Obituary: Gerald Palmer

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FIFTY YEARS ago, a previously parochial car company from Bradford was impressing buyers with a stylish, roomy and fine-handling new saloon. It was not so much a Brunelesque engineering feat as a carefully planned consumer product - rather like the Renault Megane Scenic today. The Jowett Javelin was a sensation, and Gerald Palmer designed it. The Jowett company, however, went bankrupt in 1954. "Of course, I was sad when Jowett failed," Palmer recalled. "The Javelin was my brainchild and it still had useful life left in it."

When he was 12 and growing up in Bulawayo, Palmer created his first car, a rakish plywood-bodied machine based on an old Ford Model T given to him by his father - Rhodesia's chief railway engineer. Palmer senior wanted his son to join him on the railways but the young Gerald opted instead for an engineering apprenticeship with the truck-maker Scammell back in England, where he worked for five years.

He then met Anthony Fisher, the founder of the Institution of International Affairs. Fisher agreed to put up pounds 1,000 to back a speculative venture to manufacture the perfect small sports car, and Palmer formed the Deroy Car Company to make it. The Deroy prototype that emerged was a stylish two-seater roadster, powered by a small, four-cylinder Scammell engine. "I named it after a Portuguese villa," said Palmer. Alas, for all its handsome looks no further backing materialised. But the Deroy brought Palmer to the attention of the MG boss Cecil Kimber, and he was offered a job running the company's drawing office.

One day in 1942, though, a small advert in The Automobile Engineer transfixed him. It said: "Wanted: chief designer for a motor manufacturer". The car company turned out to be Jowett, and Palmer was just the man it needed.

The visionary Jowett managing director Charles Calcott-Reilly had ensured that the company gained plenty of wartime contracts; yet he also realised Jowett would need afterwards to offer a tough, modern saloon car oozing export appeal - not the primitive two-cylinder contraptions it had hitherto built. Recruiting Palmer was his masterstroke. For Palmer, too, it was a dream: a blank piece of paper and a mission. Few designers since have had the freedom to plan the entire car, body, engine, interior, everything. The only parts he didn't design were the gearbox and back axle.

Although they agreed, recalled Palmer, on a "six-passenger family utility", the result was Britain's most sophisticated family car. For one thing, it featured unitary body/chassis construction. Then there was supple torsion bar suspension all round, independent at the front, precise rack and pinion steering, and a passenger compartment in which even those in the back sat within the wheelbase, giving excellent ride comfort. Palmer redesigned the traditional Jowett flat twin engine, adding two extra cylinders and enlarging it to 1,486cc. The wind-cheating teardrop-shaped body was as up-to-the-minute as anything from the technically more adventurous Italy or Germany.

Light, aerodynamic and high-geared, the Javelin could cruise at 80mph, with excellent acceleration, and the critics loved it. Palmer himself helped take the car to a class win in the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally. Jowett's slogan "Take a good look when it passes you" was aimed squarely at those pottering along in their pre-war Austins and Hillmans.

Palmer appreciated that "showroom appeal" was as important as good roadholding, performance and space utilisation. He said: "I had quite a good feel for `eye-able' shapes yet, really, the Javelin's was dictated by the position of passengers, luggage and engine."

The public got a sneak preview of the Javelin at the motor industry's Golden Jubilee parade in London on Saturday 27 July 1946. It poured with rain, perhaps explaining why few noticed the prototype Javelin on the sidelines. Jowett's other slogan, "One day - it has to be yours", began to ring with a pitiful irony because only a handful of cars had reached British customers by 1949.

By then, his task done, Palmer had been lured back to MG, to mastermind new MG, Riley and Wolseley designs. He became a director of Morris Motors and the guiding light behind such classic models as the MG Magnette ZA, the Riley Pathfinder, the MG TF and, in part, the MGA. However, when the Nuffield Group (Morris/MG/Riley/Wolseley) merged with Austin to form the British Motor Corporation, Palmer found his work bedevilled by company in-fighting. His talent and energy were largely ignored by warring BMC bosses.

At Jowett, meanwhile, things were going disastrously wrong: it was a typical British case of being brilliant at designing things and awful at making them. Owners loved their cars when new but many were dismayed when, for instance, engine crankshafts broke. A protracted boardroom hiatus and Javelin parts supply problems all helped to force liquidation on the firm in 1954. In six years, just 23,307 Javelins were built.

By 1955, Palmer gladly jumped ship to Vauxhall, becoming assistant chief engineer of passenger cars. He stayed until 1972. "It was interesting to see how American companies compared to British ones, and General Motors was a highly professional organisation," he said.

Palmer couldn't resist the chance to buy (as several tea-chests of parts) the Mercedes-Benz GP car that won the 1924 Targa Florio. A defining moment of his life was driving this fearsome car to Italy and opening the 1974 Targa Florio by doing a complete lap of the circuit in it. "It goes like a bomb," he said.

His autobiography, Auto-Architect, written with Christopher Balfour, was published last year.

Giles Chapman

Gerald Marley Palmer, car designer: born London 30 January 1911; married 1939 Diana Varley (deceased; one daughter); died Oxford 23 June 1999.