Going with the flow. Aerodynamic and mechanically sophisticated, these compact saloons were ahead of their time. Words Martin Buckley. Photography James Mann.
JOWETT vs LANCIA
Compact saloon innovators from Italy and England, as Javelin takes on Aprilia
Creating a two-seater sports car, while by no means something to be worked out on the back of a fag packet, was always a relatively easy game compared to the demanding criteria of a mainstream saloon. You have to plan for the needs of at least four people in a fully productionised car, with less profit margin and more potential grief from owners who are not ‘recreational’ types but expect good service from an everyday vehicle.
This was as true 70 or 80 years ago as it is today, and probably explains why the most technically creative cars tend to have four doors and a roof. Of these significant saloons, few have had such a seamless flow from inspired grey matter to metallic reality as Vincenzo Lancia’s Aprilia and Gerald Palmer’s Jowett Javelin.
Although separated by 10 years and a World War, they always appeared to have similar appeal in both spirit and fact, being efficiently designed, aerodynamically aware 1½-litre family cars with engines positioned well forward and occupants sitting within their long wheelbases.
Lancia called the Aprilia a five-seater; the Jowett, with its bench seat and column change, could officially seat six – but think in terms of undernourished post-war chain smokers rather than today’s lardbuckets. Both offered refinement and outstanding handling from advanced suspension, with performance levels out of context with their modest capacities; 80mph and 30mpg from 50bhp was hard to find even in the mid-’50s. That was long after both had been pensioned off: the Aprilia honourably in 1949, the Jowett under a cloud in 1953, when Briggs pulled the plug on body supplies. By that time, too many knew of the Javelin’s problems with crankshafts and, latterly, gearboxes. This in a career of teething troubles that were perhaps inevitable in a car that really was all-new.
Production figures were surprisingly similar (23,000 for the Javelin, 27,000 for the Lancia), and throughout the 1950s and ’60s there were still enough of both around to capture the interest of impecunious but technically minded connoisseurs and sporty family men who didn’t want to drive a mainstream, porridgey saloon. The Lancia has to be accepted as the most ‘important’ of the two cars, in that it established so many new ideas and standards in one giant leap. Although it inherited general (and still far from common) Lancia concepts such as sliding-pillar front suspension and unitary construction from the Lambda and its successors, Sig Lancia and his team framed them in an all-embracing notion of a smaller car with a slippery teardrop shape. The light, stiff, electrically welded and stress-engineered body – bereft of a central door pillar – rode on a long wheelbase and a wide track. Its wind-tunnel-established 0.47Cd was highly impressive at the time, giving the Aprilia a futuristic profile that chimed in perfectly with the new age of Mussolini’s autostradas.
Having pioneered the compact, narrow-angle V4 layout, Vincenzo stuck with it for the Aprilia but made it crossflow- and hemi-headed with an overhead camshaft and a beautifully cast, wet-linered aluminium cylinder block. The fact that the Aprilia had independent rear suspension seems almost incidental after all that.
Rather than settle for the compromises inherent in swing-axles, the new car used a combination of trailing arms, a transverse leaf spring and torsion bars. There was extensive Silentbloc bushing and two couplings per driveshaft to accommodate wheel movement.
The Aprilia was launched at Paris in 1936. Vincenzo Lancia died in February ’37, so didn’t get to see the success of his final design, a car that set so many standards and bristled with so many fresh ideas that it easily matched the impact of his Lambda of 15 years earlier.
Some 9000 were built through to 1939, when a second series with a slightly bigger 1486cc engine was introduced, the Lusso specification being effectively standardised. In Britain, the basic Aprilia was £350 in 1938, equivalent to about £20,000 in today’s money – good value for such a capable, high-quality car.
In a way, such excellence was expected of a firm as progressive and engineering-focused as Lancia. That a car as modern and advanced as the Javelin should emerge from Jowett of Bradford in 1947 was much more of a shock. Pre-WW2,the firm had specialised in rugged, tenacious little flat-twin saloons and vans, much beloved of value-for-money-seeking northerners.
Gerald Palmer, formerly of Morris, began designing it in 1942. Its coffers bolstered by war contracts, Jowett was able to give Palmer a completely free hand to create a saloon that would appeal to the car-hungry post-war market. He quickly settled on a wet-liner, long-stroke flat-four engine for its compactness, inherent smoothness, and because Jowett had such a long history building horizontally opposed twins.
Looking to save weight – the car had to be no more than 2000lb – Palmer gave it an aluminium block; for added refinement, the long pushrods were worked by newfangled hydraulic tappets. The sleek, snub-nosed six-light body, inspired by the Lincoln Zephyr, was the first in Britain to have a curved one-piece windscreen. It didn’t go near a wind tunnel, but later tests showed that, working on instinct, Palmer’s shape achieved a Cd of 0.38 – almost a match for the E-type.
His original vision, to save on tooling costs, was to have interchangeable doors, but this would have meant the front wing line couldn’t flow into the doors. The shell, supplied by Briggs Motor Bodies, was a semi-monocoque with additional box-section structures on which the supple torsion-bar suspension was located. This, too, was designed by the versatile and underrated Palmer. He wanted 8in of ground clearance for ‘colonial’ use, and eschewed the complication of an independent rear for a solid axle located by trailing links and a Panhard rod.
John Airey’s ’1952 de Luxe is one of the laterseries cars with fully hydraulic brakes and solid tappets. It was restored in the ’90s and when he got it three owners down the line the body was holding up well, but its engine was burning oil; since rebuilding it with a reground crank, new cam and piston rings, Airey has completed 25,000 trouble-free miles. It’s worth mentioning that the Jowett Car Club is the oldest one-make club in the world and offers superb parts support. The flat-four sits in front of its radiator, with the oil-bath air filters for its twin Zenith carbs attached to the underside of the bonnet. The top of the grille rises with the bonnet; the hinged lower half can be unfastened for more involved tasks. Jowett claimed that the engine could be removed for servicing in just an hour.
You enter through rear-hinged front doors and slide on to a leather-covered sofa that can be adjusted back and forth on a handle. There is a big sprung wheel, walnut trim and an almost Mini Cooper-like set of six dials in front of the driver. Thanks to the wheelbox intrusion the foot pedals are offset, but otherwise the driving position is relaxing, with a flat floor, good views out and headroom enough to wear a trilby. In the back, you can enjoy the generous legroom, the narrow, full-width picnic table that attaches to the rear of the front seat (and lives on the parcel shelf when not in use) and the neat side armrests, removable when you want to sit three abreast.
The engine has the soft, offbeat throb of an early Subaru and quite a lot of torque, so second is more than adequate for pulling away briskly on the flat. This impression of willing smoothness gives the Javelin its likeable character and, while the contemporary acceleration figures look glacial, there is an eagerness to the car that means it doesn’t feel remotely slow in real life. If there is such a thing as a sporty column shift, this it; each gear slots home easily and positively, and the Jowett pulls strongly to 60mph in third with the ability to cruise at 70. The light, accurate steering doesn’t fight or wander, and the Javelin is nimble to handle with an easy clutch and well-spaced gear ratios – plus that lovely level ride – that would have endeared it to drivers of the early 1970s, never mind the late ’40s.
The Jowett is nicely made, but the Lancia is a more highly groomed product, full of so many delightful features – from its pushbutton fuel gauge to its pillarless construction – that you can get lost in the detail of its superb build quality. Under its centre-hinged bonnet, the V4 looks like a glossy black box, with its dynamo sticking through the radiator to save space.
Inside, apart from the vulnerable grey West of England Cloth, the cabin of this pre-war Lusso is more austerely functional than the Javelin, less airy with its blind rear quarters, but of a similar order of spaciousness at odds with the compact overall proportions. The beautiful gold-on-cream instruments could be from a watchmaker’s bench, and the speedo runs around to 150kph.
There is a chemical smell inside the car that is typically Lancia, perhaps emanating from the equally typical rubber floor mats. The delicacy of the oval rear-view mirror and the bourgeois pretensions of the braided door-pulls are at odds with the manly floor-hinged pedals, the long, chunky gearlever in its floor-mounted ball-joint and the massive handbrake; all reminders that Lancia made its real money building trucks.
To start, you press the ‘key’ – really a small metal stick – into the barrel, turn for ignition, then pull a lever under the dash to engage the starter. The V4 has a more assertive staccato beat than the Jowett’s boxer. It’s more responsive and makes throatier noises, but asks that you use the gears and rev it harder to extract performance that is roughly on a par with the English car.
This is no chore because the ’box is a delight, superbly quick once you have ascended to the hit-and-miss art of double-declutching coming down the ratios with those short, light movements. When most ordinary cars struggled to top 50mph, you could do 60 in the Aprilia’s ‘silent’ constant-mesh third with another ratio and 20mph to come. You work a little harder for the performance, but the Lancia has margins of cornering power on its narrow tyres that still impress. Its light, direct steering, its restrained body roll and its ability to take bad surfaces in its stride set new dynamic standards that even the brave and accomplished Jowett struggled to approach a decade later. Align yourself with the expectations of the 1930s and ’40s and you can see why this tautly suspended yet comfortable little saloon won so many friends, not so much for its outright speed but for the way that speed could be maintained on any type of road.
Both true sports saloons, these cars are complete designs in as much as they had their genesis in the single thought process of an individual, rather than being cynical parts-bin products designed by committee. That the Javelin got so close to the Lancia in so many areas says a lot for Jowett and the creative ingenuity of its designer. Later, he was ignominiously booted out of BMC to make way for Alec Issigonis; I can’t help thinking Palmer’s more considered, less impetuous approach might have resulted in cars that made profits rather than headlines. He ended his working life at GM, quite satisfied with his achievements. The Javelin was his finest hour and, while it doesn’t have the cachet of the Lancia, neither does it have the price-tag: our admittedly beautiful Aprilia was insured for seven times the value of the Jowett.
Thanks to Jowett Car Club (jowett.org); Thornley Kelham (01285 869791; thornleykelham.com)
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS JOWETT JAVELIN
Sold/number built 1947-’1953/23,307
Construction steel semi-monocoque
Engine alloy-crankcase, iron-head, wet-liner ohv 1486cc flat-four, with twin Zenith 30VM4 or 30VM5 carburettors
Max power 50bhp @ 4100rpm-52 ½ bhp @ 4500rpm
Max torque 76lb ft @ 2600rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones rear live axle, four trailing links, Panhard rod; torsion bars, telescopics f/r
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes hydro-mechanical drums (full hydraulic from 1950)
Length 14ft (4267mm)
Width 5ft 1in (1549mm)
Height 5ft 1in (1549mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
Weight 2380lb (1082kg)
0-60mph 22.2-20.9 secs
Top speed 77.6-82.4mph
Price new £1129/1261 (standard/de Luxe)
Price new £5-£14,000
‘The well-spaced gear ratios and lovely level ride would have endeared it to drivers of the early 1970s, never mind the late ’40s’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS LANCIA APRILIA LUSSO
Sold/number built 1936-’1949/27,642
Construction steel monocoque
Engine alloy-block, iron-head, ohc 1352cc V4, Zenith 32/VIM or 36VI-2 carburettor
Max power 48bhp @ 4300rpm
Max torque 57Ib ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
Suspension independent, at front by sliding pillars rear trailing arms, torsion bars, transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring
Steering worm and sector
Brakes hydraulic drums, inboard at rear
Length 13ft 7 ½ in (4153mm)
Width 4ft 10in (1473mm)
Height 4ft 9 ½ in (1460mm)
Wheelbase 9ft ¼ in (2750mm)
Weight 1904Ib (864kg)
0-60mph 25 secs
Top speed 80mph
Price new £355
Price new £10-55,000
‘Its impressive 0.47Cd gave the Aprilia a futuristic profile that chimed in perfectly with the new age of Mussolini’s autostradas’