Whatever kind of car you drive, you can probably thank Norman Dewis for the way it stops. Jaguar chief test driver and development engineer for over 30 years, Dewis played a crucial role in the development of early automotive disc brake design, contributing to technology that’s since saved countless lives.
He passed away over the weekend aged 98, and although the work on these braking systems was arguably the most significant accomplishment of his career, Dewis filled his near-100 years on Planet Earth with a ridiculous array of achievements.
By the time he joined Jaguar in 1951, Dewis already had a significant amount of automotive industry experience, interrupted by a spell in the RAF as a Blenheim bomber gun turret in World War II.
He helped develop the C-Type and D-Type Le Mans-winning racing cars, the former he competed in at the 1952 Mille Miglia alongside Stirling Moss. The D-Type meanwhile he raced in the fateful 1955 running of the endurance race, leaning on the disc brakes he helped develop at speeds approaching 200mph.
Dewis was also a record-setter. In 1953 he clocked blasted down a closed section of motorway in Jabbeke, Belgium, aboard a modified XK120 he was bolted into under a perspex canopy pinched from a glider. This didn’t deter him from keeping the throttle pinned - in the end, he set the production car speed record of 172.4mph.
The MIRA test track was effectively Dewis’ office, where he’d often rack up 500 miles a day, most of which were covered at high speeds. The work wasn’t without its dangers - Norman once suffered a rear wheel failure aboard a Jaguar XJ13 prototype at 135mph, leading to a huge barrel roll he somehow emerged from uninjured. Despite not wearing a seatbelt…
One of Dewis’ most famous feats involves a big road trip. After extensively testing the then-new E-Type, he took one on a 700-mile overnight journey from Coventry to the Geneva Motor Show, just in time for the car’s big reveal. He drove for 15 hours straight, stopping only for fuel.
Even after retiring in 1985, Dewis remained close to Jaguar, appearing at many of the company’s events over the years. In 2012, he took part in the modern-day Mille Miglia with Moss. Even into his 90s, he showed no signs of slowing down.
Rest in peace, Norman - you’ve left one hell of a legacy.