Dweller on the Threshold – A Jupiter Miscellany. We continue our look at the Jowett Jupiter’s short but multi-faceted career.
The coachbuilt Jupiters
In September 1950 Jowett announced British prices for the Javelin-Jupiter. The factory bodied drophead coupe, although effectively unobtainable, was priced at £1087 (£850 before tax) and the rolling chassis was offered at £672 (£525 before tax). The blank canvas chassis was in fact a comprehensive kit, with a wiring loom, switches and instruments, and a set of grilles which coachbuilders were expected to use in a way which would maintain the Jowett identity. If the factory approved the completed car, the standard Jowett six month warranty would be provided from the date of delivery to the end buyer.
Not long into 1950, Jowett had delivered a small number of rolling chassis to distinguished coachbuilders in Italy, Switzerland and Denmark, in advance of others going to British bodywork providers. Widely regarded as the finest haute couture Jupiter, Stabilimenti Farina’s fixed head coupe was shown at the 1950 Paris Salon.
Four examples of this exquisite car were built, almost mass-production by coachbuilt Jupiter standards. Honourable mention should also go to the elegant Danish Sommer coupe.
It has been suggested that the early star coachbuilder cars were part of a plan by Jowett’s Experimental Design Manager Charles Grandfield to secure a world class design without commissioning a stylist directly. If so, he was soon rumbled by management, and later chassis went to far less illustrious bodybuilders.
The cosmopolitan roll-call of coachbuilders includes Adams and Robinson, Abbott of Farnham, JJ Armstrong, Barou, Beutler, Coachcraft, Epsom Motor Panels, Stabilimenti Farina, JE Farr, Flewitt, Ghia-Aigle, Maurice Gomm, KW, Richard Mead, Sommer, and Carrosserie Worblaufen (F. Ramseier & Co).
As the first factory-bodied Javelin-Jupiters went straight to the United States or to favoured European concessionaires, even rolling-chassis were all but impossible to obtain in the home market. Determination and good connections can win through in adverse circumstances. Through associations with racing driver Tommy Wise, Ted Booth of Hull managed to obtain the fifth production chassis, and also the services of Barnaby’s Motor Bodies, a builder of buses and ambulances in his home city.
A body resembling Korner’s design was constructed by Barnaby’s senior coachbuilder Cliff Golan using traditional timber frame techniques. The design was developed using only photographs of the factory car, so there are some obvious variances. The chosen method of construction resulted in the Barnaby’s car being 125kg lighter than the King and Taylor bodied official design. Booth’s car was ready in time participate in the 1951 RAC International Rally and is still in regular use.
Another one-off Jupiter designed with sporting intent was the strikingly elegant fixed-head coupe built by Frenchman Jean Latune, pictured on the 1953 Lyon to Charbonierres rally.
A few chassis were bodied in Australia which levied a lower rate of duty on incomplete vehicles. Most of these had coachwork closely modelled on Reg Korner’s design.
The coachbuilt Jupiters unleashed creativity in a wide range of styles, and varying degrees of talent – there were some real horrors, but most were at least competent. Despite the profusion of suppliers, only around 74 rolling chassis were sold, and to add confusion some of these were returned to Idle to be fitted with standard bodywork. From around March 1952, rolling chassis were dropped from the price list, and only fully-built cars were officially available.
Prices and Predators
The Jupiter deserved to be more successful, but high prices and later mechanical problems slowed its progress. By November 1951 Purchase Tax had been doubled and the UK offering looked like this:
MG Midget: £733 (£470 before tax)
Morgan Plus 4: £880 (£565 before tax)
Jowett Jupiter DHC: £1394 (£895 before tax)
Jaguar XK120: £1678 (£1078 before tax)
The Morgan, with a gutsy and modern 2.1 litre Standard four cylinder engine makes the 1.5 litre Jowett look inordinately costly. The Jaguar had almost three times the Jupiter’s power, and an opening bootlid, a refinement denied to the first series of factory-bodied Jupiters.
The Jupiter and XK120 are closer in many ways than might be expected, given the 100bhp power difference. The Jaguar is slightly narrower in overall width and tracks, and only nine imperial inches longer in wheelbase, surprisingly little considering the XK had to accommodate a 3.4 litre straight six rather than a 1.5 litre alloy blocked flat-four. The engine’s bulk explains the Jaguar’s 35% greater weight.
Both cars have longitudinal torsion bar front suspension, the more conventionally engineered Jaguar makes do with longitudinal semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear, and also has a recirculating ball steering box, whereas Eberan insisted on rack and pinion steering for the Jupiter chassis, rather than accepting the Javelin’s well-regarded gear and pinion mechanism.
Given the complexity of the Austrian engineer’s chassis design, and Jowett’s reliance on small-run coachbuilders for the Jupiter’s superstructure, it is possible that the unit cost of the Yorkshire sports car was higher than that of the phenomenally successful Coventry machine, of which 12,055 were produced between 1948 and 1954.
The Jupiter Mk.1a
The Jupiter Mark 1a, with a longer rear overhang and a proper opening boot, and numerous minor improvements, arrived in October 1952, although the Mark.1 with its luggage compartment only accessible from behind the seats, continued for domestic market consumption until November 1953.
The Mk.1a revisions included a rework of Eberan’s chassis with the petrol tank relocated, and reinforced and braced body mounting points. A symmetrical instrument panel was introduced to simplify production of LHD and RHD cars. The earnest efforts were in vain, as only 95 Mark 1a chassis were produced. 94 of these were fitted with factory bodies, only one Mk.1a was sold as a rolling chassis, exported to a customer in Beirut in March 1954. By comparison 731 Mk.1 Jupiters were produced with factory bodywork from March 1950 to November 1953.
The Jupiter in the USA
Despite its early sporting achievements, the Jupiter failed to make the expected break in the United States. Only 252 examples were sold in the USA; by comparison MG exported 23,488 TD Midgets to the States between 1950-53. These 252 cars sold in the USA represented 28% of total production, when MG and Jaguar were exporting as much as 90% of their sports car output to the United States.
Despite Jowett’s success in engaging the Hoffman organisation as east coast distributors, two thirds of US sales were made the west coast by distributors Angell Motors and their successors World Wide Import Inc, both of which provided financial and parts support to participants in club races, which were a major part of the east coast motor racing scene at the time.
The Jupiter did not escape the cult of celebrity. Comedy entertainer Red Skelton bought four Jupiters. Skelton is a commonly-found surname and place name in Yorkshire. Could he have been paying homage to his ancestry?
More enduringly, the Jupiter receives mention in Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye. In the words of his Oldsmobile-driving private-eye hero “We went to Victor’s. He drove me in a rust colored Jupiter-Jowett (sic) with a flimsy canvas rain top under which there was only just room for the two of us. It had pale leather upholstery and what looked like silver fittings. I’m not too fussy about cars, but the damn thing did make my mouth water a little.”
The last Jupiter Mark.1a left Idle in November 1954. The numbers suggest that Jowett’s sports car ambitions had long before been put into managed decline, but the opposite was true. But that’s another story, some way further into the journey.
By virtue of its style and unique engineering, exotic coachbuilt variations, racing successes, and rarity, the Jupiter earned its niche in the (mostly) proud British sports car pantheon, but was it part of the answer, or part of the problem? Gerald Palmer made his views clear in an interview in Popular Classics of March 1990
“They spent all their money and resources on building a sports car and racing it, when it wasn’t in their tradition at all. They ought to have spent their money refining and cheapening the Javelin – backing the bread and butter”.
There’s rational logic to that argument, but the Jupiter in its many forms is a compelling artefact, a sui generis design in a formulaic era, which could and should have achieved far more than the paltry numbers produced in its five year life. I set out writing this chapter with a dispassionate approach to the story of the Jupiter series – this is written in the broader context of the company’s fortunes in the Javelin era – but was soon mystified by the failure of Jowett’s management to make a success of their potential saviour.
What Gerald Palmer says about “refining and cheapening the Javelin” is all the more true of the Jupiter. Both cars used the same engine and gearbox, and by the end of 1951 both components were suffering an unacceptably high rate of failures. The Jupiter’s needlessly overcomplicated chassis and inefficient bodywork production methods made it both unprofitable and uncompetitive, particularly once Austin-Healey and Standard-Triumph took aim at its territory in 1953. By then the busy Idle designers were working on an answer, but it was already too late.
Everything points to a car company which had lost directional control, which is what the next chapter will explore.
Jupiter Production: Mk.1: 736. Mk.1a: 95. R1 4. Chassis: 74. Total: 909.
(With thanks to DTW reader and commenter JTC for additional information and photographs)
A further rumination upon the coachbuilt Jupiters can be found here.