Most sadly, we’ve seen the passing of three great motor racing characters in recent weeks, each of them with close links – over many decades – to Goodwood. They were racing car designer, engineer, entrepreneur and businessman Robin Herd CBE, New Zealand racing mechanic and founder member of the Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Team Wally Willmott, and Jaguar’s chief test driver and sometime works team racing driver, Norman Dewis OBE.
Saying goodbye to legends: Norman Dewis, Wally Willmott and Robin Herd
Herd entered motor racing as newly-engaged designer of the earliest true McLaren cars back in 1965, working for Bruce with Wally Willmott. They tested repeatedly, and frequently, at the Goodwood Motor Circuit. Dewis was of a much older generation, and while he worked every day on development of Jaguar’s competition cars he also passengered Stirling Moss in the works C-Type in the 1952 Mille Miglia and was reserve works team driver of the D-Types at Le Mans. And, in 1955, he co-drove both the works D-Type at Le Mans with Don Beauman, and Jack Broadhead’s private D-Type in the Goodwood 9-Hours, sharing it with Bob Berry to finish fifth overall.
While Robin has died aged 80, Wally was 78… and little Norman a full twenty years older, at 98.
Robin Herd was very much a multi-talented man. He graduated from St Peter’s College, Oxford in 1961 with a double first in physics and engineering. He became a scientific officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, working on the Concorde supersonic airliner project. In 1965 his boyhood school friend Alan Rees told him of a design vacancy with Bruce McLaren’s infant racing team. He applied, hit it off immediately with Bruce and his American business partner Teddy Mayer and so began a 30-year career within the racing world.
Robin was ferociously bright, clear-thinking, and a hard worker with a good practical sense which pragmatic Bruce greatly encouraged. For McLaren he used his aerospace experience to design the McLaren M2A and F1 M2B single-seaters using Mallite aluminium/balsa sandwich material to create an unusually light yet rigid monocoque chassis structure. He created the M4 F2 single-seater, the M5A BRM V12-powered F1 car and the wonderful Can-Am Championship-winning M6A sports car. Every one of these designs was developed and proven in prolonged Goodwood testing over which Robin would preside with Teddy and Bruce. The gorgeous, exquisitely well-made Cosworth DFV-powered M7A F1 design followed, carrying Bruce and Denny Hulme to Formula 1 victories and fully establishing McLaren as a Grand Prix World Championship-challenging force.
But in 1968 Robin joined Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin at Cosworth to design a four-wheel-drive F1 car – and to learn at Duckworth’s side. That programme proved to be ahead of its time, and Robin linked with Rees, Max Mosley and production manager Graham Coaker to create the March Engineering team in 1969. Each partner put £2,500 into the start-up kitty, and amazingly the opening Grand Prix of 1970 saw no fewer than five March 701 cars on the starting grid. And Jackie Stewart in the Ken Tyrrell-entered car won the first two F1 races of that year, and Chris Amon in the STP-backed works March won the third…
While Robin had designed the original 701 in haste against calendar constraints, his 1971 March 711 with its radical aerodynamic form, was far more daring and less successful, though Ronnie Peterson in his first full F1 season ended the year runner-up to World Champion Stewart. March built Herd-designed or master-minded cars for Formula 2, F3, Formula Atlantic and any other category capable of delivering a profit. Niki Lauda made his name in an F2 March alongside Ronnie, James Hunt made his name in Lord Hesketh’s private March 731 in 1973, Vittorio Brambilla won the 1975 Austrian GP in a March 751 and Ronnie Peterson the 1976 Italian GP in a March 761.
The European Formula 2 Championship fell to March drivers Jean-Pierre Jarier (1973), Patrick Depailler (1974), Bruno Giacomelli (1978), Marc Surer (1979) and Corrado Fabi (1982). When Formula 3000 replaced F2 in 1985, March chassis continued to dominate with Champions Christian Danner (1985), Ivan Capelli (1986) and Stefano Modena (1987).
Robin had bought out Max Mosley’s March shareholding in 1987 to become in effect sole owner. After three years out of Formula 1, March returned in 1981 – unsuccessfully. From 1987 to ’89, backed by the Japanese Leyton House concern, Robin’s Judd-engined 881 was amongst the best of the atmosphere-induction engined runners, driven by Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin.
Minor-Formula racing car production had delivered small profit margins. Into the 1980s Robin developed a more profitable market in American IndyCar and IMSA sports car racing. The Indy ‘500’ was a March preserve for five consecutive years – 1983 (Tom Sneva), 1984 (Rick Mears), 1985 (Danny Sullivan), 1986 (Bobby Rahal) and 1987 (Al Unser). Amongst those cars the 83C had Robin’s last design before he entrusted the task to Adrian Newey.
In 1986 Robin was awarded his CBE for services to the British motorsport industry. In 1987 he floated March Engineering on the Unlisted Securities Market. Despite the flotation going well, Robin sold out to Leyton House, establishing a design office in Bicester. He also pursued another of his sporting interests by acquiring Oxford United FC.
Robin Herd’s sometime team-mate Wally Willmott had been the very first man hired by Bruce McLaren when he founded his racing team, back in 1963. Trained as an auto electrician, Wally had raced and hill-climbed his own 500cc Cooper in his native New Zealand, and first got to know Bruce as a like-minded friend. In 1962 he followed the works Cooper driver to England and became a mechanic for the Tommy Atkins High Efficiency Motors team. Wally attended the 1962 Monaco GP on attachment to the works team, and Bruce won the race…
Wally worked with Bruce on his Tasman cars for racing in New Zealand and Australia during the European winters, and when Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd was formed for the 1964 Tasman Championship series, Wally was engaged alongside American Tyler Alexander. Wally was Bruce’s mechanic, Tyler was team-mate Timmy Mayer’s. Bruce won the New Zealand GP, Timmy also shone, but crashed fatally at Longford, Tasmania.
Wally and fellow-Kiwi Howden Ganley built the first prototype McLaren M1A sports car, followed by the first McLaren M2A single-seater Firestone-tyre test hack.
Wally remained with McLaren until early 1968, later living and working in Australia on various projects. He became an enthusiastic sailor, before finally resuming racing back in New Zealand, driving Brabham BT21 in Historic events, while also preparing cars for others. Wally returned to Goodwood for the Revival Meeting, running Jay Esterer’s potent sports cars most notably in the Lavant Cup race. Wally epitomised the immensely capable, likeable, admirable backbone of hardcore motor sport – very much one of the great normally unsung heroes who provide the superstars with the tools they need to excel…
Diminutive little Norman Dewis of Jaguar fame was a great character who became a great friend and supporter of Goodwood over so very many years. As Jaguar’s chief test driver from 1952-85 he was responsible for the development of generations of that great marque’s products. After retirement until very recently, this irrepressible energetic, bright and sparkling gentleman served as a globe-trotting Jaguar ambassador. He enjoyed few things more than publicly promoting the brand he so obviously loved.
Born in 1920, Norman left school when his father died in 1934. Aged only 14 he went to work to provide for his family. After first experience of the motor industry with Humber, he joined Armstrong-Siddeley and began test driving. Upon the outbreak of World War in 1939 he joined the RAF. His small stature made him an ideal air-gunner and he flew many missions with the vulnerable Bristol Blenheim bomber force, emerging as one of its few surviving aircrew.
Post-war he resumed test-driving, briefly with Lea-Francis before joining Jaguar in late-1951. There he was on the disc brake evaluation and development team, leading to his being chosen to accompany Moss in the Mille Miglia C-Type. When they were forced to abandon the race, they were running third.
He became a trusted and integral part of the factory test and works racing teams. He reckoned to have totalled some 1,250,000 testing miles around the MIRA test track, maintaining an overall average speed above 100mph. He survived at least three big accidents there, in C-Type, D-Type and – most famously – in the XJ-13 rear-engined sports-prototype. Each time he tucked himself down in the cockpit as the cars rolled and somersaulted, and escaped serious harm. He would grin “…a cat with nine lives, that’s me”.
One famous drive was when he was told late one working day that the press department’s E-Type was required at the Geneva Salon for breakfast. He covered the 760 miles in 14 hours before spending all next day driving journalists around the mountains.
After forced retirement in 1965 he spent the next 40 years as a Jaguar ambassador, and was awarded the OBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours List. Norman has been rightly described as being “genial to a fault and a born raconteur, but with an inner steel you couldn't miss”. His recollections didn’t always quite chime with proven fact, but his stories were always highly entertaining, and his grasp of fine mechanical detail quite remarkable.
To the families and many, many friends of Robin, Wally and Norman, Goodwood Motorsport offers its most sincere sympathy and condolences. These great men all left footprints in our history. We will remember them…
Photography courtesy of GP Library and Revs Digital Library.
Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.
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