lack of a rear number plate mount pressing below the boot lid makes me think it’s a Hereford; if so the photo is no earlier than 1950. The Somerset replaced the Devon in 1952; either way it’s not 1947.
    This anorak must be due for a wash….

  6. Bernard and JTC – I was mildly confused before, the factory records now add to my bewilderment.

    Starting with the Austin. The ‘Austin Memories’ states October 1947 as the “production” date for the A40, but doesn’t state whether that means deliveries or sale-ready cars coming off the line.

    Mea culpa on that “The ships are waiting” picture, it’s not from 1947, but it seems that the hoardings were still around some years later.

    The other picture of massed A40s waiting for export is the one said to be from late 1947. I have doubts about that one too. If the vans are A40s, Austin Memories states their first production date as March 1948. I’ll concede that my 1940s LCV recognition skills are not the greatest as I was born at least two decades too late.

    JTC – I’m shocked that the Jowett Car Company sold a customer a pre-production car and then brazenly identified it as the first of the series. It’s the sort of thing I would expect from some shabby German outfit.

    Also there are always some Belgians not far away to add to the confusion…

    Small point of pedantry – wasn’t the Scottish SMMT Cavalcade in 1946 in Glasgow? Edinburghers are backward people who even now haven’t really come to terms with motor cars.

    Finally, I am sure that the DTW readership and commentariat will appreciate the challenges of providing insightful content based on often contradictory sources. I am constantly asking questions, finding answers, then questioning the answers, for fear of perpetuating a lazy or uncomprehending error. If a respected monthly magazine’s Jupiter article was to be taken at face value, Gerald Palmer styled the factory drophead coupe, and Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina’s older brother had the unusual forename of “Stabilimenti”.

    1. Robertas, your final paragraph sums up precisely what is the great strength and attraction of DTW. I think the massed A40s picture could be 1947 as I’m not convinced that the vans are A40s; they do not appear to have a pressed upper side section (where signwriting might be applied) and therefore may well be the previous model. Top-hung wipers, too, unlike the A40 (being born in the late ’40s, these things were still around to observe by the time I was noticing them!)

      As for Idle sharp practice, all is not quite what it might seem; what is far more likely to have happened is that chassis number 5 was genuinely the 5th of the first production run from Briggs which for some reason of expediency acquired the registration from one of the prototypes which itself no longer existed as a complete car. Similarly, chassis number 1 gained the registration DKY 463 from another prototype. And there is well established precedent for this practice – we have photographic evidence and knowledge of at least 5 early Jowetts carrying the registration AK 494, starting with the 1906 prototype and ending with a 1921 year model. Fear not, the customer was not being deceived – and it would be several decades before the general public were introduced to identifying the age of a car by its registration plate.

      You may well be correct about Glasgow – although the background to the 1946 photo of EAK 771 rather suggests Edinburgh. Unfortunately I now dare not ask the JCC members who live in that fine city…….!

  7. Regarding the 1946 Cavalcade,regrettably my source (no names mentioned) has led me astray – it WAS Edinburgh.

    However, I found this in Motor Sport’s invaluable archive:

    “This rather detailed and necessarily belated report of a great event in the history of motoring will give those in the provinces an idea of what to expect when an S.M.M.T. Cavalcade comes to their area. The dates are: Cardiff, August 31st; Belfast, September 7th; Coventry-Birmingham, September 21st; Edinburgh, October 5th; Manchester, October 21st. The Brighton run for veterans only is on November 17th. Posters, news-reels, model contests and banquets are also woven into the celebrating of this great Jubilee.”

    ‘Detailed’ though the report certainly was, no mention is made of the Javelin, although Jowett is listed among the “Manufacturers who helped particularly with old vehicles”.

    I commend the full article as a reminder of a gentler time:

    1. Thanks for the link – the acerbic tones of WB when remarking on the 1/- admission fee were instantly recognisable. There is mention of a 1910 tiller-steered Jowett; this car still exists, in the ownership of the grandson of William Jowett and in full working order. Normally kept on display in the Bradford Industrial Museum, it is still brought out to play – as is a second similar car.

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