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Jowett Javelin: The Zimbabwe Connection

2015-04-14 09:33

AHEAD OF ITS TIME: Britain’s Jowett’s Javelin, styled by then-Rhodesian car enthusiast and engineer Gerald Palmer, was innovative but ill-conceived. It sold in very small numbers. Image: DAVE FALL

The 68th anniversary of the once-famous Jowett Javelin saloon has come and gone, a vehicle much loved and revered in the Fall family garage in North London.

With the state visit to South Africa of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe earlier in April 2015, the occasion reminded me of a gifted then-Rhodesian engineer who designed several classic British cars, among them the Jowett Javelin, the MG Magnette and the Wolseley 4/44.


I related my recall of a flawed BSA three-wheeler car that was owned by my father when I was a lad. After the unreliable BSA Scout disappeared from the scene Dad came home with yet another oddball vehicle that again proved to be something of an enigma.

The car in question was an early-1050’s Jowett Javelin sports saloon.

Some background to the marque reveals that Ben Jowett and his brother Willy first designed an engine back in 1900. It was a six horsepower, V-twin but it took them another six years to come up with a suitable body to wrap around it – but it had now grown into a twin-cylinder, horizontally-opposed unit – a Jowett hallmark.

That model was released to wide acclaim in the UK as “The world’s first light motor car”. The Jowett boys were born and bred Yorkshiremen but hadn’t anybody told them the British car industry centred on the cities of Birmingham and Coventry in the English Midlands and not on the outskirts of Idle, near Bradford?


Over the years the steering, brakes and engine bore improved and sales continued to rise but by 1935 even Yorkshire folk grew tired of buying them – something fresh and new was desperately needed.

What Jowett Cars came up with what was basically a pair of those tiddly engines bolted together and when they did that they (Jowett) realised the engines now had real sporting potential.

Alas, the Second World War was fast creeping up on everyone but Jowett managed to timeously secure the services of a gifted Rhodesian engineer, Gerald Palmer, who had been head-hunted from the MG car factory down south.

His drawings turned out to be slightly radical but perfectly workable.

His design allowed for a lengthy wheelbase, high ground clearance and a monocoque body attached to a boxed chassis.


The instructions were perfectly clear from Calcott Reilly, the new director at Jowetts: “The car must be made as far as possible entirely ‘in-house’ at the Bradford plant. The research and development for the new model had in fact produced a handful of prototypes until the staff moved to war duties instead of car assembly.

It was around two years after the war ended in 1945 before British car companies were once again able to pick up the pieces in car manufacture. Up at Jowetts it was full-steam ahead with a new model called Javelin that had a 1486cc flat-four engine that could top 140km/h – streets ahead of most family cars then available.

The car had an aluminium block, twin carbs, rack-and-pinion steering, independent suspension up front and torsion bar suspension at the rear, a four-speed column-change gearbox and hydraulic brakes.

Real state-of-the-art back then for a British car, I can tell you.

The styling was certainly aerodynamic for its day with headlights faired into the wings and a big, big chrome-plated grille reminiscent of a Lincoln Zephyr.


Instead of Sunday mornings being spent under the BSA trying to keep it running for another week, Dad would point out to me innovative features such as the radiator that was located close to the bulkhead, the rubber-mounted engine bushes, or how to reset the carbs to provide maximum revs.

Real important stuff when you’re about 12!

I often wondered what happened to our British Racing Green Javelin. What I can tell you for sure is the brand faded away in the mid-1950’s. Dad blamed the Ford Motor Company for their demise because Jowett bodies were outsourced at a company called Briggs Bodyworks. Ford bought Briggs and promptly closed them down.

Alas, around the same time, Jowett gearboxes tended to be troublesome. The early ones were made by Meadows but Jowett thought they could do a better job; cheaper, too.

Perhaps the killer blow was the fact that Jowett lacked a vast dealer network to tackle head-on the likes of Morris, Wolseley and Ford… another nail in their coffin was just around the corner.


Yet sporting successes came rather easily and quickly to the Jowett marque.

In 1949 a Javelin won its class in the Monte Carlo Rally. Later that year it had similar success in the gruelling 24-hour Spa event. Palmer, meanwhile, had returned to car designing at MG in Abingdon, just outside Oxford in southern England.

Was there room for a proper sports car from Jowett?

Yes indeed, and it was called the Jupiter. Perhaps more about that car some other time...


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