On my way home to Tairua several years ago I went by a local park where six or seven Jowett Javelins and Jupiters were gathered alongside a couple of vintage Bradford trucks, also built by Jowett. Even though I was in a hurry, I had to stop. I got out and walked over to a red 1951 Jupiter to get a closer look.
An older gentleman sauntered over and introduced himself and his car. It turned out I was speaking to Major John Holloway, retired, formerly of the British Army. He looked as if he’d been sent over from central casting at a film studio with his handlebar moustache and his ramrod-straight military bearing. He told me that he lived across town, and that his mates in the Jowett Car Club would be convening at the local pub that evening. I was invited to come and hoist a pint with them.
So, after dinner I put on my cap and took off to the pub to see my new friends and their unique cars. The Major introduced me around, and then we had a chat. Turns out he had been a paratrooper and after he retired, missing the adrenaline rush of throwing himself out of airplanes, he decided to try auto racing. He campaigned a Jaguar XK120 for a few years, and then sold that and bought the Jowett.
He had raced all over New Zealand in classic events for years, and was having a great time. I knocked back a pint in order to get up the courage to ask the Major if I could have a spin in his Jupiter. I told him for whom I toiled, and at that he agreed to let me take his speedy steed for a drive.
It turned out to be an ideal situation because noted American automotive photographer, David Gooley (who was also in New Zealand on vacation), came along with me a couple of days later. We met the Major at the park and he took me for a jaunt through the surrounding hills to show me what his vintage Jupiter could do in capable hands. I was duly impressed. He knew right where to put it, where to brake, and when to step on it. Then it was my turn. The Major had a big grin on his face as if to say, “now let’s see what you can do” as he handed me the keys.
The Jupiter sits very low, so I had to bend down to reach the door handle. You don’t climb into a Jupiter, you slip into it like you would a bathtub. But once in, its bench seat was roomy and comfortable, if a bit upright. Its dash had a full array of easy-to-read, business-like Smiths gauges as well, and everything was close at hand.
I twisted the key and hit the starter. The engine coughed to life and settled into an idle with a somewhat agricultural sound, but revved freely when given a taste of petrol. I pulled it into gear and we were off. The column shift was on the left side of the steering wheel but the shift linkage was tight and precise, making quick gear changes easy. Steering was rack-and-pinion with two and a half turns lock to lock, so the Major’s Jupiter was very responsive, though not twitchy.
Braking was good thanks to the car’s Girling dual-bore master cylinder, large drum brakes and a light overall weight of only 962kg. The Jupiter has torsion bar suspension all around too, and this example was set up very well for brisk cornering. The front torsion bars are longitudinal, the rears transverse. After a few tentative turns I picked up the pace and got more daring. The Major was not impressed. He said, “Go ahead and put the spurs to her.” I followed orders, and the sleek red Jupiter stuck to the road in the corners at speed without a hop or bobble.
I attribute this to the car’s very low profile, lightweight tubular chassis, and the overhead valve, all aluminum flat-four boxer engine that is nestled down into the front suspension. Both engine and transmission are mounted quite low in the chassis, to the point that the driveshaft actually goes above the bottom steel tube frame rails until it meets a universal joint amidships on its way back to the differential.
Because of this unique configuration, post-war Jowetts were put together upside down on the assembly line until it was time to add the body. Holloway’s Jowett had been set up for racing of course. Its engine had been punched out to 1640cc from its stock 1496cc displacement and as a result, when encouraged, it made a raspy roar and put you back in your seat on launch. Holloway also added a fiberglass bonnet and front guards to make the car’s front end lighter, and so he could preserve its original tin bonnet in pristine condition.
The Jupiter is a mélange of cutting-edge technology and ancient anachronisms, as are many British cars of the era. If something was good, the British stayed with it. For example, the dashboard is just that – a board. It’s handsome enough, but more typical of a car from the ‘brass’ era rather than the 1950s. Also, its engine is a derivative of an ancient flat two-cylinder motor the company started building in 1906, an engine that was used to power generators as well as small cars and trucks before WW2.
It does not have a water pump, but relies on thermo-siphoning for cooling. In order for that to work, the water passages are generous, and the radiator sits up and behind the engine. As the coolant water gets hot, it rises up into the radiator and then trickles down and cools before returning to the engine. Early Model T Fords and WW1 Renault taxis in Paris were designed this way, as were early ‘Bulldog’ Mack trucks; but most manufacturers moved to water pumps and radiators up front by the 1920s.
However, the primitive system is simple, and the Major’s Jupiter did not overheat while we were flogging it through the hills around Tairua. The Major told me that this peculiar engine arrangement had caused confusion in petrol stations in the past though, because pump jockeys who were not familiar with the car had been known to take the oil filler cap off at the front of the crankcase in order to add water, thinking it went to the radiator.
In 1901 the Jowett brothers, Benjamin and William, along with Arthur V Lamb, began manufacturing two-cylinder engines for motorcycle and industrial purposes in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. They registered as the Jowett Motor Company in 1904. Their engines were well designed and rugged, and some of them even found their way into various car makes of the time.
The company built their first complete car in 1906, but most of the firm’s time was occupied with their industrial and motorcycle engines, so they didn’t get into full car production until 1910. Their first machine was powered by an adapted version of their little 816cc industrial engines, and sold reasonably well. But then WW1 came along and the company was entirely given over to producing utility engines for the military. After the war, Jowett resumed making light cars and vans with whimsical names – Weasel, Kestrel, Plover and Peregrine – that sold reasonably well into the 1930s; with sales of about 3500 being a good year for them.
And then, in 1935 the brothers retired, with Charles Calcott Reilly taking over. Soon after that, WW2 came along and once again the factory was turned over to war production. The company grew exponentially in order to provide the Admiralty with Jowett flat-twin generator motors, growing to 2000 employees, working three shifts to meet demand. As the war started to turn in Britain’s favour, Calcott began thinking about what the post-war situation might look like. He guessed correctly that the UK would be facing some lean years, and that his best option was to try for the export market – mainly to the USA.
He hired Gerald Palmer away from MG to develop the forerunner of the Jupiter, the Javelin. The post-war Javelin, a handsome six-passenger saloon, was their main project – and the Jupiter roadster was derived from it. The Javelin looked like a smaller version of the pre-war American Lincoln Zephyr sedan, with a tall pointy nose and tapered fastback rear end. Briggs Motor Bodies built the unitised bodies for the Javelins, and later the Jupiters as well. The Javelin’s engine was essentially an enlarged and updated version of the same basic power plant that the company had been building all along.
It is a 1496cc fourcylinder, opposed, overhead valve design with an aluminum crankcase. It too sits low in the chassis, and uses the same torsion bar front suspension that was later adapted to the Jupiter. This made for a roomier passenger compartment and gave good handling characteristics. Also, the Javelin’s tall, rugged suspension was ideal for Britain’s rough rural roads.
The Javelin debuted on a rainy day in the 1946 Motoring Cavalcade around London. Initially, sales and production were slow. A few Javelins were built, mostly for the USA market, but the Jupiter was already on the drawing boards, and there were high hopes for the future. After all, if MG’s warmed over pre-war TC could sell well in the ‘States, surely a refined, modern, post-war sports car would be a sensation.
By the time a Javelin sedan won its class in the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally, Professor Robert Eberan von Eberhorst had been hired, and was already putting the finishing touches on the new Jupiter roadster. Eberhorst had designed the pre-war Auto Union D Grand Prix racers, and would go on to create the Aston Martin DB3S and later become part of the Ford GT40 programme.
Jowett’s new Jupiter was low and sensuous, with a tapered rear end, and was well appointed for a sports car, with its roll-up windows and exterior door handles. The windscreen was removable for racing and a Jupiter won its class in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans, the first time it was campaigned.
It then went on to win the 1951 Lisbon Rally outright, and again won its class at Le Mans in 1951. The later sports racing Jupiter R-1 repeated that win in 1952. The Jupiter was available in both left and right-hand drive, and was advertised in the USA using such catchy phrases as – “British engineering brains have built a record breaker” and “Can you really handle a European race-bred car?”
Road & Track magazine reported 0-60mph in 15 seconds, a top speed of 90mph and 24-28mpg. The Jupiter turned out to be very competitive in 1500cc racing, though it was also comfortable for daily drives with its big windscreen attached and its roll-up windows.
So why isn’t the Jowett Jupiter as well known and revered today as contemporary offerings from MG, Triumph, Sunbeam and Jaguar? The answer is that Jowett was small potatoes within the British auto industry, which was overly abundant with small potatoes, and they did not have the economy of scale that the bigger carmakers enjoyed.
Also, the Jupiter was more of a touring car than the MGs and the Triumphs of the time, and was better appointed. This meant its selling price was perilously close to that of the legendary Jaguar XK120, a car with iconic styling, a dohc six-cylinder engine, and legendary race-winning reputation.
Jowett built the Jupiter from 1950 through 1954, and Major Holloway’s is a 1951 model SA. The ‘S’ was for ‘sports’ and the ‘A’ indicated the first series models. The chassis number, 454R, indicates that it is a right-hand drive version (‘R’) intended for Commonwealth countries. The K 1A second series cars of 1952 added a boot lid for access, but Major Holloway’s 454R only had a small opening at the rear for the spare tyre.
However, a fair amount of storage in the rear could be accessed from behind the seat. Three lighter sports racers were also built between 1951 and 1952 and one of these won its first race at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1951. Though the Jupiters were competitive on the track, they didn’t catch on in the United States, and neither did the rather handsome Javelin sedan.
Americans wanted big, heavy, comfortable cars for daily use, but would usually opt for an MG or Triumph if they wanted to go ‘hay bale’ racing. And if they could afford more, they generally chose a Jaguar or an Alfa Romeo. In the end, Jowett ran into difficulty securing Javelin bodies from Briggs in 1953, and the company was eventually sold to the USA company, International Harvester, who used the plant to make tractors until 1980.
The last gasp for Jowett came in 1954 when a fibreglass-bodied Jupiter R-4 was offered with overdrive and a top speed of 100mph. Unfortunately, only three were built. After our test drive around the Coromandel, we put the Major’s Jowett away and stuffed ourselves into my 1966 Morris Minor convertible and retired to the pub to listen to the Major’s tales of derring-do – jumping out of airplanes in South East Asia, and then retiring to New Zealand to take up racing at such circuits as Pukekohe, Taupo, and Teretonga.
Sadly, Major John Holloway passed away a few years ago, and his Jowett went with his eldest son back home to England. ‘The Major’, as he was known in Tairua where he lived for many years, added a welcome dash of glamour and excitement to this laid-back resort community and he is sorely missed, as is his red Jupiter, ripping and rumbling along Ocean Beach Road around sunset.
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