John Blatchley 1913 - 2008
by Martin Bourne
John Blatchley, the Chief Stylist of Rolls-Royce from 1950 to 1969 died peacefully on 15 February 2008 in a nursing home in Hastings at the age of 94. During his time with the company he was responsible for all the four-door 'standard' cars from Silver Dawn to Silver Shadow and Bentley T Series, the R Type and S1 Park Ward Continentals, two-door Silver Shadow, and the Rolls-Royce Phantom V. It was a busy period for the Crewe Styling Department, for in addition to the above, which were seen by the public at large, there were a great many more experimental designs that were not. After twenty nine years with the company, John left Crewe for the south coast in 1969 and never returned.
John was born in London in 1913 and, as a child, very soon developed a fascination for the motor car, and this, coupled with a natural artistic flair, led to him being accepted into the Chelsea School of Engineering and later the Regent Street Polytechnic. There he received a thorough grounding for the career in designing the finest cars in the world for which he will ever be remembered. He was barely into his teens when he began a portfolio of pencil perspectives of futuristic car designs, and it was this that impressed A F McNeil, Chief Designer at London coachbuilder Gurney Nutting, to such an extent that John was offered a post there. He proved an apt pupil over the next two years and when McNeil left to join James Young, John became Chief Designer. He was just 23.
On 3 September 1939 the world changed forever, and the following year in an attempt to stay in touch with the motor car world John moved north to join Rolls-Royce. Alas, for almost five years, motor cars would have to wait, and to his dismay he was put to work on aero engine installations under Colonel Fell in the Powerplant Engineering Department at the company aerodrome at Hucknall.
Fell had foreseen the need for a quick-change standard Merlin power module for multi-engined aircraft containing everything between airscrew and firewall, and John's first responsibility at Hucknall was the design of its close-fitting cowlings. Unfortunately, the Mark II Beaufighter on which it was first used was not a success, suffering serious directional instability, but the prompt availability of Col Fell's 'universal power egg' was to save the day when Hives took the momentous decision to replace the Avro Manchester's pair of troublesome Vultures with four Merlins. This resulted in the finest heavy bomber of the war, the Lancaster, and with the Merlin installations virtually ready to bolt on to a suitably extended mainplane, delays were cut to a minimum.
The new aircraft was flying by January 1941 and in Squadron service only eleven months later. Its performance too was impressive from the start, having a maximum 23mph higher than the similarly powered Halifax, though whether that was due to the lower thrust-line or John Blatchley's slippery cowling shape is not known! Nevertheless, he was to say many years later that his time at Hucknall was "..the most miserable of my whole working life. I hated working on anything to do with aeroplanes!"
It was in 1944 that a motor car Styling Department was established at Clan Foundry, Belper. Ivan Evernden was put in charge of Bill Allen and Miss Cecily Jenner and the brief was to create a new body shape for the company's first standard four-door car, the Mark VI Bentley, the body-in-white to be manufactured by the Pressed Steel Company. Despite furious lobbying, it was 1945 before John was at last able to turn his back on aeroplanes and join Ev's department, by which time styling work on the Mark VI exterior was virtually complete, so his influence was restricted to a few details about which he was said to have held quite strong views. These included exposed door hinges, which he felt should never be seen on a high quality car such as this, and in a commendably short time he came up with a workable concealed hinge. John also styled the complete interior.
The wartime shadow factory at Crewe became the new Motor Car Division and the new car entered production there in November 1946. Back at Clan Foundry attention almost immediately turned to its future replacement - the Bentley Mark VIII - and work continued until September 1951, when the Styling Department moved to Crewe. It was here that Evernden, now approaching retirement age, was put in charge of Special Projects, and John Blatchley was promoted to replace him as Chief Stylist. Now established in a bright and airy first floor office facing beautiful Cheshire countryside, the three-strong Styling team set to work with renewed enthusiasm.
There were two priorities at this time. To counter criticism of the limited boot capacity of the Bentley Mark VI and its new stable-mate the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, the back-end was to be extended and given a more convenient lift-up boot lid. The car's length and visual balance was further enhanced by the introduction of an optional two-tone paint scheme and from now on the Bentley version became known as the R Type.
The other longer-term priority was to continue work on that car's successor, and Blatchley introduced enough significant changes for it to be re-named the Bentley Mark IX. It was then that Chief Engineer Harry Grylls felt that this ‘mark number’ business had really gone quite far enough, and that in future experimental projects should be named after exotic far-eastern countries instead.
Thus the Bentley Mark IX became "Siam", and "Siam Dawn" (or Siam 'D') in its Rolls-Royce form, and this was the car that was introduced to the world in April 1955 as the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and Bentley S Series. Although a little conservative under the skin (a conventional chassis was retained and although the Jack Phillips V8 engine was well advanced it was decided to stick with the trusted in-line six for the time being) its external appearance was breathtakingly perfect from every angle. "Just what a new Rolls-Royce should be," was the universal verdict, and in later years those responsible would have been propelled on to every chat-show and newspaper front-page in sight. Except that fifty years ago things like that were not done, especially at Rolls-Royce. Indeed, it is very doubtful if anyone outside was even vaguely aware who had created this beautiful motor car, which is just as John would have wanted it. In August 1956 a group photograph of the Rolls-Royce Design staff was taken outside the main entrance - with one notable absentee! "Oh, they don’t want to see me!" was John’s reply.
Back in 1950 when still at Clan Foundry, John Blatchley had worked with Evernden and Stanley Watts of H J Mulliner on the styling of their Continental, the first Bentley to bear the name. Then in 1952 it was decided to give John overall responsibility for all Park Ward styling - that company having been owned by Rolls-Royce since before the war. His first Park Ward project was the comparatively rare R and S Type Continentals in both hard-top and drophead forms. Assisted as ever by Bill Allen and Miss Jenner, John was also responsible for 'Aspidistra' that was introduced in 1959 as the Park Ward Rolls-Royce Phantom V.
Much has been written recently about the Silver Shadow, and for many this will be the car for which John Blatchley will mostly be remembered. For reasons many and varied, like the Merlin aero-engine before it, the birth was long and went through many stages. The first lines went down in 1954, but the car was not to be launched for another ten years, during which time everything except the doors had been altered, sometimes two or three times. On the other hand, when creating anything time is the enemy, together with the constantly nagging thought at the back of one's mind that there is always a better way. So through those ten years covering the on-off-on-off history of the project, hardly a day went by when some small detail of its appearance was not being considered. Again, how right the car looked when it finally did appear, and for once John was persuaded to participate in the Press Launch. However feelings were mixed at breakfast the following morning on discovering that the only paper to feature him was the rather frivolous tabloid Daily Sketch.
The Silver Shadow and Bentley T Series were in production for no less than sixteen years, and even when replaced in 1980 still looked good, the only real dating feature being the flat side-glasses. How John would have loved to have gone curved, but that was a luxury the company quite simply could not afford. The Silver Shadow, together with the Bentley T Series was, however, a great success. It was elegant and again looked absolutely right from all angles.
In 1958 the department was augmented for a short time by a freelance stylist, Vilhelm Koren, who was contracted to design a new Park Ward S2 Continental for introduction in 1959. Working at breakneck speed, the quarter-scale plasticine model was carved and fully drawn in no time, after which his work was approved and he left Crewe for the Park Ward factory at Willesden to oversee the manufacture of a prototype. Later he was contracted to style a two-door GT car, code-named, not surprisingly, 'Korea'; but after only one prototype it fell by the wayside when the car on which it was based was cancelled. When John left Rolls-Royce in 1969 it was Vilhelm who was offered his job, only to turn it down – by now he was happily lecturing on furniture design at the Royal College of Art and a return to the delights of Crewe did not really appeal to him.
Personnel changes in the Styling Office were rare, but in March 1959 Miss Jenner was finally persuaded to retire and was replaced by a twenty year old Engineering Apprentice who had already spent some time in the Body Design Department, was keen on motor cars and could draw a little. This was Martin Bourne, who was to stay for thirty three years.
In 1962 the department was heavily involved with a series of special projects in conjunction with the British Motor Corporation when several BMC production cars were examined as a possible basis for a future high-volume Bentley. The exercise produced half a dozen or so design studies, and although interesting at the time, not surprisingly, came to nothing. The only result of this unlikely union was the unloved Princess R, a 3-litre Austin Princess powered by the 4-litre Rolls-Royce aluminium six cylinder F-engine, or as someone in Experimental put it, "a silk purse of an engine in a sow’s ear of a motor car".
John Blatchley ran Styling at Crewe for eighteen years, and although quarter-scale modelling, measuring, drawing and sketching were generally done by the others, it goes without saying that John never lost his touch and was quite capable of turning his hand to anything should the need arise. The internally-lit six-inch high royal crest that plugged into a special socket above the windscreen of HRH Princess Margaret's special Silver Shadow, which John hand-carved from solid perspex over a single weekend was a case in point. It was the most exquisite piece of craftsmanship.
In those happy far-off days before "Design by Committee", all major styling decisions were made in the office around the model by John himself, Managing Director Dr Llewellyn-Smith and Chief Engineer Harry Grylls. Here were three gentlemen in quiet and thoughtful discussion, all deeply aware of the importance of Styling and the vital role it played in selling the product to the right people. Never was a single voice raised in anger.
But over the eastern horizon clouds were gathering and all this was to change. In 1968 both "Doc" Smith and Grylls reached retiring age and suddenly were gone, their places taken by three very different people from Derby with orders to "go and knock Crewe into shape." The comfortable working relationship John Blatchley had always enjoyed with senior management evaporated over night as it soon became clear that from now on Styling was nothing more than a hindrance in making things cheap and easy to build. An utterly pointless exercise prompted by one of the newcomers to "tart up the Shadow’s back-end a bit, can’t you?" fortunately came to nothing, but slowly and surely John's world was beginning to crumble around him.
Then to the surprise of no-one but to the regret of a great many, especially those who worked for him, one day in March 1969 - and without saying goodbye to anyone - he slipped quietly out of the main gate and turned his back on Rolls-Royce for the last time.
Prompted by the failing health of his devoted wife, Willow, within a few weeks the family had left Crewe for a new life on the south coast at Hastings, where he steadfastly set out to sever all links with his past. But this gifted and modest man was not to be forgotten, and twenty six years on, thanks to the unceasing efforts of his friend David Hodgeton, John was finally persuaded to visit the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts' Club at Paulerspury. It was an unforgettable occasion, particularly for Bill Allen and Martin Bourne, neither of whom had seen him since that day in 1969.
He is survived by his sons Simon and Philip.
Due thanks are given for assistance from John Craig, Malcolm Bobbitt, Bill Gunston, Owen Thetford, Ian Rimmer (The Experimental Cars) and the Editor of Praeclarum Martin Bennett, whose writings on John Blatchley still give me enormous pleasure.