Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (‘50s Edition, Part 1) – Jowett Javelin and Jupiter

The CC Deadly Sins World Tour moves to the United Kingdom, a country that made so many DSs, it could be a rival to GM. As previously stated, let’s squeeze past the elephant in the room (British Leyland, which is worthy of its own series) and focus on smaller, more exotic fauna. Jowett, Armstrong Siddeley and Daimler: three very different companies that committed very different Deadly Sins within three different market segments in the ‘50s. Let’s start with the smallest car and work our way up.

Jowett range circa 1935.

 

Jowett were a relatively small player on the UK car scene in the ‘30s. Based in Yorkshire when most of the industry was in Southern England, Jowett pursued their own way of doing things since their first cars hit the market in 1910. Jowett specialized in small family cars powered by twin-cylinder engines, an uncommon approach in Britain at the time. A new plant was built in Idle, near Bradford, just after the First World War, churning out little 7 HP cars and vans for over a decade.

1937-40 Jowett 8 HP

 

In 1935, the Jowett brothers elected to retire after 30 years at the helm just as a 1.2 litre flat-4 appeared (the 10 HP). A new 1 litre flat-twin model (8 HP) was also offered from 1936. The company was weathering the Depression thanks to its small, relatively inexpensive offerings, though the 10 HP was not exactly a runaway success (about 1600 made in 1937-40). Jowett’s little commercial van, the Bradford, was selling quite well and kept the firm in the black. But there was no denying that, by 1939, Jowett was in dire need of a new product to sell.

The MG YA (right), like several other European cars, was ready by 1939 but only launched in 1946.

 

When the Luftwaffe started bombing Britain in 1940, Jowett’s factory, so far away from Coventry or London, escaped the destruction that befell so many of its competitors. Like them, Jowett halted car production and focused on the war effort, while dedicating a small team of employees to think about the future. In 1942, work on the post-war car started through the hiring of Gerald Palmer (1911-1999). Born in England and raised in Southern Rhodesia, Palmer returned to his native land aged 16 to develop his budding engineering skills. He started as an apprentice with lorry-maker Scammell and earned a degree in engineering by his mid-20s. During his spare time, he designed and built a sports car, the Deroy, which caught the eye of Morris decision-makers. Palmer was hired by the automaker in 1937 to work on the new MG Y-Type.

Thinking post-war: 1943 model Jowett by Russian artist Naum Gabo.

 

Palmer was given a clean sheet of paper at Jowett. Letting his imagination run free, he designed a car that would be spacious, comfortable and aerodynamic. To minimize front overhang and lower the centre of gravity, the engine would be an all-new flat-4. To keep weight in check, Palmer designed an all-steel unibody. Gone were the mudguard-like fenders, vertical grilles and separate headlamps still common in European cars in general and British cars in particular. Palmer was obviously looking at the Lincoln Zephyr for inspiration, but he may also have seen the Naum Gabo model that was made at the time (though not commissioned by Jowett itself). All-round torsion bar suspension was designed with a relatively high ground clearance, to marry comfort and performance with the ability to handle the Imperial markets’ rough road network. Rounding off this technical cornucopia were hydro-mechanical brakes (hydraulic at the front and cable-operated at the rear, as was pretty common in Britain in those days) and the fashionable column gear change. In the whole car, the only things of import not designed by Palmer and his team were the 4-speed Meadows gearbox and the Salisbury rear axle.

The first prototype was on the road by August 1944, but it took a while for Jowett to sort out the production of the new Javelin, during which time they only produced Bradford vans and pick-ups. The Javelin’s body was outsourced to Briggs Motor Bodies, the British subsidiary of the American Briggs company. Well-orchestrated PR meant the new Jowett was eagerly anticipated by the motoring press and the public at large: most cars coming out of British factories in 1946-47 were basically pre-war models, whereas the Jowett promised to be a completely new mid-range car from a company that had only made smaller models up to that point.

In early 1947, a few pre-production Javelins were tested by the press, who heaped compliments over accolades on it like it was the second coming. The Javelin, as well as the equally modern-looking Standard Vanguard, were the stars of the British automotive world in 1947. Palmer’s previous effort, the MG Y-Type, looked outdated by comparison. Jowett’s sales took off like a rocket thanks to the late ‘40s seller’s market.

A few Javelin alternatives in 1947-48, clockwise from top left: Jaguar, Lanchester, Singer, Riley.

 

The Javelin’s price increased substantially in its first year of production as Jowett struggled to meet demand and revised its costs. The 1.2 to 1.8 litre segment was very crowded in those days – Javelins competed with over 15 other models. At £819 by 1948 (including the 33.3% purchase tax) in De Luxe trim, it was rather expensive for a 1.5 litre car (RAC tax rating: 12 HP), so it was pitted against the Jaguar 1 ½ litre (£953), the Lanchester LD10 (£927), the Riley RM 1 ½ litre (£863) or the Singer Super 12 (£768). The 12 HP Austins, Hillmans or Vauxhalls all cost less than £500; even the other Palmer-designed car, the MG YA, was significantly cheaper at £672.

The roomy and tasteful interior of the Javelin De Luxe was a definite plus point…

 

The Javelin’s performance and spacious cabin meant it did compete with 14-16 HP (circa 1.8 to 2.3 litres) cars made by larger British automakers, but those were still usually cheaper. (To get a fuller picture, one of the cheapest cars, the Ford 8 HP Anglia, cost £293; one of the most expensive, the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, cost £2035 in chassis form, requiring double or triple that price again for a bespoke body. Cars selling for over £1000 were subject to a 66.6% purchase tax after June 1947.)

It was perhaps unavoidable that some nagging teething issues would rear their ugly head by this point. Palmer’s twin-carbureted 52 BHP water-cooled OHV flat-4, consisting of two aluminum alloy blocks and cast iron heads, was a rather advanced design, but the quality of materials used was not as good as expected. The engine’s most annoying early maladies included chronic overheating, due to the radiator’s location behind the engine, and brittle crankshafts. The overheating problem was never completely resolved: later engines usually fared better in this regard but would take a very long time to run at a high enough temperature in cold weather. Palmer, meanwhile, had been tempted back to Nuffield to work on the new generation of MGs and Wolseleys, so Jowett had to find cures for the flat-4’s troubles without the help of its creator.

The early troubles were being sorted out while Jowett started to develop a companion car for the Javelin. The British government was pushing for automakers to export of die, and Jowett needed to comply. One type of car that exported well was the rugged, sporty British drop-top. To ensure success, Jowett teamed up with ERA, one of the top racing teams in the country. A prototype Jowett-ERA car was soon designed and built, using a completely new tubular frame chassis designed by Robert Eberan von Eberhorst, the Javelin’s wonderful torsion bar suspension and a tuned version of the flat-4 that produced 62 bhp @ 4500 rpm. Jowett were satisfied with the results from a technical standpoint, but the ERA prototype’s appearance was deemed unacceptable.

Jowett head designer Reg Korner went back to the drawing board to design the roadster. The results are certainly distinctive, but fussy detailing and an oddly-proportioned soft top made the new Jupiter a tougher sell than MG, Singer or Sunbeam-Talbot roadsters. Nevertheless, the Jupiter was hailed as a welcome addition to Jowett’s range when it debuted at the 1950 Geneva Motor Show, having been only seen in chassis form at Earl’s Court the previous year. It cost £1087 after tax – about £150 less than the Jaguar XK 120, but also around £350 more than the MG TD roadster, whose sporting capacities were also universally acknowledged.

If one did not find the factory-bodied Jupiter agreeable, Jowett would happily provide a chassis for the client to take to the coachbuilder of his or her choice. Quite a few folks did just that: about 75 Jupiters were bodied by various British and European coachbuilders. As expected, some efforts were downright bizarre and others were quite stunning. A small selection above: top row, Beutler of Switzerland and Abbott of Farnham (Surrey); middle row, the one of the four Stabilimenti Farina coupés and an odd-looking Coachcraft copycat; bottom row, a fastback coupé made by Jowett’s Danish importer Ole Sommer and a Ghia-Aigle convertible.

Jowett entered cars in several races to prove their worth, and won many trophies as a result. Both the Javelin and the Jupiter found success in the grueling Monte-Carlo rally and several other European races where the mere act of finishing was an achievement in itself.

The Jupiter also won its class at Le Mans in 1950 and 1951. The halo effect resulting from these impressive feats did translate in an uptick of Jowett sales in those years, albeit quite a modest one. Prices for the Javelin had moved north of the £1000-mark, which did counteract the Le Mans effect a bit.

In an effort to control costs, Jowett decided to produce their own gearboxes, which up to then had been supplied by Meadows. Alas, cutting gear cogs proved to be a tad more complex than Jowett had expected. From late 1951, when the Meadows contract was rescinded, the Javelin and Jupiter gearboxes would be the main engineering stumbling block – and one that was entirely of Jowett’s own making.

Not only that, but it soon became clear that the hotter Jupiter flat-4 was consequently more fragile and prone to the familiar Javelin issues (overheating and crankshaft failures), as well as head gasket and valvetrain problems. The Jupiter would have to grin and bear these faults for its first year of production. However, it did receive all-round dual-circuit hydraulic brakes, as did the Javelin, in 1951.

The gearbox issue was compounded by supply and demand mismatches throughout the production line. Jowett’s sales abroad were plummeting, as many other British automakers’, due to increased competition from all sides. UK sales were still pretty healthy, but distribution was not up to scratch: some dealers had no cars to sell, others had far too much stock. The issues were also mounting on the production line, as Jowett’s ageing factory could not keep up with demand. Briggs provided all the bodies required, but there were not enough platforms and engines being made, and those that did lacked a gearbox. Javelin shells and incomplete chassis were piling up in and around the Bradford plant at an alarming rate.

Above: the final Bradford 2-cyl. van (35,000 made post-war); below: one of the Jowett CD prototypes.

Production had to be halted to manage the glut of Javelin bodies and resolve the gearbox issue. Rally victories notwithstanding, Jowett’s future was now in jeopardy. The last Bradford van came off the assembly line in 1952; its replacement, the CD project, wasn’t yet ready for prime time. Jowett’s bottom line was going to be affected by this in the very short term.

Car production was restarted when the gearboxes were sorted out by early 1953, but the public was now weary of the six-year-old Javelin, whose style, compared to the latest Vauxhall or Hillman, was starting to look stale. The coup de grâce (rhymes with “grass”, please, everyone) came when Ford UK announced they were buying out Briggs in mid-1953. Jowett had nowhere else to turn for its bodies. The Javelin’s passing was now imminent.

The Jupiter R4 was the final Jowett project, topping 100 mph in 1954. Only three were made.

Now reduced to the slow-selling Jupiter, Jowett took a long hard look at their operation and decided to close shop. The final Jowett Jupiter roll off the production line in November 1954. However, compared to many similar cases both in the UK and elsewhere, the winding down of Jowett was exemplary. All suppliers were paid to the last penny and the overwhelming majority of the workers were transitioned to the new factory owners. A company was formed to supply Jowett and Bradford parts to the thousands of grateful owners for another decade or so.

A Javelin (and a Ford) in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

 

The Javelin was a promising car, coming at the right time with the rights arsenal of technical features. Unfortunately, engine woes were followed by gearbox and production problems that made it less and less attractive in a very tough market segment. From 1947 to 1953, about 23,000 were produced. The Jupiter was even more of a flop, with about 900 (some say 1000) made in four years. Both together, Jowett’s flat-4 cars were made in fewer units than the antiquated (but cheap and sturdy) Bradford van.

As we can see from the video above, Javelins are fondly remembered by those who got to know them. The Jowett Car Co. was a David to the Goliaths that were Ford, Austin or Rootes, and its management committed a series of unforced errors that ensured its demise, a mere decade after the war. Still, as Lord Montagu of Beaulieu wrote in The Lost Causes of Motoring: “Better to go out in a blaze of glory with a Jupiter than to be badge-engineered into oblivion.”

 

Let’s kick it up a notch tomorrow in Part 2 of this all-‘50s British DS series and take a look at Armstrong Siddeley, another unjustly forgotten automaker.