On a Spring day in 1970 Malcolm Sayer suffered a fatal heart attack on the main street of his adopted home town Leamington Spa, he was 53 years of age. In the years since his death, his achievements as a designer have been celebrated locally by the erection of a Blue Plaque on his former home in Portland Place. His genius had long been recognised by his peers in the automotive industry but was and is largely unknown by the lay public.
School & College
Malcolm was born in Norfolk at 45 St Mary’s Road, Cromer on 21 May 1916. He was a precocious schoolboy and at the age of nine passed what was then called the scholarship exam, the equivalent of today’s eleven plus. His scholarship pass took him to Great Yarmouth Grammar School where his father Gilbert taught mathematics and art. He developed a particular interest in maths, art and science which he probably inherited from his father. At the age of seventeen he won a British Empire scholarship to Loughborough College to study Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering. At Loughborough he was secretary of the College Motor Club and editor of the College Magazine. He graduated in 1938 with a first class honours diploma in Automotive Engineering and joined the Bristol Aircraft Company at Filton.
Bristol Aeroplane Co.
On the outbreak of the Second World War he was exempt from military service by virtue of being in a Reserved Occupation engaged in essential work for the war effort. At Filton he was involved in looking at ways of improving the design and the operating efficiency of Bristol aircraft notably the Beaufighter and the Blenheim.
His time at Bristol enabled him to hone his skills in aerodynamics as applied to mechanical design; expertise which was to stand him in good stead in later years.
Marriage & a sojourn in Iraq
Malcolm married Patricia Morgan at Bristol Register Office on a bitterly cold February day in 1947 during the ‘Big Freeze’ winter that year. He made his vows dressed in a duffel jacket with his brother-in-law’s flying jacket underneath for good measure. The following year he went out to Iraq to set up the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Baghdad which Malcolm soon discovered existed only on paper rather than as buildings and plant. After two years in Iraq, he and Pat and their baby daughter Kate returned to England and he joined Jaguar the Coventry- based car maker.
Jaguar Cars had been founded by William Lyons as an offshoot of the Swallow Sidecar Company which he had set up in 1922 in partnership with fellow motorcycle enthusiast William Walmsley. Bill Lyons was managing director of Jaguar and his management style was best described as autocratic. He was very much ‘hands-on’ and is said to have been responsible for the styling of all the early Jaguar models although he was never a trained draughtsman. At that period new models were designed mainly by the use of full- scale, three dimensional mock ups which were continually modified by craftsmen as directed by William Lyons after he had critically examined the mock up. Interestingly, Lyons who was later knighted, also had local connections having lived until his death at Wappenbury Hall a few miles from Leamington. Malcolm Sayer joined the design team at Jaguar and later became Director of Design. The Jaguar team was committed to challenging the supremacy of Mercedes and Ferrari in the design and production of sports/racing cars. With his grounding in aerodynamics he was well versed in using log tables and the slide rule to plot complex shapes on the drawing board. A far cry from Bill Lyons’ ‘build it and look at it’ strategy. His arrival at Jaguar gave rise to a period of unqualified success both commercially and on the motor racing circuits of Europe. He was responsible for the design of a string of cars each of which was the product of his application of aviation industry engineering knowledge to the design brief.
The C, D and E- types
His first design for a sports racing Jaguar was the C-Type which went into production in 1951 and won the Le Mans 24 hour race at the first attempt and then for a further three years. When Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt won the race in 1953 it was the first time Le Mans had been won at an average speed of over 100 mph.
Further success came in 1954 with the production of the D-Type Jaguar with bodywork designed my Malcolm. The D-Type won the Le Mans race in three successive years and in 1957 D-Types took five of the top six places at Le Mans. On the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans the D-Type could achieve a speed in excess of 194 mph.
The Jaguar E-Type was first released in 1961 and became the car with which Malcolm will for ever be associated. Enzo Ferrari a motor racing legend and Jaguar rival described it as ‘the most beautiful car ever built.’ The car is considered to be a bench mark in automobile style and an E-Type is on permanent display in New York Museum of Modern Art alongside a caption which reads… ‘Sayer uniquely blended science and art to produce timeless shapes of exceptional and enduring beauty. He brought science to the art of car design; and scientifically produced works of art’.
Malcolm Sayer had many talents aside from his unique contribution to the design of high performance motor cars. He was by all accounts a brilliant cartoonist, an intuitive musician and multi instrumentalist and very much a family man. The words that appear on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral in London could have been written as an epitaph for Malcolm Sayer, they read ‘If you seek my memorial look around you’.
Alan Griffin, March 2014