Robert Joseph Knight CBE
From Drawing Office Technical Assistant to Managing Director
ROBERT JOSEPH KNIGHT, 20 SEPTEMBER 1919 – 31 AUGUST 2000
Many people will remember Bob Knight first and foremost as an outstanding chassis engineer but that was just part of his career, he largely dictated the engineering direction and character of virtually every Jaguar model from his appointment in 1944, through to his departure 36-years later.
Born on 20 September 1919, Bob Knight attended Bablake School in Coventry, going on to graduate with a BSc in mechanical engineering from Birmingham University and joining Jaguar (or SS Cars as it was then) in 1944 – as a technical assistant in the Chassis Drawing Office. He soon became a specialist in chassis development and was involved in developing the Mark V & VII saloons, together with the XK range of Sports Cars and the racing C- Types and D- Types and by 1951 he was Chief Vehicle Development Engineer.
Although it was engineer and aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer who designed the body for the C-type, it was Knight who designed the tubular chassis to take a modified version of the 3.4-litre XK engine and carry Sayer’s body.
Knight oversaw the trials of all Jaguar development cars of the period, including the XK120, C-type and the XP/11 which is regarded as the ‘missing link’ between the C-types and the D-types.
He was one the team present at the 1953 record breaking run at Jabbeke in Belgium where both XK120 and XP/11 underwent high speed testing.
He collated all the data from these tests, including the disc brake testing at Gaydon and high speed testing of the new Dunlop ‘Stabilia’ tyres at Reims, and initiated any modifications required to the cars.
All these data were pertinent to the emerging D-type design which went on to win at Le Mans in 1955, 1956 and 1957.
In 1957 Knight was in charge of the engineering work on a new small prototype, E1A, for which he designed a new independent rear suspension (IRS) setup. Knight told the story that Sir William bet him £5 he couldn’t design an independent rear suspension inside a month. Knight rose to the challenge and working Saturday mornings duly presented him a complete set of layout drawings within the month. Sir William took a fiver out of his wallet and handed it over. Knight had won the bet.
But Sir William had got a new design of independent rear suspension for £5!
The initial version of the IRS had the wheel hubs carried by twin swinging links, while the differential was mounted directly to a steel reinforced section. In trials this arrangement transmitted noise and vibration to the rest of the car (known throughout the industry as Noise, Vibration and Harshness NVH).
The decision to make the E1A into a road-going Jaguar sports car dates from around this time but it was clear that the IRS had to be sorted out and NVH minimised. The solution was to isolate the IRS and Heynes and Knight set about designing a cage to contain the suspension, the differential and the inboard-located rear wheel brakes. The cage was then fixed to the body by four angled rubber backed mountings, two on each side. This IRS setup was included in the next development car E2A and went into production on the E-type which was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1961. It was initially the style of the car that attracted attention but it was its road-holding that made it a world-beating sports car, and this was largely down to the Knight’s IRS design.
Having been proven in sportscars this went on to be fitted to the Mark X large saloon, albeit adapted to handle the 8 in ( 203 mm ) wider track, which was launched in October 1961 and then the S-type medium saloon in 1963. Knight would go on to become one of the foremost experts in the field of NVH.
Knight was appointed Chief Vehicle Engineer in 1963 – and then in 1968 came the car for which he will be best remembered – the original XJ6 saloon, which with his IRS arrangement set radical new standards in ride quality and noise suppression.
On 1st August 1969 when William Heynes retired, Knight was appointed to the Board of Jaguar as engineering director, along with Wally Hassan in charge of power train, and by 1972 he had overall responsibility for all Jaguar’s engineering programmes.
He did not only concern himself with the chassis aspects of the vehicles but became heavily involved in the Styling Studio after Sir William Lyons retired. He also took a great interest in vehicle packaging – for example on the E-type’s replacement, the XJ-S sports car he insisted that it must be possible to fit a lady’s handbag in the glovebox, and that a public schoolboy’s trunk should fit into the boot. He even made sure there was room to fit the schoolboy in the back seat of the car – something not always possible today.
Knight was responsible for most of the chassis work on the XJ-S and for modifying his IRS system for the new car. Most of the subframe-mounted suspension parts of the XJ-S were identical to those introduced on the XJ6 saloon in 1968, but the mountings, geometry and steering rack specification were modified to produce a more sporting steering response. At the front the semi-trailing wishbone and coil-spring suspension, with built-in anti-dive geometry, was retained, but the caster and camber angles were modified and a thicker anti-roll bar of 0.875 in. diameter fitted. The rear configuration remained much as first used on the E-type in 1961 with lower tubular transverse wishbones and the driveshafts acting as the upper links, twin coil-spring damper units and radius arms. To improve the roll stiffness required for that sporting response, a rear anti-roll bar of 0.75 in. was fitted to the XJ-S which the XJ6 saloon did not have.
At one point he was working on the option of an electrically controlled two speed rear axle although this never made it into production.
The Series 2 version of the XJ6 and its 12 cylinder version, the XJ12, were launched in 1973 and Knight was very proud when ‘Car’ magazine hailed the XJ12 Series 2 as the ‘Best Car in the World’. In fact when he left the company he kept the actual car that they had tested, and before he died he was proposing further restoration of it prior to donating it back to the Company.
Knight’s IRS system continued with only minor changes until XJS production ceased in 1996.
After the nationalisation of British Leyland Group in 1975, Knight fought hard with Lord Ryder to keep Jaguar engineering as an autonomous unit within the BL empire, rather than being absorbed into the Rover-Triumph office. Knight was put in overall charge with Harry Mundy responsible for powertrain development.
He often used to ponder over how his cars would be seen by the customers, typified in his mind by someone referred to as ‘the Estate Agent from Berwick-upon-Tweed’. I [Howard Snow] never did find out whether that customer was entirely fictitious.
He did not believe in using sophisticated equipment if it was not necessary. He would often send an engineer away to carry out some sort of test, and would say that if the engineer couldn’t do it, he would have to go down and show him how – with a cotton reel and a piece of string!
Bob Knight was awarded the CBE in the New Year Honours List of 1977.
In 1978 Knight was appointed Managing Director of Jaguar by Michael Edwardes, then chairman and CEO of British Leyland, and spent some time creating an organisation that was to form the basis of an independent Jaguar in later years.
Most of his engineering efforts during this time went into the protracted development of the XJ40 saloon, the replacement for the XJ6 Series 3. The Managing Director role never seemed to fit very comfortably with Knight- he was always happiest when involved with engineering and his boss Edwardes seemed to be aware of this.
In the spring of 1980 Edwards appointed John Egan as MD of Jaguar moving Knight sideways in the process and in July Knight decided to retire, with Jim Randle taking over responsibility for engineering, going on to design a completely new suspension system for the much delayed XJ40.
Of Knight’s engineering skills Randle said he was the finest engineer he (Randle) had ever met – “I learned more from that man than any other I’ve ever known”.
Of Knight’s time at the head of Jaguar while part of British Leyland, Randle was later reported to have said “I think he singlehandedly saved the company.”
Following his retirement Knight had very little contact with the company for well over 10 years, but I [Howard Snow] know how pleased he was when Nick Scheele (who was then Chairman of Jaguar) walked over and introduced himself, saying that he recognised him from the portrait on display at Jaguar. Scheele brought Knight back into the Jaguar fold, and he enjoyed going to a number of events at the company throughout the 1990s. He also then had the opportunity to try some of the company’s more recent products.
After retiring from Jaguar in 1980, Knight did not give up his engineering activities. He worked with a number of major companies including Dunlop and Rolls-Royce, and during that time he developed a new front suspension concept for front-wheel drive cars – the end result (as you might expect from him) being probably the highest standard of ride comfort from any front-wheel drive car. Once again he did most of the evaluation work with the most basic of tools – in his garage he had a lathe and a milling machine, and a crude ‘shaker rig’ for which the air pressure was supplied by a compressor-type car tyre pump from Halfords. He also worked on a project for the Rover company to improve the suspension on the Metro and try and achieve saloon car levels of NVH from a supermini sized car. A car was specially built for testing at the Rover plant at Canley in Coventry and delivered to his home. In addition to the obvious areas of engine mounting and suspension, he also turned his attention to removing vibration from pipework, cables and ancillary fittings with extensive use being made of his shaker rig. Among ex-Rover employees this project is known as the ‘Bob Knight Metro’.
Bob Knight the Person – Eulogy from Howard Snow, October 2000
Certainly those of us who have known him in recent years will remember him as a gentle, warm-hearted, generous … chain-smoker! He never married. He lived with his parents while they were alive, and he continued to live in the family house along the road here after they had both died. I [Howard Snow] believe he was devoted to his mother (who died in the ’70s) and after she died he continued to look after his father. When Bob finished work every Sunday lunchtime he would take his father out for lunch – and then take him out in the car to see somewhere different. Bob knew exactly how far an XJ12 would travel on its two tanks of fuel, and Bob’s father benefited from that to the full every week. Bob used to tell us each Monday where he had been the previous day – I remember him taking his father to see the Humber Bridge just after it was opened, and on another occasion he said he had been walking on the beach at Abersoch. I have this mental picture of Bob walking on that beach in his dark pin-striped suit, tie and braces – I rarely saw him wearing anything different, even very recently!
He had got the travel bug quite early in life – the 1940s and ’50s saw him traveling widely – to Europe, Ireland and around the UK – in a little Standard 8 Tourer. He never sold that car, and last year got it mobile again, and got it through its MOT.
As recently as the middle of August he felt well enough to be taken to retrace one of those journeys – and went to Beddgelert and Portmadoc for a couple of days. I know that he really enjoyed visiting the places that he had been to so many years before – and had some photographs from both visits to show how little things had changed. The biggest change that came over Bob was in 1975 at the time that British Leyland was nationalised – he suddenly became a master politician. He had seen the threat that Jaguar Engineering would become absorbed into a central BL organisation – and he feared that that would see the end of Jaguar. Against all odds his sheer determination won the day and he retained independence. Those of us still at Jaguar all recognise that we need to thank Bob – if he had not done what he did, then there would have been no Jaguar to rebuild and privatise in the early ’80s.
But the personality trait which caused most discussion amongst his friends and colleagues was related to Bob’s decision-making process – or should I say his lack of decision making? Bob believed that you should never have to make a decision, because that implied choice. If you had to make a choice than you clearly did not know enough about the subject, and you should go away and gather more facts until you got to the stage where there was a single inevitable conclusion to be drawn. His message was clear – don’t make decisions, come to a conclusion.
We all shared the joke with him in 1978 when Michael Edwardes introduced psychology testing for British Leyland senior managers. The Welsh psychologist who did Bob’s ‘shrink test’ reported back to him that Bob was clearly a skilled decision maker!
Illness and Death
Bob got the travel bug again in the ’90s – going further afield this time. He went to Australia for four weeks in 1996 – during which time he visited his cousin Lois in Melbourne – and he also had a holiday in New England and San Francisco in 1998 – including a flight over the Grand Canyon. His faithful camcorder seemed to be permanently attached to his right eye during those trips! He had really wanted to go back to Australia this year, but he just was not well enough for a trip of that length.
He treated his illness with his usual thoroughness – researching the subject as deeply as he could, and trying to find alternative solutions. Recently he had been considering going to a specialist hospital in Houston, Texas – but once again he never made that required decision.
In the event, the end came quite quickly on August 31st 2000, aged 81.
Bob will be missed by many people for many different reasons – whether they were colleagues, relatives, friends or loved ones. August 31st was a very sad day – and we now have to recognise that as far as this worldly life is concerned, then somewhat earlier than he would have wanted, Bob Knight has finally come to a conclusion.
Jonathan Browning, Jaguar’s Managing Director from 1999 to 2001, paid him the following tribute:
‘Bob was a talented and visionary engineer and he made an immense contribution to the development of Jaguar. His gifts as a chassis engineer established Jaguar’s world class reputation for outstanding ride, road holding and refinement.’
‘As managing director of Jaguar, he also played a major role in preserving Jaguar’s independent engineering department when the company was part of British Leyland and by doing so laid the foundations for Jaguar’s growth and expansion over the past two decades.’
- Main text reproduced with permission of Howard Snow from the eulogy he gave at Bob Knight’s funeral on 4 October 2000. Howard worked with Bob Knight during the 1970s until his retirement and kept in touch with Bob right up until his death.
- Additional information from Tony Merrygold.
© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust (unless stated)
Sources and Further Reading:
Parker, Chas and Porter, Philip, Jaguar C-Type: The Autobiography of XKC 051 (Porter Press International Ltd, 2017)
Porter, Philip and Page, James, Jaguar Lightweight E-Type: The Autobiography of 49 FXN (Porter Press International, 2017)
Harvey, Chris, E Type: End of an Era (The Oxford Illustrated Press 1977)
Mennem, Patrick, Jaguar: An Illustrated History (The Crowood Press Ltd, 1991)
Whyte, Andrew, Jaguar: The Definitive History of a Great British Car (Patrick Stephens Limited, 1990)
Hull, Nick, Jaguar Design: A Story of Style (Porter Press International, 2015)
Daniels, Jeff, Jaguar: The Engineering Story (J H Haynes & Co Ltd, 2004)
Porter, Philip, Jaguar: E-Type The Definitive History (Porter Press International, 2015)
Martin, Brian James, Jaguar: From the Shop Floor (Veloce Publishing Ltd, 2018)
Thorley, Nigel, Jaguar in Coventry: Building the Legend (Breedon Books Publishing Co Ltd, 2013)
Porter, Philip, Jaguar: Sports Racing Cars (Bay View Books, 1995)
Skilleter, Paul, Jaguar: The Sporting Heritage (Virgin Publishing, 2001)
Skilleter, Paul, Norman Dewis of Jaguar: Developing the Legend (PJ Publishing Ltd, 2017)
Porter, Philip and Skilleter, Paul, Sir William Lyons: The Official Biography (Haynes Publishing, 2001)
Wilson, Peter D., XJ13: The Definitive Story of the Jaguar Le Mans Car and the V12 Engine That Powered It (PJ Publishing, 2011)