As part of my research into Jaguar’s XJ13, I came across the story of the man largely responsible for making the original body – Bob Blake. What follows is the story of a man able to translate the designs of people, such as the legendary Malcolm Sayer, into metal. Contemporaries of Bob Blake described him as “An Artist in Metal”.
Blake was born in 1916 at the Fort Totten Sioux/Dakota Indian Reservation, Elbow Woods, North Dakota, USA. The original Reservation at Fort Totten was located near Devils Lake. After 1905 almost half the land was sold to the Government and opened up for white settlement.
The young Bob Blake took up panel beating as a hobby and was entirely self-taught. He taught himself to weld at the age of 19 and a lifelong interest in racing cars and their construction began.
After entering the services he visited the UK in 1942 with the US Third Army where he met his future wife, Jean. At the end of the war he returned to the US and set up a workshop building sprint and race cars – including midget racers. He didn’t only make bodies, he also lent his hand to making parts such as chassis, fuel tanks, radiators, steering and almost everything else. As his skill and reputation grew, he progressed to work on Indianapolis cars for racers such as Ted Horn and Tommy Hinershitz. One of his early commissions was to manufacture parts for Alec Ullman’s Alfa Romeo – Ullman, a Russian-born MIT graduate went on to found the Sebring 12-hour race in 1950 in an attempt to rejuvenate sports car racing in the US.
Bob Blake remained in touch with Ullman and received a phone call from him in 1950 during a visit to the UK. Ullman told him that Briggs Cunningham had entered two Series 61 Cadillac Coupe deVilles at Le Mans – one with a standard body and the second with a streamlined body. Howard Weinman, an aeronautical engineer, was tasked with streamlining the Cadillac. Weinman began by testing designs in wind tunnels. The resulting design was wide, had a low center of gravity, aerodynamic, and lightweight due to an aluminum body. Many people agreed that the appearance was not favorable and it received the name ‘Le Monstre’ by the French press. During preparations for the event, the standard car had been driven into the back of ‘Le Monstre’ and both needed urgent repair.
Bob Blake immediately flew out to Le Mans and worked non-stop without sleep for 48 hours to repair the cars. He succeeded with only minutes to spare before scrutineering.
In the race, Cunningham and Phil Walters were the drivers of the ‘Le Monstre’. The coupe was driven by Miles and Sam Collier. The traditional sprint start, where the drivers sprinted to their vehicles, revealed the doors were locked. The problem was able to be solved by reaching in through the window and unlocking the door – not a good way to start a race! On the second lap, ‘Le Monstre’ lost control and ended up in a sandbank where it sat for twenty minutes before Cunningham could dig it out. ‘Le Monstre’ was now four laps behind. The Coupe had a bit of misfortune as well. Part way through the race, it had to come to a complete stop while a stray dog made its way across the track. Later on in the race, it barely made it back to the pits due to low fuel. When the checkered flag fell, both cars were in impressive standing. ‘Le Monstre’ had battled its way back from 35th place to finish in 11th. The coupe was in 10th after averaging 81.5 mph per lap. To finish the race was a major accomplishment, a testament to both driver and car. Their accomplishment was even more significant since the Coupe had lost its first and second gears during the race.
Cunningham’s ambition was to win at Le Mans with an American car and, to this end, set up a company in 1950 with Alfred Momo. Bob Blake’s efforts at Le Mans had clearly impressed Cunningham and he employed Blake in his new company – giving Blake overall responsibility for building his Le Mans contenders. Bob Blake built every Cunningham car until the closure of the company in 1955. Although Briggs Cunningham never realised his ambition, he did come a creditable fourth in his Blake-built C-4R in 1952 and finished a respectable third in 1953 behind the winning Hamilton/Rolt Jaguar C-Type.
Briggs Cunningham held Bob Blake in high regard and, when he closed his company in 1955, he wrote a glowing reference for the jobless Blake:
” … He designed and built all our competition cars that raced at Le Mans from 1951 thru 1955, doing most of the work himself. He is one of the best aluminium welders and formers in the USA, and we found him invaluable in our racing department. Bob is a most efficient worker, and a real artist in sheet metal work of all kinds.”
“His character is excellent, and his interest in his job profound. He loves racing cars of any kind, and is a wonderful man to have in the team at races, as he can make all manner of alterations and repairs very quickly, when the need arises. Bob was one of our most valuable team members, and I would highly recommend him to any firm or individual looking for one of the best body men in the world today. His loyalty is outstanding, and I frankly hate to lose him.”
Bob Blake had come into contact with people such as Lofty England and other racing team members whilst racing with Cunningham and so was already known to them. In November of 1955 Blake joined Jaguar and began an association that continued for more than twenty years.
One of Blake’s first responsibilities was to convert the stock of obsolete D-Type racers into road cars – the XKSS cars. He altered the D-Type body and added parts such as bumpers and hood frame. In his own words, Bob Blake said,
” … I made all the frames and bits and pieces, including all the wooden tools to make everything from. I made the first set of bumpers by cutting down the big old bumper, using the top radius and the bottom radius, cutting the flute out and welding the two pieces together.”
Bob Blake was a likeable character who forged relationships with William Lyons and Malcolm Sayer amongst others. Bob worked very closely with Sayer and was able to decipher his mathematical representations of compound curves and produce panels from the data. Malcolm Sayer’s way of working was a longhand precursor of the digital CAD techniques used today and he was very much a pioneer in this field. It is pleasing for me to realise that I am using today’s equivalent of Malcolm Sayer’s calculations in the construction of my XJ13 recreation. Sadly, neither of these two gifted individuals are still around to lend the benefit of their expertise.
After the XKSS, Bob Blake worked closely with Malcolm Sayer in the production of the first E-Type prototype – E1A. Indeed, Bob Blake went on to play a major part in producing the E-Type coupe. Working with an E-Type roadster, he tried different roof treatments within the Competition Department. He said, ” … I had a body in the Comp. Shop … I took a whole mess of 1/16 steel rods and did a profile, a side elevation of the screen and the roof, flowing into the tail. I’d got all this tacked up and Sir William walked in the door.”
“The Old Man looked at it and boy, he liked it. He fell in love with it the minute he walked in the shop. Lyons studied the mock-up for some time in silence, walking around it. He said to me, ‘Did you do this, Blake?’ I said ‘yep’. He responded ‘Its good. We’ll make it!’ “
In 1962 Bob Blake became involved in the car that represented Jaguar’s hope to return to racing – the Lightweight E-Type. Peter Wilson, in his book “Cat Out of the Bag” (available from Paul Skilleter Books at /www.paulskilleterbooks.co.uk) reports,” .. It was early October (1962) when Bob Blake and Geoff Joyce started work on the first bodyshell. Malcolm Sayer, our aerodynamicist and designer of the D-Type monocoque, had meantime designed an aerodynamic package, consisting mainly of a special coupe top, with the combined objective of reducing both the aerodynamic drag and the frontal area. Malcolm’s drawings contained no lines per se, but consisted of a matrix of dimensional points defined in three planes from a common base reference point, which defined the outer surface of the skin panel. His method was unique in the motor industry, but more commonplace in the aircraft design world.”
“Malcolm claimed he had been taught this mathematical method of complex surface definition by a German, when they spent a few days together in a tent in the desert, during his time working in Iraq at Baghdad University, soon after the war. It was a system that was relatively easy to use; just a case of marking out the points defined by the co-ordinates on a sheet of plywood, cutting it out, then assembling each piece relative to its datum on to a wooden base and, ‘hey presto’, you had a complete skin former…”
Malcolm kept his method of mathematically calculating complex surfaces close to his chest … from Malcolm’s drawings, Bob and Geoff, together with Sam Bacon, built a wooden ‘egg-box’ former for the coupe skin.”
Similar documents have survived – defining things such as the windscreen profile, suspension and steering points etc. Data from these are being incorporated into the digital model which will be used to manufacture a similar “egg-box” former for my XJ13 recreation.
In 1965 Bob Blake worked on the XJ13 project. His method of working is best described by Peter Wilson, ” … As our surface table was not large enough, or indeed remotely suitable, Bob Blake, Geoff and Roger built a rigid wooden platform on which to build the XJ13 monocoque … First they constructed a perimeter wooden frame from a 6×4-inch timber, cross-braced at intervals along its length. This was topped with 3/4 inch thick plywood sheet, which they then marked out with ’10’ lines to enable accurate positioning of each of the myriad of construction reference points defined by Malcolm Sayer’s ‘drawings’ “
” … the monocoque was constructed almost entirely from NS4 2 percent magnesium and 2 percent manganese, half-hard alloy sheet, mostly of 18 swg thickness (0.048 inches), together with some sheet steel pressings in areas of high and concentrated stress, such as the main engine mountings and front suspension attachment areas.”
” … The floor section and outer sills were formed in two halves and were joined along the centre line of the car with an overlapping, joggled joint and a double row of rivets. The inner sill panels were made up and these, together with the internal half-rounded section inner sill stiffeners, four per side, were assembled to the floor section. At this point the whole job was shipped over to Abbey Panels at Exhall on the outskirts of Coventry for the inner and outer sill joints to be roller welded using their specialised equipment. … This was then the sole contribution Abbey Panels made to the construction of the original monocoque. With this operation completed and the basic foundation of the monocoque firmly in place, construction proceeded apace with Bob, Geoff and Roger fabricating the majority of the panels and rivetting these in place, while the rest of us helped out with the simpler body items.”
Peter Wilson talks of Bob Blake in his book, “Cat Out of the Bag” and Bob’s personable character shines though. “… Bob Blake was a totally unique talent. He was a hands-on man, who also had a superb eye for style. Not only could he create a vision of shape and style, but he could then actually make it. He was the ‘complete’ body man and Jaguar were lucky to have his talents … Bob was a super bloke, modest, self assured and always helpful. He did not suffer fools lightly and many is the time whilst I attempted some sheet metal work he would appear at my shoulder and say, ‘Not like that you silly shit! Here, let me teach you how to do it properly.’ And with great patience he would do just that.”
Rather amusingly, Peter Wilson talks of Bob Blakes “Secret Project”. It seems that Bob Blake became rather more industrious than usual and was seen to be squirrelling various car components into the Competition Shop. The secret was eventually revealed to be his personal Ferrari project – a rather mangled 250 GT. The car was soon transformed by Bob into a beautiful blue car – complete with engine rebuilt at home by George Buck! Bob continued his interest in buying and repairing crash-damaged Ferraris and in the 1970s could be seen driving one of his three Ferraris – a 365 Daytona and two GTB 330s.
Described by his other contemporaries as a “delightful gentleman”, Bob Blake retired to Northampton in 1978 with his wife and kept his hand in by fabricating small projects such as motorcycle fuel tanks for friends.
This talented key player in the story of Jaguar and the XJ13 passed away on 26th August 2003 at the ripe old age of 87.
The words Jaguar, Jaguar XJ13, XJ13 are used in a historical/descriptive context and in no way suggest our recreations/replicas are approved by Jaguar. It is widely known that there was only ever one Jaguar XJ13 and any others can only ever be replicas, facsimilies, tributes, recreations, toolroom copies or similar.