It’s the 21st of January 1971. On that overcast, rainy Thursday Jaguar’s chief test driver, Norman Dewis took an experimental Jaguar up the banking of MIRA’s high speed bowl; it would be the last drive of the prototype Jaguar XJ13.
“Considered by many as not only one of the prettiest cars ever built, but one of the most breathtaking sculpts of the modern age.”
Billed as Jaguar’s return to Le Mans, Jag sure had their work cut out for them, having to succeed their marvellous D-Type and compete against the might of Ferrari’s 330 P’s. Aware the tired XK engines lack of power would lead to certain defeat, Jaguar began development of a new power plant, able to give them the grunt to compete with the Italian power. Their new engine, set to be mid mounted was built to dominate Circuit De Le Sarthe but also to be toned down and used in the company’s long lineage of road cars. The product of engineer Claude Bailey, his creation, a double overhead camshaft V12 was at heart two straight-6 XK engines mated together; a Frankenstein of an engine, but one capable of kicking out 500hp. Unshackled by any form of induction, the naturally aspirated 5-litre powerhouse was exactly what Jaguar needed.
Jaguar XJ13 Engine
Knowing they’d backed a potential winner, the V12 engine and chassis were handed to Malcolm Sayer, Jaguar’s chief aerodynamicist, tasked with clothing the XJ13 in a body with one strict purpose: to win Le Mans. A man well up to the job, Sayer penned Jag’s most illustrious road and race cars including the C-Type, D-Type and E-Type, his work on the XJ13 garnering him the reinforced reputation as one of the greatest automotive artists who ever lived. Considered by many as not only one of the prettiest cars ever built, but one of the most breathtaking sculpts of the modern age, Sayer’s palindromic gem displaying a sheer inevitability to its shape, as if it couldn’t possibly have been designed any other way; a very rare trait. Designed purely for performance, the XJ13’s gorgeous body was the product of extensive aerodynamic testing, the resulting slippery body speaking for itself. Despite penning the XJ13’s sketches, Malcolm Sayer cannot be solely credited with shaping the beautiful XJ13. Its constructor, Bob Blake employed techniques from the aeronautical industry, such as the riveted bodywork to bring Sayer’s incredible drawings to life.
A cut-out diagram of the XJ13
Construction completed in March 1966, the yearlong project was bogged down by extensive wind tunnel tests and countless reshapes and tweaks, by which time engine capacity rules were introduced, effectively banning the XJ13’s huge V12 from competition. With Ford dominating the endurance scene with its monstrous GT40, The XJ13 was outclassed and outgunned, spiralling the car into obsolescence. The Jag’s inability to race, combined with more importance being placed on developing the V12 for use in the Series III E-Type sadly closed the book on Jaguar’s Le Mans comeback.
Norman Dewis just before the XJ13’s crash.
The XJ13’s final nail in the coffin came just before launch of the V12 E-Type. Jaguar, eager to promote the E-Type’s link to its thoroughbred racer wheeled the one off XJ13 out of hibernation to shoot a promotional film at MIRA’s high speed bowl. Having set an unofficial lap record at MIRA of over 160mph during development, a record which would stand for over 30 years, the XJ13 was well at home at MIRA. Norman Dewis, Jaguar’s chief test driver was tasked with driving the car during filming on the day, inadvertently totalling the prototype racer. Norman Dewis recounted the crash a number of years later, staying:
“On the last fourth lap, I passed the camera, come off the banking down the railway straight, got onto the bottom banking and got about halfway round. I’m pulling around 146mph, the car suddenly lurched, hit the fence and careered off the banking. Of course I realised that something had gone on the back here cause the car was at 45 degrees. My head was over and the screen pillar went straight into my helmet. I pulled my helmet off and was now heading for the infield. I can’t control anything. It started to lift, so I switched off the ignition and got down into the passenger side, tucked in and the thing went across the infield just like a ball. About two or three nose and tails and then four to five side rolls.
The Jaguar XJ13 after crashing at MIRA. Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust
Whilst the XJ13 sustained heavy bodywork damage, Norman Dewis was thankfully unhurt, even returning to work the day after the tumble bearing nothing but a couple bruises. Lacking seatbelts, Norman was incredibly lucky to not have been thrown out of the XJ13’s Barchetta-style roof, very lucky to escape with hardly any injuries, let alone his life. Heavily damaged and without a concrete reason to restore the wreck, the remains of possibly the most beautiful Jaguar ever made were rather unceremoniously dumped into a lonely corner of Jag’s experimental department; the cars resting place for two years.
The XJ13 during its restoration at Abbey Panels.
In 1973 whilst on a tour of Jaguar’s experiential department, Edward Loades of coachbuilder Abbey Panels, spotted the XJ13’s corpse and offered to rebuild the car. Having produced the bodies for Jaguar’s C-Type’s and D-Type’s, Abbey Panels were well up to the task of giving the XJ13 a new lease on life. The careful restoration was conducted as faithfully to the original car as possible with help from the Jaguar Heritage Trust and the original XJ13’s team members behind them. Despite the severity of Dewis’ crash, the majority of the XJ13’s damage was cosmetic, meaning the mechanics of the XJ13 could be kept resolutely original. Making very slight alterations to the XJ13’s appearance, Abbey Panels flared the wheel arches to decrease overheating.
The XJ13’s interior after restoration.
Whilst the XJ13’s days of achieving immense success on the track were over long before the car first turned a wheel, the XJ13 stands today as a fascinating example of Jaguars history and engineering prowess, let alone one of, if not the prettiest cars ever made.