Jowett Javelin

Out of the war-ravaged British car industry came a model that could have been a global success. It's tragic that it wasn't, says Brian Sewell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This year, 2006, marks the 60th anniversary of the Jowett Javelin's appearance.A few had dribbled on to the market after the outbreak of the Second World War, and some over-confident manufacturers had announced new models for 1940 (and made a handful), but when petrol was rationed, then reduced to one low grade, and finally made unobtainable without a very special permit, cars of all ages simply faded away.

From July 1942 the streets were empty of all but "official'' cars and a few taxis for the three full years until June 1945. But, in spite of the war and the seeming hopelessness of it, some manufacturers had nevertheless dreamt of sparkling new models fit for a brave post-war new world, and one of these, perhaps the most improbable, was Jowett, a Yorkshire firm with a steadfast local following but hardly known beyond the Ridings.

The Brothers Jowett, Benjamin and William, made their first car in 1906, a light two-seater powered by an engine of two cylinders horizontally opposed; their first production model came in 1910, much improved in steering and braking, but with the engine retained. After 11 years in production its capacity was increased from 815 to 907cc and in 1936 capacity rose to 1,005cc and power to 19bhp at 3,500rpm. There it stayed until even Yorkshiremen grew tired of it, and Jowett's closed in 1954.

In 1935 they had ventured into the four-cylinder market with what was, to all intents and purposes, a pair of these engines bolted together, but with a combined capacity of only 1,146cc. It cost, in a family saloon, £30 more than the old twin, and canny Yorkshiremen saw no point in spending £197 when £167 bought them something as solid and capacious as a Wolseley.

When the Jowetts retired in the late Thirties, the firm was in decline - the total of production all vehicles in 1939 was only 1,661. The war came just in time for the firm as it became a manufacturer of arms and ammunition and its workforce quadrupled. Yet the man in charge of it, Charles Calcott-Reilly, had the wit, in 1941, to think of post-war years.

He recruited Gerald Palmer, a 30-year old Rhodesian who had been in charge of MG's drawing office since 1938. Palmer's brief was to design "a universal car,'' and, to a very great extent, he succeeded with the Javelin. "A car for the world,'' claimed the advertisements in 1946, though it was 1948 before production really got into its stride.

Palmer kept to the horizontally-opposed design with which Jowett had such consistent success, in this case a flat four of 1,486cc developing 50bhp at 4,100rpm - high figures for the day. He set it in a long wheelbase with high ground-clearance for the rough roads of the British Empire, and designed a monocoque body that deliberately aped that great American car, the Lincoln Zephyr.

With a curved windscreen, a single-panel roof that swept from this to the rear bumper, headlamps faired into wings that themselves faired into doors that were not only tall but wide, and a radiator grille that spread as wide as any grinning Oldsmobile, this was a car to astonish the drivers of sedate new Rovers. Their cars were identical with those of 1939, and their astonishment became even greater when the Javelin overtook such monuments of gravitas. "Take a good look when it passes you'', was another of Jowett's cheeky slogans.

A curious retired colonel would find, on inspection, that the Javelin's compact engine was set ahead of the radiator and the front wheels, marvellously accessible with the alligator bonnet opened and the grille removed. This also allowed far more room in the passenger cabin than would be found in his Rover 16.

The Javelin also had that signal comfort, a flat floor without footwells. In addition, as both front and back seats were benches and this was the first British car to have a steering-column gear-lever, the car could carry six people, all well within the wheelbase where the ride is most serene.

With a wheel in each corner and little space wasted on the engine, the Javelin anticipated the ideas of Alec Issigonis for the Mini; that it was streamlined in the American manner also set it apart, and under the seductive skin lay the then-rare independent suspension of all four wheels. The underframe "chassis'' was a structure integral with the body, not only more rigid than such old-fashioned contemporary cars as the Rover and Wolseley with 1.5-litre engines, but much lighter - roughly two tonnes to their three tonnes.

By the standards of the day this was a car that flew; it exceeded 75mph, cruised at a mile a minute (taking only 20 seconds to reach that speed), and floated over broken roads. When the Javelin's unsuspected Porsche-potential was recognised, the factory entered it in the Monte Carlo rally of January 1949 and it won the 1.5-litre class; later that year it covered 1,700 miles in the 24-hour race at Spa as the fastest of all touring cars, and won the two-litre class in winter trials in Austria. The response to these successes was the development of a true sports car, the three-seater open Jupiter, which appeared within months and won its class at Le Mans with a record average of 76mph over the 24 hours.

Alas, the Javelin engine in standard tune had taken some years to prove reliable, and when developed for higher performance it blew gaskets, burnt valves and broke crankshafts; worse, when Jowett's decided in 1951 to make its own gearboxes instead of buying them in from an expert cutter (Meadows), it made them so badly that the factory was bogged down with defects and sales fell away - this at the crucial point when the firm was at work on new twin and six-cylinder engines, and on bodies of laminated plastic.

When the Jowett factory closed in 1954, blame for this was placed at the door of its large rival, Ford, which first bought the Doncaster factory of Briggs, the makers of Jowett bodies, and then refused to renew the contract - but Javelin bodies were piled up all over Bradford waiting for assembly and Briggs was working at less than half-time before Ford put in its bid.

I have not driven a Javelin since the late Sixties, when in Cadaques a late example in the original beige paint, dreadfully faded, was in use as a runabout by one of Dali's hangers-on. In terms of lolloping about on the rough roads of rural Spain it was a match for my Peugeot 404 and had a much superior steering-column gear-change; if three sat in the front, then the driver sat askew - but we were all smaller then.

The Javelin was daring and far-sighted and, had it held to the Jowett tradition of dogged reliability it might have been the world car of its ambition. But the modern and revolutionary features that made it Britain's equivalent of the great Lancia Aprilia and far more interesting than any Austin ever, were not, in themselves, enough. Now old fogeys lament the demise of a car that briefly lent hope to a failing industry.

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