Our Burning Planet

HUNTING THE JOULE, PART TWO

Keith Helfet, the man who designed SA’s elusive electric car

Keith Helfet, the man who designed SA’s elusive electric car
Keith Helfet, the former Jaguar designer who designed South Africa’s electric car prototype, the Joule. (Photo: Supplied)

The search for the Joule, South Africa’s only electric car, led to a conversation with the legendary designer of some of the world’s most beautiful sports cars, Keith Helfet. The man from Calvinia who became Jaguar’s top designer, it turned out, had also designed the Joule.

It’s daunting sitting across a coffee table with the man who has designed some of the most beautiful Jaguars in the world and has been described as a visionary. But the problem doesn’t last a minute because he’s so unassuming, self-deprecating and funny.

“I signed up to do engineering at the University of Cape Town,” he explains, “but I was a waste of space because of surfing and drinking.

helfet car

A young Keith Helfet works on his first design. (Photo: Keith Helfet)

helfet first design

Keith Helfet’s first design on a Triumph frame. (Photo: Keith Helfet)

“I loved machines but the degree was all mathematics and thermodynamics. I wanted to design cars. So I dropped out and built a car on the chassis of an old Triumph Spitfire using foam offcuts and 700 pounds of plaster of Paris. The engine didn’t work. The general feeling was that I was a harmless lunatic. Then I went back and finished my degree.

“When I broke it up, my father was so upset. He said, ‘All that work for nothing.’ I said, ‘That wasn’t for nothing… I now know what I want to do – design cars.’”

Don Pinnock: It’s a big jump from there to Jaguar. What were the steps?

Keith Helfet: My degree was engineering but my passion was design, so I thought I’d do a postgraduate at the Royal College of Art. I had no idea how difficult it was to get in. I pitched up for the interview among around 100 other applicants, cringingly unequipped. I knew nothing. They said you have three weeks to hand in your portfolio. I said: “What’s that?”

All I had was the plaster of Paris car, so I presented that. I think they’d never had an applicant who’d designed and built a full-sized car. I was one of only five students accepted. They said: “Clearly, you know how to design.”

Design project at the Royal College of Art. (Photo: Supplied)

DP: And Jaguar?

KH: At the time Jaguar was a cottage industry within Leyland. It had been started by Sir William Lyons who basically designed most of the early cars. In my opinion, he’s one of the greatest car designers ever. After I joined he chose my design for the new sports car. Then, for five and a half years, he became my tutor and mentor.

He was the guru. He influenced my design language, my style for the rest of my life. Soft, flowing shapes which I just loved, not hard-edged, which was the fashion at the time. Jaguar designs look fast. Around classic Jaguars, other sports cars looked awkward. Jaguars stood out.

DP: Do you have a design principle that you work to?

KH: For me as a designer, the ultimate prize is to create an object of desire. Emotional appeal was our competitive advantage. Design and desire have been my driving mantra. It’s what I call the book I’ve just written.

DP: A sculptor of dreams on wheels?

KH: Yeah, that’s it. I work on overall shape. We start with a clay model and use fibreglass on scale models, then go into sheet metal moulding. That’s the scary stage. You have these unbelievably talented guys who can take a flat sheet of aluminium and roll it into flowing shapes. Incredible craftsmen.

DP: It must be satisfying to see the final vehicle you’ve designed completed and rolling.

KH: When we unveiled the Jaguar XJ220 at the British Motor Show, jaws dropped. It created a huge fuss. It wasn’t yet in production but we got six blank cheques as orders. It’s all about emotional appeal. Elton John and Mick Jagger each bought one. The Sultan of Brunei bought three.

The Jaguar XJ220 prototype coming together. (Photo: Keith Helfet)

Jaguar-XJ220. (Photo: Supplied)

DP: It’s like a shark. It even has gills.

KH: Yeah, there’s a massive radiator in there. It was a production car but it won at Le Mans.

DP: So you stayed in car design?

KH: No. I designed an MRI scanner for a guy from an Israeli company who wanted it to not be intimidating. He called my boss and said he wanted to speak to the guy who designed the XJ220.

Scanners looked like you were being fed into a giant washing machine in a coffin. I designed it with smooth curves and soft edges. It didn’t look scary at all. I designed boats, an electric bicycle, yachts, a watch, an aircraft interior.

MRI scanner designed by Keith Helfet. (Photo: Keith Helfet)

DP: Was that a pivot away from car design?

KH: No, I went back to car design and designed my homage to the legendary D-Type – the XJ180. That was quite a hit. Blank cheques again. My last Jaguar was the F-Type. But the project was cancelled before production. Lost opportunities have been an occupational hazard for me.

DP: So how did you end up designing the Joule?

KH: A lawyer I was dealing with in Cape Town said there were some guys doing a startup and needed a car designer. They had government funding to create an electric car. I said: “You’re kidding. But if they’re serious, I’m interested.” So he contacted me with Kobus Meiring in 2006.

At that time electric cars were hippy-type things and not serious. I said to them if you’re serious and not just making a statement, I’m interested.

DP: So you joined the project?

KH: You don’t know what you don’t know if you’ve never done something before. But South Africans have such a can-do mentality that’s hard to find in Europe or America. So yes I did. But they didn’t know the implications of starting from scratch and I had to spell it out for them.

The car had to be competitive in the petrol market and it had to be attractive. It had to be as competent as the best of those vehicles.

Then I started sketching, computer modelling. We created what we call the egg crate you fill with foam and then take moulds in fibreglass. We completed a full-scale shell (no engine) for the Paris Motor Show. Then they created four full prototypes – great little five-seaters. They had about a 250km range, good enough for the city.

joule

Keith Helfet’s design for the Joule. (Photo: Keith Helfet)

DP: I guess the next step was to take it to production?

KH: Yes. They were planning to make around 50,000 a year. But they were beginning to lose deadlines against promises and they were consuming a lot of money. The marketing person took the car to Paris and Geneva motor shows but she didn’t know how to promote it once there. It got no publicity and no funds. The primary funders got worried and eventually pulled the plug. The Joule hit a skid pan and went out on a whimper.

DP: How did you feel about that?

KH: I loved doing it and it was great to work with South Africans. However, I did express my very real concern that they just didn’t get all the expertise they needed to progress from prototype to 50K production. They were losing credibility with the funders. Things began to unravel.

But those four guys were visionaries. They saw an opportunity and it is the future. They started to make it happen in the forefront of any serious attempt in the world. My work there was important to me.

DP: There’s just one working prototype left.

KH: Yes and it looks like it’s in terrible shape. If something’s not done, it’s going to end up a wreck. It should be rescued.

Keith has things to do – it’s time to wrap up. 

He looks at my R1100 BMW bike as we part company. “Nice design,” he says. I don’t disagree. He should know.

Keith’s book, Design & Desire, is available here. DM

Read Part One: The search for South Africa’s lost electric car.

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