“THE CAR IS THE CLOSEST THING WE’LL EVER CREATE TO SOME THING THAT IS ALIVE” — SIR WILLIAM LYONS
Many in the classic car industry have accepted challenges and achieved their ambition to create something to look back on with pride in later years. Despite the odds, they succeeded in creating something of beauty in metal.
From a discreet workshop in Gore, Brian Dwyer has put into reality his passion for Jaguar’s C-type sports cars. The result has been cars with stunning looks, that still possess levels of handling and effortless performance impressive even by today’s standards.
“There are not many 1950s sports cars that not only look good but also handle and perform well. The C-type Jaguar does all these very well,” Brian said.
Designed for one thing — to win at Le Mans — they were a car of their time when the prestige of winning the great 24-hour race was enormous. Yet Jaguar’s William Lyons took some months of persuasion before he recognized the importance and prestige of this race for the company he created.
‘Lofty’ England, the driving force behind Jaguar’s racing programme, saw the opportunity. In 1950, he travelled to Le Mans with Jaguar engineer Bill Heynes, to watch the 24-hour race. Along with Claude Bailey and Walter Hassan, Heynes saw at first-hand the potential of his new engine to give Jaguar success at Le Mans. Three of the new Jaguar XK120S prepared at the factory, but privately entered, took part in the race, and acquitted themselves well against mostly mundane opposition.
Birth of a legend
Heynes and England were convinced that using the XK engine in a streamlined bodyshell and lightweight tube racing chassis was the way to go, and, following the launch of Jaguar’s new Mk VII saloon, they finally convinced Lyons to get involved. With the help of Bristol aircraft aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, they set to work, and development began with the team of Claude Bailey, Bob Knight, and Tom Jones. Engine testing was done by Jack Emerson, with the team supervised by Phil Weaver.
Initial test driving in 1951 was done at nearby Lindley airfield, by Ron Sutton. Then, in 1952, the legendary Norman Dewis came on board as the main test and development driver, beginning a long association with Jaguar.
The cars were entered as Jaguar XK 120C private entries, in the names of Stirling Moss, Peter Walker, and Leslie Johnson — that way, Jaguar would not look quite so bad if there was any negative publicity. The other drivers were Jack Fairman, Clemente Biondetti and Peter Whitehead.
On race day, the three Jaguars were running one-two-three by 8pm. Not long after, Biondetti brought his car in with no engine-oil pressure. It was discovered that at a certain high rev, an oil pickup pipe had broken due to vibration. The other cars were instructed to keep their revs down, but both eventually retired with a lack of oil pressure. So, it was left to the Walker-whitehead C-type to carry the flag, having finished with a great win first time out for Jaguar the previous year.
That 1952 year was a low point, with the new bodywork contributing to overheating. Later testing identified a number of areas where modifications could correct the issues. For the coming season, Jaguar reverted to the earlier body shape.
Jaguar was back with a vengeance for the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans, this time along with disc brakes and three side-draught Weber carburettors lifting power to 164kw (220bhp), tried for the first time. These modifications contributed to the win in the hands of Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt — the first time disc brakes had been used in an application on a race car. C-types also romped home in second and fourth places. It was the beginning of Jaguar’s remarkable run of wins at Le Mans.
The Jaguar C-type was last run in the 1954 Le Mans by the Ecurie Francorchamps team, driven by Roger Laurent and Jacques Swaters, and placed fourth.
Lofty England remarked in an interview with Jaguar Quarterly in 1991, “This was a remarkable achievement in the first race for a car designed, built, and developed by so few people in so short a time, and at minimal cost.” By then, it was time for another legend — the Jaguar D-type.
Recreating the legend
The build of a complex recreation in hand-formed aluminium is a challenging prospect. Gathering together all the parts to make it as close as possible a representation of the original great Le Mans–winning sports car is no easy task. Accomplishing that successfully in a location far from main centres, in a small country, thousands of kilometres away from where the originals were created, is an example of sheer tenacity and a good bit of Kiwi ingenuity. Brian Dwyer has those attributes and a lot more, along with close family support from his wife Susan and son Simon, who are also involved in the daily process of recreating these great cars.
Brian learned his trade at Vincent panel beaters in Alexandra, Central Otago. A move to Mandeville, near Gore, to work at vintage aircraft restorer The Croydon Aircraft Company proved to be the turning point, as creating complex curved panels for the likes of vintage De Havilland aircraft furthered Brian’s ambition to build a C-type Jaguar. I asked Brian, why a C-type?
“They just look right. I love the C-type shape, which is very different to the D-type. They just seem to have more practical appeal as a road car, too,” he said.
Time to get serious
The time had come to make some serious decisions as to the future direction of building these cars. Brian took the courageous decision to go out on his own, building them full time. Interest from buyers appeared to be there. He took on the challenge in what was a huge leap of faith in a relatively unknown market and at a time when classic motoring was certainly not as well-developed or as popular worldwide as it is today.
I first caught up with Brian in early 2002, while I was working for a rural newspaper. Vintage aircraft fascinate me, and I had
been covering a story on the Mandeville Fly In, an annual event that attracts vintage aircraft from all over the country to the grass aerodrome north of Gore, in eastern Southland. It’s run as a country fair– style celebration of aircraft and cars, and participants gather where the Croydon Aircraft Company is located on Mandeville aerodrome. Company owners Maeva and Colin Smith introduced me to Brian, and I was immediately impressed by the quality and skill of his aluminium work on these aircraft. Brian also talked to me about his Jaguar C-type project. As I have a distinct liking for Jaguars, and own a couple of them, the project attracted my interest.
Working with Invercargill Jaguar enthusiast Neil Robertson, Brian began developing a car. Neil later moved on from the project, but Brian continued, determined to get the first car up and running — and he achieved that in 2003. It looked the part, even in its raw aluminium state, and it sounded great.
When Brian made the move into his own premises at Gore, I kept in touch as the design progressed. I was amazed that such craftsmanship could come from the tiny section of building in which Brian worked, in Gore’s central warehouse area. It seemed hard to believe that the amount of work being done at that time was down to just one person.
“I consulted a business advisor and he told me I needed to get a partner if I was going to make this work and get ahead,” Brian said.
Coventry Classics — partnership
Brian discussed the possibility of a partnership with Otago Jaguar enthusiast Mark Paterson. Mark proved an ideal choice, as he not only had a passion for Jaguars, but also the engineering background, contacts, and skills to build the business. Mark admits to having spent far too many weekends attending Jaguar car club events in England, where he worked as an engineer from 1979 to 1990. He said that it was while in England that he developed a strong liking for both C-type and D-type Jaguars. Mark returned to New Zealand, and since 1990 has been involved with Southair Ltd, a Dunedin aircraft maintenance and restoration company. Coventry Classics was formed out of the partnership between the pair. Today, Mark is still based in Dunedin, with Brian building the cars in a larger Gore workshop at 20 Oldham Street.
“We do the bodies, chassis, and assembly here, and Mark overhauls the engines in Dunedin. He also takes care of the parts ordering and sales enquiries, so it takes all that work off me, which is great,” Brian said.
Last year, Coventry Classics built its 26th C-type Jaguar — the blue car shown in the accompanying photographs. Another six bodies were built, and two-thirds of a body was built for an owner who wanted spare front and rear sections in case he damaged the bodywork while racing his car.
“We build three models of C-type — 1951, 1952, 1953 — and two types of car,” Brian explained.
The tool-room copy of the car is exactly the same as the original C-type. The company also builds a car that conforms to New Zealand rules and regulations for compliance. The tool-room copies have remanufactured versions of the first disc brakes ever made, which were used in the Le Mans–winning XKC 003, and again when it raced in the Mille Miglia in 1952. Brian pointed out the subtle differences seen on Jaguar C-type bodywork, which were not always obvious and could vary from race to race.
“At Le Mans, the XKC 003 had triangular vents, but for the Mille Miglia they cut those out and fitted a triangular panel and rectangular vents, which have been copied. Cars for New Zealand roads used Jaguar XJ6 disc brakes, a smaller fuel tank, and a stronger rear frame to mount retractable lap and diagonal seat belts — or a four-point racing harness if desired — and a collapsible steering column. Other than that, they are the same as the tool-room copy,” Brian said.
One car, finished in 2016 and now with its new owner in New Zealand, was displayed at the Southern Electrical Autospectacular 2016 in Dunedin. Another recently completed car will soon head offshore.
The under-bonnet look was nothing short of impressive, as was the overall attention to detail on this car
This example came with a 3.4 Jaguar engine fitted with triple Weber carburettors. The engine was mated to an American-sourced Tremec five-speed manual gearset, with drive through an adapted Mk VII Jaguar differential. Assembly work was carried out locally, with Russell Keeler Motors rebuilding the gearboxes and differentials. The CNC cutting work was carried out by Heat Treatments, Auckland, and Coventry Classics’ aluminium sheet was sourced from Australia.
The under-bonnet look was nothing short of impressive, as was the overall attention to detail on this car, painted in a delicate blue based on the colours of Scottish racing team Ecurie Ecosse. Chassis tubes, torsion bar suspension, and panels follow the original cars in layout and design, to be exactly the same as the original, but using modern materials. With all the local input in these cars, it was not surprising to find that the upholstery work and trimming were done just up the road from Gore, by Balfour upholsterer Sue Clearwater.
“Sue was in the upholstery section when I was at Vincent panel beaters, and she does a great job,” Brian said.
Refinement and reliability
Coventry Classics has come a long way since its first car, which I drove in 2005. Since completion of the first C-type in 2003, improvements have been made — such as Koni adjustable shock absorbers and Jaguar XJ6 brakes. Other than that, the cars are similar to when Jaguar raced them in the 1950s.
All suspension components are machined from solid billet to the original dimensions and specifications for safety. Developments designed to cure oil surge in New Zealand– specification C-types — a problem discovered when the cars were raced with standard Jaguar engine sumps — have been successful, and there is no longer a problem.
Mark has the challenging job of sourcing the correct parts for each project from all over the world, and ensuring they arrive on time. The replica market has undergone a change in recent years, and buyers are not content with being disappointed by what they see when they lift the bonnet, particularly if the engine bears no resemblance to the original item. There is an expectation of top quality for what in most cases are recreations of considerably increasing value.
New Zealand craftsmen are developing an international reputation for high standards, and getting very good at creating accurate reproductions of very high quality. This was evident in the Coventry Classics car displayed at the Autospectacular.
Coventry Classics is still very much a family business, its members sharing a passion for creating classic Jaguars, and the future of this Gore-dunedin–based company looks positive. There are exciting developments, too, with good interest in E-type Jaguar work, especially the impressive-looking ‘ lightweight’ body designs that the company also builds — an increasingly popular model in current classic racing.
Proof is in the driving
They have such an appealing shape, but what are these cars like to drive?
Firstly, the Malcolm Sayer– designed bodywork has that lovely swooping nose with a small Jaguar grille down low in the middle. The impression is of something very curvy and wind-cheating. Not quite so confidence inspiring is the fact that you have to judge where the nose ends, as you cannot see it. Secondly, these cars are quite low, and overall they don’t take up much space, which makes it even more a surprise that Jaguar managed to squeeze in such a big, tall engine. The car is quite beautiful, even in the raw aluminium state.
Coventry Classics’ first C-type car was completed in 2003. The one I drove in 2005 was fitted with a 3.8-litre engine and triple side-draught Weber carburettors. The impressive under-bonnet appearance was something else. Jaguar engines always looked impressive, with their polished alloy camshaft covers, but this one looked even more ‘the business’, with that bank of three carburettors. Small alloy doors allowed easy access, and once behind the wheel there was plenty of room. The cockpit was well laid out in familiar Jaguar style, with the small aero screens, and you could easily spend many enjoyable hours behind the wheel. A period touch was the little panel to the lower right, housing six ‘cold grade’ spark plugs to be used when racing got serious. The other quirky item was the centrally placed hand-operated dip switch for the headlights, something you don’t see in modern cars.
Firing up the big six emitted that typical Jaguar bark from the side-mounted exhausts, with a quick blip provoking the instant response of revs and gulping of air from the Webers less than a metre away. Clutch action
was light and on the move, the ride was firm but not harsh, and it felt as if it would be an interesting open-road experience. Throttle response was instant, and you needed little throttle around town. Steering was surprisingly light and direct, with very small movements of the wheel to gain an instant change of direction. It pointed and steered exactly where you wanted it.
This was just a big fun drive, not at all what I expected from something designed in 1951. Even the gear-change was quite quick — something not always experienced in Jaguars, and a characteristic for which they are often maligned. The latest gearboxes are even better.
Out on the open road this was one quick car, getting to the speed limit in a very short time. It never felt overpowered, but that Jaguar engine certainly could pull in every gear with an impressive surge of power. The drive took me over sealed roads north of Gore, through rolling hill country with some tight corners, and included a series of terraces. The ease with which it handled these made this a very enjoyable drive, without too much buffeting in the open cockpit. The brakes were hugely powerful, and a light touch had any speed scrubbed off quickly. Pure fun!
It was very easy to see why owners of these classics enjoy driving them, with the level of handling and that magnificent Jaguar growl. It was fun to change down just to hear that impressive motor working hard alongside the deep suction of the Weber carburettors.
That particular car went to Australia, and was sold late last year by its first owner. It had completed more than 30,000 miles (50,000km) in his hands, and competed many times at events in Australia such as the Bathurst Classic and Speed on Tweed.
Brian recounted how at a race meeting an enthusiast asked the owner of the C-type what he did to prepare the car, and was somewhat taken aback by the owner’s reply that he “just washed it!”.
These are impressively well-built cars, with great attention to detail in the finish. They are beautiful to drive, and they really are a slice of the Best of British from a much less complicated era. They truly recreate the car that won first time out at Le Mans, and established Jaguar’s racing reputation.
As Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons said, “It doesn’t cost any more to make something pretty!”
Proud team, from left: Brian Dwyer, Simon Dwyer, Andrew Goble, Daryl Scott, Susan Dwyer, and Evan Henderson
Racing in the rain: NDU 970, the real thing, a former 1953 reserve works C-type for Le Mans, it first raced in that year at Silverstone, driven by Stirling Moss — Photo Chris Perrett
A fantastic example of optimum aerodynamic design