The greatest of the lot – Norman Dewis

by Andrew Frankel on 3rd September 2010

Last night I had the great privilege of attending Norman Dewis’s 90th birthday party. Held at Jaguar’s Castle Bromwich plant, with C-types parked outside and the prototype D in the room, it was a fitting celebration of one of the most extraordinary figures ever to bless this industry.

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Jaguar turned out the big guns, both the CEO and MD gladly giving up their evenings to acknowledge Norman’s incomparable contribution to Jaguar, a company at which he started working nigh on 60 years ago. With Sir Stirling he developed the disc brakes that would transform road and racing cars, he developed the D-type from scratch and, of course, was responsible for road cars such as the E-type and XJ saloon.

As for the star of the show, Norman is clearly built from a different material to the rest of us. This is man who not only survived multiple high speed accidents while testing and, famously, barrel-rolling the XJ13 prototype off the MIRA banking but, less well known but more remarkably still, life as a gunner in Blenheims during the war. And yet today he is undiminished, striding between his guests, eyes twinkling, stories of a lifetime on road and track pouring forth. Inevitably he was asked to pose behind the wheel of Jaguar’s own C-type which he gladly did, but the moment I enjoyed most was when some well meaning individual asked if Norman if he needed any help getting out. The nonagenarian Norman answered by departing the Jaguar like a cork from a champagne bottle.

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Later on, after speeches and presentations from Jaguar and Jaguar car clubs, Norman took to the stage himself, working the room without notes, a man clearly as comfortable in his latter day role as roving Jaguar ambassador as he was during over 30 years as its chief test driver.

Every great car company needs a man like Norman. Ferrari had Dario Benuzzi, Lamborghini Valentino Balboni. But if you think of all Norman achieved in both the road and racing arenas – let’s not forget he was a works driver in the ’55 Le Mans as well – over such an extended period, I would contend he is the greatest of the lot, rivalled perhaps only by Mercedes’s Rudi Uhlenhaut.

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And now, 25 years after he officially retired, Norman shows no sign of slowing down, his 2011 diary already filling up with lecture tours of America and Europe. If Norman ever felt fortunate to have found Jaguar all those years ago, it must be as nothing compared to how fortunate Jaguar must feel to have Norman today.

He ended his talk by offering a small slice of advice to anyone else in the room wishing to see their 90th birthday. We expected profundity, we got ‘keep breathing’. To gales of laughter and a standing ovation, Norman departed the stage.

Andrew Frankel

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