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Ed Abbott | From Big Cats to Kittens (and everything in between…)

Ed Abbott | From Big Cats to Kittens (and everything in between…)

On a non-descript Thursday, I find myself sat in a kitchen parlour deep in East Anglia. The white-haired gentleman sat opposite me is regaling me with stories, whilst beneath my feet a pair of tiny black and white kittens knock seven bells out of each other and out of Lottie, too, the incredibly patient Collie that until now has been tenaciously pestering me to throw her a ball. Most of the narrative across the table is centred on motoring, and the table itself is filled with books on the same subject, but as I am clearly distracted by the maelstrom of ankle height activity, my host changes tack and begins to describe how the kittens were discovered abandoned in the crater of a fallen oak tree. “Their mother never returned, so we took them in and have nursed them, look, I’ve even kept a chart of their individual weights”. Said chart is proudly produced, and whilst it is concerned with small cats, it lays bare the personality of a man whose life has been spent working in a similar vein, albeit with much bigger and noisier feline creations.

That man is Ed Abbott, and many of his stories start something like; ‘so I said to Norman Dewis’, which is not a line that many can deliver with any honesty, but as one of Jaguars test engineers and an integral part of the team that delivered the XJ-S, Ed worked very closely with the legendary Dewis throughout a 15-year career at the venerable British marque. Believe it or not though, the time spent taming big cats is but a small part of the puzzle and there is much to be discussed, including Saab’s, racing, motorcycles, and wartime vehicles. Best put the kettle on then…

Ed was born not too far from where we are sitting, in the nearby port town of Harwich and the house in which he now lives was the family home, but it is a long way from Coventry, and I’m intrigued as to what led a 16-year-old Ed from the east coast to the Midlands. There was no maternal or paternal interest in motorcars or engines, indeed his stepfather had a potato farm, but this did mean there was always some farm machinery about, and Ed, who describes himself as always being fascinated by the way things worked, hadn’t even reached his teen years before he was playing with his first engine; a 150cc two stroke cradled in the frame of his Ambassador field bike.

Fate then perhaps that he should follow a career with engines at the nucleus, but at 16 he was packed off for interviews for apprenticeships at Jaguar and Vauxhall and the selection process that followed. Competition was fierce of course, and weighted towards those that were local to the firms. During his interview however Ed was asked if he maintained his own bicycle, to which he replied ‘yes, and my motorcycle and my van’, and the raised eyebrows at this point suggested that he might be on the right track to be offered a place.

Finally settled into digs in Coventry and now firmly on the Jaguar programme, the young Mr Abbott, with his long hair and hippy jeans, this was the early 70’s after all, was managing to pick up some dream ticket moves within the company. Firstly, building the V12 powerplants on a brand-new production line, that would be integral to the success of the forthcoming XJ-S. This production line represented a big investment for Jaguar, and only a few of the workforce even knew of its existence, let alone worked on it. Whilst the seeds for the XJ-S itself were being nurtured, Ed’s love of engines and engineering that had been cultivated at such a young age was now being given some clear direction. He didn’t know it yet, but this would be integral to his future involvement with motorsport.

At the time Ed was also involved in rallying and was becoming known as ‘mad-Abbott’ around the factory. Perhaps this is what led to another dream move, with a secondment to the top-secret Vehicle Safety dept, for a three month of stint of crash testing cars, specifically the XJ-S, under the project number of XJ27 – known simply as the 27 – at the time and living a very surreptitious life around the factory. An engine was needed for one of the test cars, so that the machine could be crash tested with a power plant of the correct weight inside it, all built from rejected parts. Being fresh from the production line this task went to Ed, as he constructed an engine from bits that didn’t fit and substituted engine oil for lead shot, so as to avoid spillages during the crash tests.

This article might suggest that we spoke chronologically about Ed’s career, but this was not the case, with each story shooting off at tangents and taking Segway’s into other tales almost as quickly as I could commit facts to memory. His time at Jaguar is worthy of an article on its own, and indeed the “Life and Times of Mad Abbott” would easily fill a novel. For our purposes though we must skip ahead to Ed’s arrival at the Experimental Road Test department, where he would spend the next 12 years working under Norman Dewis, developing the XJ-S. This involved everything from high-speed testing to stress testing, the development of the fuel injection system and many other components of the 27, on the road in the UK and Europe and at purpose-built test facilities such as MIRA. These tests involved long hours and high mileages, and involved lots of incremental assessment of improvements in a process that was as long as it was methodical.

Ed’s stories of this time are almost as extensive as the testing he was involved in, but at the centre of most of them is Norman Dewis, a man that Ed describes having arguments with and joking with in equal parts. He was also clearly someone who Ed had a lot of respect for and who’s work ethic no doubt left a lasting impression, particularly so when Norman pointedly told Ed he didn’t have time to continue trying to kill himself in a rally car, as there was far too much testing still to do on the 27.

Motorsport would eventually catch up with Ed again, but not until the 80’s. For now, the XJ-S was his life, although there was the opportunity to drive on track at press days, and one such day at Donington Park saw him being hauled up in front of the clerk of the course to explain why he had been drifting the XJ-S down the Craner Curves and would he cease doing so immediately as it was alarming the Marshals.

All good things must come to an end though, and with things changing at Jaguar Ed’s head was turned when his brother Lionel approached him about the prospect of going racing. Lionel supposed that Ed, with all his engineering experience would be able to make a car go fast off of the track and that he, with zero experience, was a decent driver and would be able to make the car go quickly on the track. As it happened, he wasn’t far wrong, and the brothers enjoyed a lot of success over the next decade or so. In fact, they entered some 340 saloon car races between 1982 and 1998, and they still hold the record for the greatest distance covered by a saloon car in a UK 24-hour race, completed by the pairs all conquering Sierra Cosworth in the Willhire 24 Hour Race at Snetterton. The car also won the 1988 Production Championship.

This was just reward for the effort that had been put in by the brothers in preparing a top-quality racing car, with Ed’s experiences at Jaguar ensuring that a detailed and professional approach was taken in all of the stages involved in getting a car to the track. This was still at a time when privateer ‘shed built’ racing cars, and sometimes even professional racing cars, were still rough around the edges. This approach wasn’t just ensuring success on the track but catching the eye of many potential clients and suitors as well, including the glance of the UK arm of a certain Swedish marque, Saab.

Ed remembers the relationship with Saab beginning in 1987 when Saab GB approached them about running the factory racing effort in the new Mobil 1 sponsored Saab Turbo Challenge, a BARC run championship for the Saab 900 Turbo’s. This relationship would flourish and as well as leading to ten years of racing Saab’s of all guises, both domestically and internationally, it would also be the catalyst for the formation of Abbott Saab, on the site of the old family farm in Essex.

The walls of the workshops at the family farm are filled with souvenirs of Ed’s success in racing and, just as with his time at Jaguar, the stories from Ed’s time running a racing team could write their own book. With broadcasting personality Mike Smith driving alongside Ed’s brother Lionel as well as competing against, and beating, some of the best saloon car drivers on the planet, including the likes of Tony Lanfranchi, Gerry Marshall, Rob Gravett and Tony Dron to name but a few it was a decade and half that gave Ed much satisfaction. As you may now expect, Ed has kept detailed records and files of the racing, a fascinating archive and chronicle of it all. Talking to Ed it is clear that some of the greatest satisfaction was with the application of his engineering knowledge to get the best out of the cars he was working with, and this interest in engineering and vehicle dynamics continues on with the Jaguar he now rallies, a machine he is keen to give me a ride in, a ride that does not disappoint!

As well as the ride in the eponymous XJ-S, I am also treated to a run out in Ed’s GMC wartime American Troop Transport, a beast of a machine that represents Ed’s interest in wartime vehicles, that also includes his despatch rider’s Matchless motorcycle. These vehicles have led him on adventures to Normandy, often with wife Christine, as well as to other events involving the machines and driving or riding these clearly offers up a lot of enjoyment for Ed. It isn’t just the reward of driving them though, but everything that comes with owning vehicles of this vintage, from learning the history to fettling and developing them. It seems that Ed just can’t help himself when it comes to improving upon the factory settings as it were, a fact that remains true for his modest collection of Triumph motorcycles as well.

As we sit in Ed’s garage, surrounded by these motorcycles of the past, as well as trinkets and curios from all eras of motoring, talk turns to future adventures, on two and four wheels.  “I’ve got this idea of touring every motor racing circuit in the UK on my bike, it’s a trip I’ve been trying to make happen for a while. I’m also entered into more rallies, although I prefer the multi-day ones, I like an event I can get stuck into.” With these extra-curricular activities to keep him busy, as well as the Saab business still going strong the story of ‘Mad Abbott’ still has plenty of chapters to be written. ‘A few people have said I should write a book’ says Ed, as if reading my mind, ‘I haven’t got time for that though, so I suppose it will never happen.’ Well, if it does, you can bet it will be as detailed and thorough as it is entertaining. ‘The Life and Times of Mad Abbott; An Apprentices Dream Ticket’, who would have thought it? I daresay not Ed.

Will Broadhead

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