Growing up at Jaguar
By Graham Robson
It was a coincidence, really. I was enormously lucky, fell on my feet in one of the most famous companies in the world, and have never forgotten the great times I had while I was there.
It all started at Oxford, where I was reading Engineering, and was already determined to get into the motor industry. But who, where, and doing what? A polite letter to Jaguar started this off, but an immediate refusal winged its way back to me. After all, Jaguar did not have a graduate training programme, they knew nothing about me, and in Coventry there was already a long line of young hopefuls looking for a starting-grade appointment.
This, however, is where the Good Luck kicked in. At Oxford, one of my best chums was Mike Woodcock, also an undergraduate engineer who was determined to get into the industry. He had also tried the Jaguar route, and he too had been rebuffed. However, I must have been half-blind, or might never before even have enquired, but I didn’t know that his father was no less than Jim Woodcock, who just happened to be CEO of BMC’s massive assembly plant at Cowley, on the outskirts of the city.
One day, while we were sharing a coffee in one of Oxford’s new-fangled and trendy coffee bars, Mike suddenly said: “I know. I’ll tell Dad, and ask him to have a word with Sir William Lyons…” (Sir William, of course, was Jaguar’s founder, chairman, and master of everything which moved in the Jaguar business.)
It worked. Within days we were both summoned to Coventry, each survived a rather fierce interview with technical boss William Heynes, and—amazingly—Jaguar almost instantly set up a Graduate training scheme, of which we were to be the first members! I was in Hog Heaven. I somehow fought my way through my finals, gained a respectable degree, and moved from Oxford to Coventry in September 1957, where would I share rooms with Mike Woodcock for the next three years.
Although Jaguar immediately kitted us out with the famous apprentice-green overalls when we arrived, the bosses didn’t know what to do with us at first, especially as we were obviously aiming for higher things in the development team, rather than trying to learn to be top-grade mechanics and technicians. At the time, too, the entire Jaguar business was trying hard to recover from the near disastrous fire, which had engulfed one end of the assembly lines in February 1957, destroying one third of the buildings.
Even so, to start us off we had to spend weeks learning how to work metal and a variety of machine tools. Before long they concluded I should be sent out to do some hands-on oily-fingered work, which was how I came to work on the XK engine crankshaft machining line for some weeks. From time to time, too, I was sent out on ‘Day Release’ to the local technical college, though I never quite worked out how ‘Work Study’ and setting ‘piece rates’ was going to help my rise to being William Heynes’ successor.
Often, though, I found it easy to go walk-about. It was those strolls immediately after the canteen lunch which told me so much—for somehow the Apprentice-green kit was an acceptable disguise which were rarely challenged by officious foremen, and it was on one of those covert strolls that I first spotted the original light-green E-Type prototype on a ramp in Experimental. That was sheer happenstance, for it had just been completed in great secrecy in the Competition Department, which was nearby, but they didn’t have a ramp of their own. Chief test driver, Norman Dewis, was with the car on that day, treating it very much as his baby, which effectively it was.
That was when I really started lobbying to do something more interesting. Shortly I found myself re-assigned to Body Experimental (which was next door to ‘Competitions’), working on folding soft tops for the new XK150 Roadsters, interiors for the new Mk VIII, and the first sheet metal details for the MK IIIs—but never on the E-Type. There was still only one (E1A) in 1958—for it was rarely seen (but often heard over the partition), it was only driven by Norman Dewis, and usually only at weekends.
Being next to ‘Comps’, of course, had its moments—for on Monday mornings, usually after a hard race in which some damage or breakdown had occurred, Ecurie Ecosse D-Types might turn up, with ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson pleading for speedy repairs or rebuilds, and occasionally we’d see the racing 3.4 sedans, as driven by Mike Hawthorn and Tommy Sopwith at Silverstone.
Sir William Lyons, of course, was everywhere; he might have been remote in his personal dealings, but never in his application to the job. Always immaculately dressed (he always wore a dark blue suit, and seemed to take a different new car home, for assessment, every night), he could often be seen bustling in and out of Experimental to see what was going on—and he expected everyone to be as knowledgeable and dedicated as him. There were several occasions when the green-overalled Robson, working away under a body shell, noticed an immaculately polished pair of black shoes appear by my elbow, at floor level, and have a crisp, polite, but very formal voice wanting to know: “Good morning young man. What are you doing?” To my relief, I always seemed to be doing something of which he approved.
In 1958-59, by the way, the factory was bursting at the seams. The fire damage had been repaired in a matter of months, the XK150 was selling well, the Mk VIII sedan was about to become the Mk IX, and both the E-Type and the Mk II models were on the way. Although I was just about to get a ‘real job’—working on a drawing board in the main Engineering office—I still found time to note the frenzied activity in Experimental, too. There were two obvious priorities. The original production-type ‘steel’ E-Type shell was evolving, and spent some weeks up on ramps (it was the third car of all, I believe, for ‘Comps’ was building the aluminium E2A in conditions of great secrecy), where prototype panels, supplied by Abbey Panels on the other side of Coventry, were being rivetted together, not welded, so that technical chief Bill Heynes could carry on altering details to bring down the costs.
Jaguar was like that, at the time. If Heynes wanted something doing, he would often walk through the assembly shops to Experimental, to spend hours climbing all over the latest shell. If Sir William wanted style changes made, he would visit the department himself—and I will not forget the days when he would get chalk all over his suit, as he was using a stick to sketch out the lines of new rear windows and rear door cut-outs on the latest version of the Mk II shell, which was a modified version of the original Mk I. That change, I clearly recall, was achieved (‘in the chalk’) in the morning, the shape cut out by the end of the day, ready for Sir William to inspect on the following morning.
My move to the Engineering Drawing Office was very exciting for me, as it seems that I was the only young hopeful to have an engineering degree, and everyone else seemed to think, quite wrongly as it transpired, that I could solve the problems which were bothering them. My first assignment was to the engine/transmission/section part of the office, where I soon learned that all the detailed work carried out on the ‘parchment-style’ paper of the day during the week could be ruined on a Friday afternoon, when Bill Heynes made what we all called his ‘Modifications Tour’, which meant that he would descend on a paper project of interest, make his own decisions and—with 4B pencils in both hands—would scribble his suggestions for change. We did what we were told, of course.
This office was an exciting place to be, for that enigmatic aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer was just one aisle and two drawing broads away from me (he never, repeat never, told anyone else how his calculations were made—and it wasn’t for years before the world realised how empirical they actually were), chief chassis designer Tom Jones was a few yards away, and mysterious consultants like Willy Watson (ex Aston Martin/Lagonda/Invicta designer) and the stylist Vanden Plas were always floating about. Claude Baily was Heynes’s deputy, and concentrated on engine work.
The view from the second floor window was enthralling, for it was across the way from ‘Lofty’ England’s office, so there was much motorsport ‘traffic’—both of cars, or of famous drivers and personalities—through those doors. On the other hand, none of us were ever allowed into the ultra-secret styling workshops, where Fred Gardner worked away in wood to satisfy Sir William’s fancies. What we did know (for I was involved in design work on the car’s front suspension, on paper at least) was that concept work on the ‘Zenith’ project, which was supposed to replace the Mk VIII as the Mk IX, took so long, that it came to be nicknamed as the ‘Mark Time’ instead, and eventually appeared as the Mk X!
With design work completed on the MK II just as I arrived in the offices, I found myself spending much enjoyable time ‘detailing’ components on projects which eventually came to nothing, not only on the first four-cam road-car iteration of the V12 engine, but a ‘why don’t we?’ study of a flat six power unit (Bill Heynes had just seen, and was impressed by the new Chevrolet Corvair), and also on Willy Watson’s proposal to produce a brand-new dry-sump race car gearbox for the E-Type, which was of course cancelled. New inlet manifolds for Mk II sedan race cars and transmission linkage control details on Mk IIs were all part of the variety.
However, I soon realised that the E-Type programme was running late, and money was tight, for all the detail activity seemed to be crammed into 1960 itself. Should I have been surprised, then, that my section leader called me over one morning, said: “Look we haven’t designed the exhaust system yet. These are the silencers we’re going to use—it’s your job and you have five days.”
OK, that was fair enough—but as soon as I had assembled all the other drawings (and hung around under one of the very rare prototypes), I realised that the rest of the chassis was settled, the floor pan pressings had already been released for tooling, as had the massive rear suspension, so there was nowhere to recess the silencer boxes. And do you now wonder why they are so obviously visible, at the rear, on early cars? My fault, I guess—trust me!
Not that this was the end of the shoe-horning exercises—for a new type of rear anti-roll bar was needed, and the propeller shaft (together with my newly minted exhaust pipes) all got in the way. Does that explain the odd shape? It should. Or why such an odd fixing was needed for the electric radiator cooling fan motor which, if I recall, was a Lucas instrument? All my fault, I’m afraid—the initials on the drawings in the archive prove it.
It was to break free from that type of frenetic activity that I was tempted away by an offer to get involved in design, development and motorsport management in the Standard-Triumph organisation. But that is a story for another day… MM