John Sillitoe – 70 and still going strong!
|Nigel Thorley, editor of the Jaguar Enthusiast magazine, interviews an old friend who has worked on Jaguars all his life and was part of the business that first attracted him to the marque.
This article first appeared in
Photo courtesy of Esta-jane Mace
Many people ask me how I first got involved in Jaguars, now having owned 67 in my life, never being without a Jaguar since the age of 17. Well I suppose I have my father to blame as he owned one when I was born and still had one when he died in the late 1960s.
Being a Jaguar owner meant regular visits to the local dealership to change cars, have them serviced, etc. and in our case that was Byatt’s of Fenton Limited, in Stoke on Trent. One of Jaguar’s national distributors and owner Tom Byatt was actually a friend of Sir William Lyons as well. I regularly used to accompany either my father or elder brother as the family Jag was taken in for service, from the late 1950s, to Byatt’s Standard House facility. Although agents for Vauxhall and Bedford as well, Standard House was reserved for maintenance on Jaguars and Standard-Triumph cars only.
It was on such occasions that although dealing mainly with the service reception area, as this was actually inside the workshop, it was inevitable we got to know the mechanics (sorry technicians as they say today!). One of these was John Sillitoe who only worked on Jaguars at the time. As I got older, owning my own Triumphs (and Jaguars) I also used to frequent Byatt’s and regularly met John who often worked on my cars, as he did my elder brother, until John left to start his own business.
Many years later I met up with John by chance when visiting the independent Jaguar specialist in Stoke on Trent, XJK and what follows is John’s story of his involvement with Jaguars over the years, a fascinating background, published here in John’s 70th year.
How it all started
John Sillitoe came from a farming family and worked on the farm on a part-time basis while still at school. At the age of 15 his dad found him a job at Robinson’s, a local garage in the village of Woore (on the Staffordshire/Shropshire borders). Robinson’s sold Morris and Rootes cars.
While undertaking a sort of unofficial apprenticeship, John spent the first twelve months serving petrol but wanted more. He saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for young men to enter apprenticeships with Byatt’s. He applied for a job and got it and immediately started work, shadowed by one of the Byatt’s best known and most accomplished mechanics Ernie Johnson.
To digress, Ernie was very well respected and used to work on an XK120 and genuine C-type owned by local businessman and racing driver Jim Swift, regularly attending race meetings with Jim as race mechanic. This was a good opportunity for John Sillitoe to learn more about the marque that would dominate his life – Jaguar.
John started work at Byatt’s just after they had built their new Standard House service facility, itself a refurbished aircraft hanger from the south of England. Equipped with the latest technical innovations with specialist lubrication, PDI areas, etc. it was probably the most advanced service facility in the area at the time. John also joined just before the world launch of the E-type sports car and he recalled what a fabulous car it was. That car, plus the slightly later launch of the Mark X heralded in a magic era for Jaguar; in his mind just as important then as the latest developments from the company are now.
John served the usual apprenticeship period, accompanied by day-release and evening college courses, all of which were done so that he could work exclusively on Jaguar cars for Byatts. John recalls his very first job was to carry out an engine decoke on a Mark 2, a regular occurrence with engines in those days. So common was this that a standard procedure came about to decoke an engine, change the timing chains and piston rings, on XK engines.
Despite his young age John was entrusted to drive Jaguars from the start, although he soon got a reputation for being a big reckless! On one occasion the service manager asked John to take a Jaguar owner back to his home in Barlaston while the car was being serviced. Entrusted with a ‘spare’ Triumph Herald, John duly did as requested but on the way back, tried to make the Herald corner better than it was able, ending up in a ditch, bending the chassis!
John worked on the very last XK150 to come through the dealership, an S model and the first of the E-types and Mark Xs. He remembers that the most common complaints about these earlier 3.8 litre cars was how poor the brakes were and oil leaks! He also worked on a lot of Mark VII/VIII and IX models, also remembering the last Mark IX to go through the dealership (difficult to sell!). Bread and butter work involved Mark 2 saloons which were so popular in the 1960s and kept the dealership busy throughout.
When John started work, apart from his work colleagues, his main contact was through Tom Cooper, the then service manager and Norman Benson, the head of the Standard House facility of the company. It wasn’t until much later that he actually met the ‘boss’ Tom Byatt, and worked on his Mark IX at times.
John recalls that Byatts was always a very busy garage, although other smaller garages handled Jaguars in the area, Josh Randles and, not far away in Stafford, Attwoods Jaguar were a main distributor, who sold and serviced more Jaguars than many other national groups at the time and were also very strong with the Triumph marque for many years.
The garage was so busy that overtime was always available and John regularly used to work seven days a week. At 5.25pm each weekday afternoon he could visit the canteen for a bun and cup of tea, then return to work through till 7pm. Then work four and a half hours on Saturdays and a further four hours on Sunday.
Jaguar issued time schedules for work to be carried out, for example eighteen hours to remove and refit an engine, three hours for a PDI check, etc. John could ‘easily’ beat these times and found unique ways around things, so got through more jobs each day and on several occasions managed 120 hours bonus in a week (on top of his standard pay)!
Insurance and warranty work
John spent three years at Byatts entrusted with insurance rectification work. Much of this involved accident damage where John had to prepare the cars ready for the bodyshop to take over remedial work and paint. During this time he re-shelled a 420G that had been severely side-swiped by another car and earlier, a Mark X that had been turned over. He says that the most damaged model he had to deal with was the E-type, perhaps not surprisingly as the cars were “too quick for most people”.
With the later models like the XJ Series and Rolls-Royce (see below about them), a common area of concern was the way customers treated the boot lids. These cars were made for a soft close to the lock, then a gentle push to engage the locks. Most owners just slammed the lids down causing no end of damage, not least to paintwork!
Some of the problems were self-inflicted, as John remembers some specific instances of carelessness (not on his part!). For example the new Golden Sand S-type ordered by a customer who wanted wing mirrors fitted. When they tried to hand the car over to him, he noticed that one wing mirror was set 6″ further back than the other! Someone had taken a wrong measurement. The owner wouldn’t accept the car, Byatts had to order him another and John thinks the original car may have been fitted with a new wing and was then used as a demonstrator for while.
Then there was the almost new XJ12 Series 1 saloon that the owner brought in for its first service. Put up on one of the six ramps which had separate hydraulic lifts for the front and rear of the car, extended axle stands were used to support the whole car while the hydraulic ramp rams were lowered into the floor out of the way. Someone forgot to position one set of axle stands and the car fell over onto its roof! Not best pleased the owner got a new car.
When it came to warranty work most issues centred around oil leaks. One quick fix at the rear was to remove the breathe valve at the differential, braise a copper tube on, looped, so it breathed properly. There were lots of other ‘fixes’ in endless attempts to stop Jaguars from leaking!
One day John was summoned to the service manager’s office where he was told that he had been selected to train as a Rolls-Royce technician as Byatts were about to take on the franchise for Rolls and Bentley in 1968. After initial introductory training at Rolls-Royce in London, he underwent a full training schedule including two weeks working at Crewe on the build of new Silver Shadows.
Byatts had a special area in the Jaguar/Triumph workshop set aside for work on Rolls models incorporating a new (extra large) ramp, everything colour-coded to the then RR corporate colours of brown and red. By the end of 1968 John was at the works preparing the first two Silver Shadows for delivery to local nightclub owners.
John recalls the endless modifications they had to make to Shadows as there were constant changes coming through from Crewe for the cars. In his own mind he thinks the Silver Shadows at the time were “sheds”, not a patch on the Jaguars he was used to.
John Sillitoe stayed with Byatts until 1975 when he was prompted by some of their customers to start his own business. Another Byatts Jaguar mechanic, Brian Ralph, was involved and with the impetus of one of Byatts own customers, they established a specialist business in Stoke under the name of Five Towns Car Specialists Ltd. The two of them soon found work in maintaining local Jaguars and Rolls-Royces. Indeed word spread and they were even looking after a Silver Shadow in Blackburn and a Stockport butcher’s Corniche!
Brian left the business after eight years to move back to his home town in Watford, still working on Jaguars apparently. John continued the business, in total for twenty eight years, when he closed it down and moved to a new house. There he built a large garage and continues to work on cars as and when.
Byatts finally closed down in the 1980s but John still required Jaguar parts so used the Evans Halshaw Jaguar dealership that took over the franchise. It was there that he met Gavin Jones and when Gavin started XJK he asked John to work for him, initially for three days a week.
Since then John has worked from home when customers request his services and also stands in at XJK, particularly when work is called for on the earlier Jaguar models that he knows so well. John is 70 this year and is still going strong, with a passion for Jaguars as well as other cars, so has he ever owned a Jaguar? No – not yet!
His first car was an Austin A30 (LUX 246), followed by a couple of Minis, a 998cc Cooper (DTU 247B) and a 1,275 Cooper S (GVT 177B). He then got into Triumphs with a TR4A (HEH 108B) and later a TR6 (CEH 108). As John says, “I then got married so it was down to a Minivan!” He’s had lots of other cars and still owns a rare Ford Sierra RS 4×4 but now he has finally come to his senses and wants a Jaguar. Which one? A new XK – watch this space.
So, happy 70th John, still going strong!
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All information correct at time of publishing.