Know Your Designers: Malcolm Sayer
Welcome to the latest iteration of our “Know Your Designers” series. To read about the exploits of other influential automotive designers, check out Giorgetto Giugiaro, Larry Shinoda, Marcello Gandini, and Tom Tjaarda.
Norfolk, UK, May 21, 1916
Son of a mathematics teacher, Malcolm Sayer began his college studies in Leicestershire, UK, in aeronautics. By 1933, he switched to automotive engineering. His theoretical education was supplemented by hands-on apprenticeships. After graduating with honors, he went to work for the Bristol aircraft company, helping improve the aircraft that would fight in WWII.
In the post-war period, Sayer travelled to Iraq for a university position that turned out not to exist. Instead, he worked maintaining the fleet of government vehicles. During this period, either through private study or a chance encounter with a German professor at the university, Sayer hit upon a method of modelling airflow at-speed using logarithmic math. In 1950 he returned to England and was hired by Sir William Lyons to work on Jaguar’s coming Le Mans efforts.
1951 Jaguar XK120 C-Type: Initially developed by Jaguar’s chief engineer William Heynes, with input from Rober J Knight, Sayer’s contributions to the aerodynamic aluminum skin of the C-Type made it an instant success. On its first outing, in 1951, an example won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the hands of drivers Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead.
1955 Jaguar D-Type: Built to dominate at Le Mans, the D-Type again blended together Heynes’ engineering, and Sayer’s styling. The latter’s aerodynamic expertise crafted one of the prettiest racing machines ever built and, more importantly, one of the fastest. On the Mulsanne straight, the D-Types were faster than 192 mph. D-Types won Le Mans three times between 1955 and 1957.
1961 Jaguar E-Type: Following on the heels of two highly successful racing machines, Sayer designed Jaguar’s most iconic road car. The original straight-six-powered E-Type was described by none other than Enzo Ferrari as “the most beautiful car ever made.” Sayer didn’t design the E-Type to be pretty; he claimed it was a purely mathematical shape. It’s still the standard against which all Jaguars are measured.
1975 Jaguar XJ-S: Last of the cars to be touched by Sayer’s pen, the original XJ-S went into production five years after his death. The XJ-S replaced the E-Type, and was overall a success for Jaguar, though not quite the high point the E-Type had been.
Sayer detested being called a designer or stylist, insisting that he was an aerodynamicist first and foremost. His pen and slide-ruler proved that the concepts of mathematics and aeronautics could be applied to racing machines, and were more important than outright engine power. Jaguar’s racing heritage is directly linked to his early work.
And, perhaps more importantly, so is the brand’s future. The E-Type may have been built around the slipperiest shape that Sayer could calculate, but its classic long-nosed looks would go on to inform the XK8 and the current F-Type. His masterwork remains one of the most important car designs ever produced, to the point that an E-Type is preserved by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Other notable automotive work
Developed during after-hours work at Bristol, the Gordano featured fully independent suspension, a rear transaxle, and slipstreamed bodywork. Unlike his aircraft work, the Gordano never got off the ground, but it showed that Sayer’s interest was always in cars.
The 1965 XJ13 was designed around a mid-engined, dual-overhead cam, 5.0-liter V-12. It would likely have been a monster at Le Mans, had not a rule change come into play that restricted engine displacement. Furthermore, despite the XJ13 setting an unofficial closed lap record in the UK, there is some evidence that shows it might not have been enough to beat the mighty Ford GT40. The project was shelved, and one year after Sayer’s death, XJ13 was heavily wrecked during a testing session. It has since been restored, but never raced.