Norman Dewis, the legendary Jaguar test engineer and competition driver who had so much to do with the premier British marque’s success through the decades, died Saturday at the age of 98.
Despite his advanced years, Dewis was active until recently as a globe-trotting ambassador for Jaguar, appearing at numerous auto shows, concours and important automotive events, often regaling spectators with exciting tales of his years helping to develop an estimated 25 race cars and sports cars for Jaguar.
For more than 30 years until his retirement in 1985, Dewis worked for the glory of Jaguar, performing high-speed testing and competition driving. In 1953, he set a production-car speed record on a closed Belgian highway in a modified Jaguar XK120, reaching the official speed of 172.4 mph.
At the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2015, he drove the restored speed-record XK120 onto the stage for the car’s class award, and received a lengthy round of applause from the crowd.
Dewis helped create the Le Mans-winning Jaguar C- and D-Type sports racers, and he was instrumental in the development of disc brakes, a major achievement for Jaguar. To test those brakes in competition, he rode as navigator in a C-Type with the great Stirling Moss in the 1952 Mille Miglia. They were running third overall when they had to drop out due to a crash.
He also raced in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans with the Jaguar works team, and was witness to the horrific crash of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR that killed scores of spectators and injured many more.
Considered to be “Britain’s greatest test driver,” Dewis was something of an unsung hero for most of his life in spite of his association with Jaguar’s greatest triumphs and world-renowned race drivers. His usually smiling face became well known in more-recent years among racing and auto enthusiasts because of his many public appearances and late-in-life acclaim.
In 2015, he was honored by Queen Elizabeth II with the Order of the British Empire “for services to the motor industry.”
Dewis was born in Coventry, England, on August 3, 1920, and as a teenager worked at the Humber auto factory that was located near his family’s home, after which he took an apprenticeship with Armstrong-Siddeley. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1939 and during World War II saw action as a gunner on a Blenheim bomber.
After the war, he worked at Lea-Frances before being recruited in 1951 by Jaguar’s chief engineer, Bill Heynes. He shortly became a test engineer, thrashing production and competition vehicles on test tracks, race courses and highways.
Among his achievements in production cars was his work to create the groundbreaking Jaguar E-Type, in which he spent hundreds of hours of high-speed testing. Part of the goal was confirming that the XK-E could reach its advertised top speed of 150 mph.
Capping off the experience, he drove the E-Type across Europe to its world debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961, where the car was met with enthusiastic acclaim.
For those who had the pleasure of knowing him, Norman Dewis will be remembered in his later years as the witty gentleman who, typically with a gin and tonic in his hand, told the colorful stories of his days with Jaguar, the company for which he was unflaggingly loyal.
Jaguar celebrated Dewis with a video about his life and career.