From Yorkshire to La Sarthe. The Bradford-built Jowett Jupiter was an unlikely Le Mans class winner. Delwyn Mallett tracks down the sole-surviving R1. Photography Paul Harmer.
1952 Jowett Jupiter R1 Built in Bradford, raced at La Sarthe
Bradford used to be all hills and mills, the hills are still there but the mills have long gone, as has Bradford’s contribution to automotive history: Jowett.
Jowetts first car emerged from the company’s tiny premises in 1906, powered by a water-cooled flat-twin engine that would stay in production for 47 years. As cars go, the Jowett was more clog than running shoe, hardly fleet of foot though it had a reputation for being solidly built, reliable and good at hauling a load, particularly around the hills of its native Yorkshire, where, despite the paucity of cylinders, it was undefeated by even the steepest of Pennine inclines.
‘Bravely – some might say foolishly – Jowett chose the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours as the first race for the car’
It was not, then, the sort of company you would expect to have produced a race- and rally- winning sports car. Nor to have been, for a few brief years, counted among the most desirable of British sporting marques, garnering reviews from the motoring press that bordered on the ecstatic. So how did that happen?
Jowett entered the war years with a reputation as a builder of plodders and workhorses (more than half of its production was vans and light commercial vehicles), only to emerge at the cessation of hostilities with a modern car that set new standards in roadholding and comfort. Better still, it went on to win its class in the Monte Carlo Rally, the Spa 24 Hours and, in its sports-car derivative, three consecutive class victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The extraordinary transformation from workhorse to racehorse was down to the foresight of Jowetts dynamic new managing director, Charles Calcott-Reilly, appointed in 1939. By 1942 Reilly was planning for post-war production and hired Gerald Palmer, a young engineering draughtsman working at MG, to design a new car from the ground up.
‘The engine revs eagerly to its redline and the aero screen does a surprisingly good job of deflecting the wind’
The look was that of a scaled-down fastback Lincoln Zephyr – a car Palmer admired – and it was the first British car with a curved windscreen. Jowett had briefly marketed a sidevalve flat-four engine before the war alongside its twin so, given its advantages of a low centre of gravity and smooth running, Palmer chose to continue the tradition by designing a new 1500cc flat-four with overhead valves.
Javelin production started in the last months of 1947 and the press response was overwhelmingly positive. Motor Sport’s highly respected editor, Bill Boddy, summarised it thus: ‘The Jowett Javelin is an astonishing car and a credit to the British technician. At last we have a saloon car which can hold up its head when it encounters the Continentals.’
This it certainly did. In January 1949 a Javelin won the 1500cc class in the first post-war Monte Carlo Rally, and competition-minded drivers took note and placed orders. Later that year a works-entered Javelin won the 2-litre Touring Class of the Spa 24 Hours, a race then considered even harder on car and driver than LeMans.
Meanwhile, the USA had fallen in love with British sports cars; so, buoyed by this unexpected race success, Jowett turned its thoughts to producing a proper open sports car based on the Javelin’s mechanicals, the story then took an unexpected twist when Laurence Pomeroy, the influential and respected technical editor of The Motor, introduced EBA (English Racing Automobiles) into the mix.
Pomeroy’s racing driver friend, Leslie Johnson, had just bought that company – essentially the name and a few pre-war voiturette single-seater racers – and was interested in producing a sports car as a joint venture with Jowett. No less than famed Austrian engineer Professor Robert Eberan von Eberhorst, designer of the 1939 Auto Union V12 D-Type Grand Prix cars, was lured to England and commissioned to design a chassis to accommodate the Jowett engine and suspension. EBA was contracted to build five prototypes at its Dunstable works, but the marriage was not a happy one and the project soon relocated to Bradford.
The chassis that von Eberhorst designed was closely related to that of the Auto Unions, consisting of parallel large-diameter chrome- molybdenum tubes, with cruciform cross-bracing and further tubular structures at each end to accommodate the engine and suspension.
Essentially the same chassis also underpinned the Aston Martin DB3, as well as the 1953 and ’1954 Le Mans Bristols, all evolving out of von Eberhorsts chassis for the G-Type ERA.
The independent front suspension used the Javelin’s unequal-length wishbones and longitudinal torsion bars, while at the rear the chassis kicked up and over a rear axle located by trailing links, Panhard rod and transverse torsion bars. A chassis was displayed at the 1949 Motor Show before Jowetts coachwork man, Reg Korner, was handed the task of producing a body. His design echoed, to a degree, that of the Jaguar XK120 that had caused such a sensation when launched a year earlier.
Bravely – some might say foolishly – Jowett chose the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours as the first race for the car it had named Jupiter, the third example to be finished was stripped of non-essentials, fitted with an aero screen and metal tonneau and entrusted to the two Tommys, Wise and Wisdom. Jowetts risk-taking paid off. After a trouble-free run the Jupiter won its class, covering 1819.725 miles, averaging 75.84mph and setting a new 1500cc record. Later that year Jupiters also posted a first and second in class in the Monte Carlo Rally, the Jupiter, actually badged ‘Javelin Jupiter’ on the early cars, had made its mark.
Encouraged by this success, Jowett prepared three lightweight Jupiters for the 1951 24 Hours. One, designated R1, was clad in skimpy cycle-winged bodywork. To reduce both frontal area and weight, the R1 chassis was narrowed and stiffened by aircraft-style perforated pressed-steel bulkheads both ahead of and behind the spartan cockpit.
The race did not unfold as smoothly as the previous year’s, the first Jupiter retirement occurred after just 19 laps, and at five hours the R1 blew a head gasket – and its race. Fortunately the last of the tuned-to-the-limit and very fast Simca Gordinis finally expired, leaving the Becquart/Wilkins Jupiter as the last runner in its class and allowing it to tour to the finish at reduced speed for another class victory.
Significantly, however, it was seven laps behind the 1100cc class-winner, a marque also powered by a flat-four engine and making its first (but not last) Le Mans appearance: Porsche. Nevertheless, it was a headline-making result for Jowett, and to aid its export drive the R1 was shipped to the USA where, repainted in American ‘racing white’, it posted a sensational win in the 11-lap 1 1/2-litre race at the tricky seven-mile Watkins Glen road course.
Aiming for a hat trick, Jowett was back at Le Mans in 1952 with three R1s, all sporting faired-in front wings to meet new regulations. Two were entered by Jowett, with the third, in French racing blue, notionally a private entry by Marcel Becquart and his co-pilot of the previous year, British journalist Gordon Wilkins.
Crankshaft failure eliminated the leading car of the trio in the seventh hour, but that of the second R1 kept spinning until the 16th hour before it, too, gave up. Two down, only the Becquart/Wilkins car to go. the prospects were not looking good and ominously this car’s engine was misfiring, resulting in several exploratory visits to the pits. Post-race examination of its crankshaft revealed extensive cracks; time spent in the pits might well have kept the track time below the point at which the crank would have broken.
As it was, failure of the competition handed Jowett the 1500cc class victory but, as in the previous year, the R1 had finished behind cars in the smaller-capacity class, ten laps behind the 1100cc Porsche and seven behind the 851cc, two-cylinder Dyna-Panhard. A second Porsche, running in the 1500cc class, was disqualified on a technical infringement while well ahead of them on the track.
Luck undoubtedly played a large part in Jowetts Le Mans victories, but such is often true in the 24-hour grind during which attrition through mechanical failure has a major role in determining the final results, that’s why it is subtitled Grand Prix d’Endurance. That said, Jowett was very much aware that, as far as racing was concerned, the engine had reached its limit.
Luck played an even bigger role in the survival of HKY 49. No works effort was planned for the 1953 season so the R1s were retired to the experimental department. When Jowett decided to cease car production in 1954, management instructed that they should be cut up and disposed of.
Fortunately for posterity a Jowett employee, Eric Price, paid £30 for the remains, without engine, of what transpired to be the Becquart/ Wilkins car. Gradually reassembled by Eric and fitted with an inline Vauxhall engine, it was re-registered for the road in 1962. It then fell off the radar for many years before long-time enthusiast Peter Dixon and Jowett guru Dennis Sparrow bought it in 1978 and began what would prove to be an 18-year restoration to return it to its Le Mans specification.
Careful examination of the components revealed that Price, when gathering them together, had managed to rescue most of the appropriately numbered Becquart bits. Each of the Alfin brake drums, for instance, is stamped with the car’s build number.
As the car was gradually reassembled, many details remained a mystery until Peter received a call from Jowett historian and author Ed Nankivell, who had recently been shown a period photograph by an old Jowett employee.
On turning it over, Ed discovered that it carried the stamp of HJ Wood, a Bradford photography firm. An exploratory call established that it was still in business. After speeding north, Peter and Dennis were rewarded with a boxful of large format glass negatives to sort through, including, to their delight, shots of the R1 under construction.
The quality of the original fine-grain negatives was such that, when peering through a magnifier, it was even possible to read the type number on the (missing) Smiths revcounter. Equally amazingly, Smiths was able to turn up a new-old- stock – in fact the only one in stock – instrument, the photos also helped with the location, or relocation, of other vital parts that had puzzled the pair, the large identification light ahead of the driver’s door, colour coded blue, green and orange for the race, turned out to be an aircraft ‘shine-down’ under-wing light.
The current engine, built by Dennis of course, benefits from careful development and produces considerably more horsepower than it did – around 100bhp, compared with the 70bhp of the 1952 Le Mans cars.
One aspect that conspicuously and intentionally differs from original is the rerouting of Jowetts frankly rather odd exhaust system. What looks, in photographs of the original cars, like a front nudge-bar is actually the exhaust pipe of the offside cylinder head, which exits forwards then loops around the engine to join the exhaust on the nearside. It was not only ugly and vulnerable to damage but also not particularly efficient. Both cylinder heads now exhaust rearwards into a single pipe created by the skills of the late Mike ‘the Pipe’ Randall. Dennis estimates that it releases an additional 5bhp.
Squeezing under the closely set, string- bound steering wheel of the R1 is not easy, the cutaway drivers-side door is more decorative than practical, which makes this a stand-on-the- seat and wriggle-down kind of car.
Unusually for a race car the R1 retains the standard Jupiter steering-column gearshift. It turns out to be far more precise than one might expect, with a pleasingly short throw, and is, of course, set conveniently close at hand.
Fuel pump on, a dab of throttle to prime the twin carbs and the engine bursts into life with a more strident bark than expected, the straight- through exhaust sets the lightweight alloy panelling afizz, but don’t expect to head off immediately. Several attempts to get underway result in the engine dying as the clutch is let in.
Once warmed up, however, the motor settles down to a steady tickover and progress is assured, with the clutch displaying little of the abruptness one might expect from a track car. And with 100bhp to move just under 700kg, the R1 is quick off the mark, too.
The engine revs eagerly to its 5500rpm redline in the intermediate gears, and the aero screen does a surprisingly good job of deflecting the wind, but the seven hours of continuous night-time rain that plagued Le Mans in 1951 must have provided an ordeal of a different order, the, rack and pinion steering is delightfully light and precise, helped by the fact that it still rides on narrow 3 ½ J 16in rims, there is no body roll in comers and, despite the extreme forward position of the engine, there’s no understeer, either.
Gordon Wilkins, a man who should know, reported that at Le Mans the car did ultimately understeer slightly but was essentially neutral in behaviour most of the time. All the drivers of the day commented on the car’s fine handling, often re-overtaking in Le Mans’ twisty bits the larger- engined cars that had swept by on the straights, the torsion-bar suspension absorbs the irregularities of British B-roads effectively, providing a ride quality much more modern in feel than the R1’s quaint looks suggest.
A total of three R1s were built, but between them they competed in only four races: twice at Le Mans, plus Watkins Glen and a single entry – for HKY 49 – in the 1952 Monaco Grand Prix. That was a race for cars up to 2.0 litres, in which it finished a respectable tenth, the R1s might not have been the fastest sports cars of the day, but this delightful and barely remembered racer is a unique piece of Jowett and Le Mans history. And it’s lucky to have survived, having made the journey from track to scrapheap and back.
Today Jowetts race and rally achievements are little remembered outside the company faithful, overshadowed by the likes of Jaguar and Aston Martin, but for a brief period in the 1950s the Jupiter’s star shone brightly. It was admired by film stars, racing drivers and connoisseurs of sporting cars; Briggs Cunningham bought two after the 1952 Le Mans race.
Perhaps the ultimate accolade came when Raymond Chandler wrote one into his 1953 detective novel The Long Goodbye. His private- eye hero, Philip Marlowe, is taken for a ride in a ‘Jupiter-Jowett’ and comments: ‘I’m not too fussy about cars, but the damn thing did make my mouth water a little.’
THANKS TO Arun Holdings, arunholdings.co.uk, where, the Jowett is for sale.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Jowett Jupiter R1 (1952 spec)
Engine 1486cc OHV flat-four, aluminium block, iron heads, two Zenith downdraught carburettors
Max Power 70bhp @ 5000rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 99lb ft @ 3000rpm / DIN nett
Steering Rack and pinion
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: double wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, transverse torsion bars, radius arms, Panhard rod, telescopic dampers
Top speed 100mph
Left and below: Not quite the Mulsanne Straight but our man’s imagination can compensate; the very same R1 chases Maurice Gatsonides’ example, plus Osca and fellow flat-four Porsche, at Le Mans 1952; Wilkins (left) and Becquart (right) after class win; the pair await post-race return to the paddock. Facing page and right: Flat-four engine sits right in the nose despite the long bonnet; flying-helmeted Mallett gets into period mindset behind aero screen. Above and opposite: Ex-Marcel Becquart R1 looks suitably French, wearing blue paint and air-force roundel as it did for its Le Mans class win.