This designer’s legacy can be summed up by those immortal words from Enzo Ferrari about the Jaguar E-Type: “The most beautiful car in the world”. Malcolm Sayer was an aerodynamicist at a time when aircraft knowledge was flowing straight to racing cars. Ask many people who he is and they probably won’t know his name, yet his design work lives on in the industry.
Born on the 21st May 1916 on the east coast of the UK whose father was a teacher of maths and art. You have to consider that those influences would shine later in life! He went to the local grammar school that his father taught at and then won a scholarship to a technical college to study aeronautic and automotive design. He left with first class honours.
From there he went to work for the Bristol Aeroplane Company to work on their flying machines. World War 2 had started and the Bristol planes were at the forefront of the fight notably the Blenheim and Beaufighter, both names ending up on a Bristol car much later. Sayer would have been working on state-of-the-art technologies for the war effort and making these aircraft more efficient – meaning faster speeds and a cleaner airflow, a common theme in his career.
After the war ended, Sayer was married and starting a family when an offer was made to go to work at the Baghdad University in Iraq. The country was just coming out of a British military occupation and so Sayer headed to the Middle East only to find that the University didn’t exist! It was actually founded ten years after Sayer arrived, although the British Council and the local administration had a plan in 1947 but couldn’t get it into action!
The plan for Sayer was to establish an engineering faculty, however that wasn’t going to happen. What to do? Sayer ended up working on the cars owned by the Government. This lasted a couple of years before he returned to Britain. It was now he started his “golden years” by joining probably the most reliable sports/racing car manufacturer at that time: the recently named Jaguar Cars. When he returned to the UK, he wanted to be a landscape artist and only applied to join Jaguar on a short term contract – simply being an artist wouldn’t have helped feed a growing family.
When he joined Jaguar, he became part of a group of ex-wartime aircraft engineers who recognised his skills in aerodynamics, materials and design. Jaguar was enjoying the success of the XK120 sports car and were keen to go racing at the top level in the Le Mans 24 Hour race. The team needed a more aerodynamic body for the XK and this was where Sayer excelled. The XK120-C, XKC or the C-Type – was born. Sayer helped the team with the smooth airflow over the body fitted to a space-frame chassis.
It was an immediate success, winning the 24 hour race in 1951 and then again in 1953. Jaguar needed a replacement because they were in a direct battle with Mercedes-Benz and to a lesser degree, Ferrari and Aston Martin, so Sayer went to work on an even more aerodynamic design: the logically named D-Type – originally a revised C-Type prototype that morphed into its own model. This car was ultra smooth and Sayer took great care to get the the airflow right with a vertical stabiliser, low frontal area and lightweight materials. Unlike the previous car, the D-Type was built around a monocoque chassis with Sayer’s bodywork fitted on top.
The car had an illustrious career winning the Le Mans race three years in a row as well as numerous other races across the world. The XKSS was meant to be a road going version, however although design features made it to the car, a fire destroyed most of the original cars at the factory. The D-Type was the sister to the road based XK140 and later the XK150.
Sayer’s next car was the one that Enzo Ferrari drooled over and it also took some design features from the D-Type. The E-Type was a very special car and replaced the equally gorgeous XK150. Design started in 1957 and the first couple of prototypes were built for racing to test the vehicle and it was released top the market in 1961. It was built through to 1975 in three series – the last being a V12. Sayer also developed a low drag coupe for testing and several lightweight versions as well.
Next on the line was the XJ13 – Jaguar’s late 1960s attempt to head back to Le Mans. Again Sayer used design concepts from the D and E-Types, using aircraft materials for lightness. It was fitted with Jaguar’s new V12 that ultimately ended up in a modified form in several models including the Series 3 E-Type and the car that Sayer had started working on alongside the XJ13 – the XJS, that would replace the E-Type.
Sadly, Sayer suffered a fatal heart attack in 1970 and never saw the XJS reach the market in 1975. There is a story that when he was in Iraq, he met an engineer who showed him how to use mathematical logarithms to define a three dimensional curve which was used in his later designs, however I suspect that this was complementary to what he learned whilst at Bristol and the combined knowledge was the key to his designs for Jaguar.
Like William Towns, who designed competing Aston Martin models, Sayer died far too young and one wonders whether the XJS would have been completely different had he finished the design and even gone on to develop the F-Type (the current car is actually Jaguar’s third attempt) or the XK8, which really was a homage by Geoff Lawson, who incidentally died at the same age as Sayer!