RACING AN OPEN-TOP E-TYPE ACROSS EUROPE
The launch of the Jaguar E-type at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show was so popular, that queues for passenger rides quickly started to build. The solution: a madcap dash across Europe with a second demonstration car
E-type 9600HP wasn't the only hero of the 1961 Geneva Motor Show launch for Jaguar's iconic sports car. The hand-built fixed-head coupe is the star in most of the famous photos of the event, but it was sister car - open-top E-type 77RW - and Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis who saved the day, with a high-speed overnight drive from Coventry to the Parc des Eaux Vives.
Jaguar PR man Bob Berry was giving journalists demonstration runs up a nearby hillclimb course, but queues were building, and there was no way he could satisfy demand. Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons quickly rang back to Coventry and said: "Get Dewis, wherever he is, to drop everything, and bring the open-top E-type over."
Dewis picks up the story. "I was at the MIRA test track with 77RW, working on the brakes. The track manager came out, and said they wanted me at Coventry - urgently. I got back about 2pm and my boss [chief engineer] William Heynes was there with Bob Knight, who had designed the E-type's suspension. I asked what was going on, and they said I had to get the car to Geneva as soon as possible.
"I suggested I should go home for a rest while they take out the testing equipment, then pick the car up in the morning, but they said: 'You go when it's ready. Here's a ticket for a 10pm ferry at Dover.' I said I needed to at least grab an overnight bag, but Heynes said: 'No need. It's in your office.' They'd gone and got one from my wife.
"Once they finished taking the test instruments out, it was 7:45pm. I had to get from Coventry to Dover by 10pm - I was flat-out all the way. In those days, there wasn't the traffic you have today. You'd go mile after mile without seeing anyone, so you could cruise at 80mph. If the police did pull you over, they'd just give you a talking to: 'Watch your speed. You were a bit quick back there'.
"Heading through London, I hit the first set of lights on Edgware Road on green, and managed to get through every light - green all the way, 60mph, straight through.
"When I pulled up at Dover, it was totally dark. A guy came up with a torch, and I asked: 'Is that the Ostend boat? Because I have to be on it.' He said I was too late. The gate had closed 10 minutes before, even though the boat wasn't due to leave for 15 minutes. Then his torch shone on the green E-type, and he asked: 'What's this?' 'It's the new Jaguar E-type.' 'The one that launched yesterday? It's all over the newspapers. Hang on.' He got his walkie-talkie out and said: 'You've got to get this guy on, he's got the new Jag.' While I grabbed a quick coffee and a sandwich, everyone on the boat was looking at it.
"By the time we got to Ostend, it was the early hours of the morning, and there was a low ground mist which held me up a bit. It got clearer as I went through Brussels and out towards the Black Forest, so I was able to cruise at 80mph, but I didn't want to do anything silly and arrive with the car hot and fuming.
"Every so often I'd look at the map for the next 30 miles, then put the map down and crack on. I was used to driving for hours while testing at MIRA, and I only needed to stop once for fuel. I just kept going, which is how you get good average speeds.
In the end, Dewis completed the 600-mile journey in just 11 hours, with an average speed of 68mph. Almost impossible to imagine today.
"Lyons said I needed to be in Geneva for 10am, and when I pulled in, he was waiting," Dewis continues. "He walked over, looked at his watch, and just said: 'Thought you'd do it, Dewis.' That was about as much of a compliment as you got. He was forthright like that - never one to waste words.
"Then Lofty England, Jaguar's service manager and race manager, came over and he gave me a big hug. 'Well done, Norman. Fantastic driving. We worked your speed out, and we never thought you'd make it.' I asked where my hotel was, as I was keen to get some sleep, and Lofty just said: 'Norman, you've got to get up there and start demonstrating with Bob. I'll take you to the hotel later on.'
"As soon as Bob Berry saw me, he came over, and said: 'Thank God you've made it. Look at the size of these queues.' And that was the Geneva Motor Show. I slept well that night - out like a light.
"Everywhere I go, talking about Jaguar, people ask me about that run. But it's one of those things - it's your job, and you get on with it. I really enjoyed that drive, because everything worked out. I had a perfect run from Coventry to Dover, there were no hold ups in London, I just managed to catch the ferry, and there were no problems in France or Switzerland. I didn't have one hairy moment - everything went perfectly."