The man pictured above is 92-year-old Norman Dewis. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s time to find out why he’s a genuine Top Gear hero.
Chief test driver and development engineer at Jaguar from 1952 to 1985, Norman estimates he has driven over one million miles at over 100mph in his lifetime. He flew Bristol Blenheims in World War Two as a tail gunner. He was a key figure in the development of the disc brake, after racing a prototype system in a C-Type with Stirling Moss at the 1952 Mille Miglia. He was central in the development of said C-Type, plus the Le Mans-winning D-Type (and pretty much every iconic Jaguar sports car). He drove the very first E-Type from Coventry to the Geneva Motor Show in 1961 on the orders of Jag boss Sir William Lyons, speeding through the night, stopping only once, and averaging 68mph in a pre-motorway era. He’s 92 years old, and he’s still going strong.
And recently, TopGear.com accompanied Norman to an obscure part of northern Belgium to celebrate yet another of his achievements: 60 years ago, he broke the world production car speed record in a modified Jaguar XK120, recording a faintly ludicrous 172mph on the public roads of Jabbeke. This was, remember, in 1953. And Norman can remember every single detail…
“What happened was, Sir William Lyons came to me and said ‘Dewis, I see someone’s broken the record at Jabbeke. What are you going to do about it?’
“I said ‘there’s not much we can do, Sir William’. We only have the XK120 as a sports car, and I think we’ve already stretched that to the limit. I don’t think it can do it.
“But we looked at the possibility. We decided to fit an undertray and seal it underneath. The headlights were taken off in order to blow air straight into the carburetor for a bit more power. I would sit on the floor on a cushion, and drop the column right down so I was just peeking over the top of the scuttle. Then they said we’ll remove the windscreen and put a Perspex bubble over the top of you and seal you in. That should give us another 5mph or so… We blew the tyres up and took the tread off to make them into slicks, so there was only 2mm of rubber, a very small contact patch. All this to gain extra speed, speed, speed.
“I remember, I came off the high-speed run and drove up to the timing people, the press, all of them. Lofty England, the team manager, was stood there with his arms folded, nobody was smiling, and I was thinking ‘there’s something wrong here’. So they undid the bubble – I was sealed in, remember – and everyone was so quiet. Lofty said ‘have you got a problem with the car Norman? Because you’re slower now than you were last April!”
“I said ‘I can’t be! I’m pulling 6,200rpm’, which was way more than we’d planned. And he walked over to me, gave me a big hug, and said ‘Norman, you bugger, you know what you’ve done? 172.4mph’. The record still stands, and the Belgian authorities banned it after that! Too fast for the public roads, really…”
Sixty years on, there’s another Jaguar sports car making big headlines, and so, in tribute to Norman’s feat, Jaguar returned to Jabbeke with a range-topping V8-engined F-Type and a strict brief to go as fast as possible. The plan: to see how close the F-Type could get to its claimed VMAX of 186 mph in the same place where it once made history. It wasn’t an easy task. In 1953 Norman Dewis had two miles to get his modified XK120 up to speed, one mile to record an average, and two miles to slow down. In 2013, there’s only a single two mile stretch of closed, rather narrow two-lane blacktop with trees on each side to play with (the original site of the record is now, alas, a motorway).
Still, at the helm was a man with his own proud heritage of driving rapidly in a straight line: Andy Wallace. Andy won Le Mans in 1988 in an Jaguar XJR-9, two years before chicanes were introduced to the Mulsanne straight and speeds of over 240mph were possible (an experience he freely admits was “terrifying, and not in a particularly good way. I spent the entire time looking at the tyre temperatures and worrying which one was going to go first.”). He was also driving the McLaren F1 when it was V-MAXed at 243 mph, a record only broken recently by a certain Mr James May in a Bugatti Veyron Supersport (for ten minutes).
And with us to witness the attempt were a few more VIPs: the cream of Jaguar’s racing car heritage and the iconic cars that ascend alphabetically to the sporting centerpiece of today’s Jaguar line-up: mint, and almost priceless examples of the original XK120, a C-Type, a D-Type and the very first customer E-Type (all very kindly brought along by their owners - have a click through the pictures above to appreciate quite how glorious this guestlist was).
Just to make things more interesting for Mr Wallace, Jaguar had hired a helicopter with a remarkably talented pilot at the helm, who spent her time weaving in and out of the trees to record the event. With a recent episode of Top Gear Korea fresh in our mind this was rather disconcerting, but you can see the results here.
Watching one of the most highly anticipated cars in years bellowing past on a public road (that V8 sounds fantastic), while a helicopter hovers in close vicinity, was entirely worth a trip to a remote part of Belgium. On its fastest run the car got up to 179mph, despite mutterings from Andy about tree roots affecting the road surface and occasional air turbulence from the helicopter. But it does mean we now know the F-Type can do 0-179-0mph in two miles, and continue merrily on its way on a road trip to Geneva without the slightest grumble. Impressive. We weren’t allowed to drive it ourselves, but it won’t be long now…
Pictures: George F Williams