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The oddest of oddballs

From the side, it looked like a rocker with a mullet. From behind, like a dog squatting. Decades after its demise, the Jowett Javelin still intrigues Jonathan Meades

 

Jonathan Meades | May/June 2013

Sixty years ago, at the moment of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the ancient ceremony was shared by means of the apogee of technology, a flickering, 405-line broadcast received on a Bakelite box. The whole of Britain was gloriously united in an access of monarchistic fervour. Even carmakers were united, though they were otherwise in a state of utter confusion.

At virtually every other time in the century of internal combustion there had existed a broad consensus about what a vehicle ought to look like: design was (and is) afflicted by a marked homogeneity. Yet in the 1950s it was touched by an individualism that in retrospect appears both heartening and foolhardy. This is made manifest in the coronation edition of the Motor, from May 20th 1953, where the car trade pledges its Brylcreem’d fealty through, among other things, illustrations evoking the first Elizabethan age (the crew of Drake’s Golden Hinde, offering trinkets to native Americans) and exciting drawings of the valve springs and friction-type suspension dampers of tomorrow. The industry was in a quandary. Should its designs look back to the stately shapes derived ultimately from carriagesof which the coronation coach, drawn by eight Windsor greys in bling-strewn harness and Versace blinkers, was merely an extreme form? Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler, Alvis, MG and, of course, Bentley and Rolls-Royce were still producing cars of a distinctly pre-war mien, as unyielding and pompous as a statesman in a wing collar and pince-nez.

Or should its designs not only reach into the future but be seen to reach into the future? Jensen, Bristol, Aston Martin, Vauxhall, Austin Healey and some Fords embraced an unashamed modernism, even if in the instance of Ford and Vauxhall that modernism was a trashily cosmetic lift from America.

The most fascinating cars at the beginning of this momentous reign were, however, the vehicles which wanted to have it both ways, the chancers’ hedged bets which, accurately if inadvertently, reflected the peculiar cohabitation of an anachronistic hereditary monarchy and a supposedly egalitarian welfare state. (The anachronism has fared better.) None was more fascinating than those made by the firm of Jowett, founded during Edward VII’s reign.

The Jowett brothers had begun in a shed in the Bradford suburbs. Their pre-second-world-war vehicles did not have ambitions far beyond the shed. They were gauche, indeed they resembled the homemade "specials" that enlivened Britain’s weekend roads before the Ministry of Transport quashed further individuality. One is touchingly called the Jowett Weasel.

Jowett’s post-war vehicles share nothing with these save eccentricity; though given that there was no norm, no real centre to diverge from, "eccentricity" is strictly incorrect. The Jowett Jupiter was a weirdlywrongly?proportioned sports car whose designer had worked for Auto Union, the forebear of Audi. The manner in which the body sloped from the high point of the radiator grille to the low boot is an apologetic anti-climax. But the Jowett Javelin!

To a small boy who discerned something approaching personality in cars, the Javelin was the ne plus ultra, the very oddest ball in an era of oddballs. Its design, by Gerald Palmer, was at once streamlined and squat, dashing and matronly. Although no taller than most cars of the era, its emphases were atypically vertical, bringing to mind a sit-up-and-beg bicycle. From the side the unbroken curve of the roof and boot was precursive of the mullet hairdo of 30 years later. Viewed from behind it recalled the back and haunches of a large, lean, smooth-pelted dog squatting to relieve itself. Nothing added up. The unities were not adhered to. It contradicted itself. And that of course was the infuriating attraction: it did not yield to the infantile obsession with pigeonholing. The practice of classifying is one of the means by which we begin to understand the world. Where did the Jowett Javelin fit?

Its shape has close correspondences with near-contemporary European models: Panhards, Peugeots, Volvos and the Skoda 1101 Tudor (whose name was not a homage to Elizabeth I but a play on "two-door"). And at a further remove the Javelin is a weight-watcher cousin to the porkily bulbous American limos that lumber through 1940s film noir. That is apparent today. But in the early 1950s, everyday saloon cars did not migrate in the way that luxury vehicles were inclined to. Had European cars then been as commonplace in Britain as they were to become, the Javelin would not have belonged to a school of one. Its curious looks might even have been legitimised, normalised. It might not have been reckoned so wayward after all, it would not have given the impression of being a troubled loner. There is comfort in numbers.

The year of the coronation proved to be the penultimate of the Jowett’s existence. At least it didn’t suffer the indignity of becoming a victim of "badge engineering", of being swallowed by the leviathans of corporatism such as BMC or Ford and kept alive in name only. It was merely put out of business by them, as were many others. That was commerce. That was also the triumph of homogeneity. 

Pictured The contradictory Javelin in 1951, three years before its makers went out of business

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