It was the most technologically advanced racing car of its day, meant to virtually fly along the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. It looked like an airplane and it was built like an airplane. And Stirling Moss was there to fly it first.

The Jaguar D-Type expressed the new culture of the Jet Age that everyone was talking about by 1950. The era of stylized streamlining had given way to aerodynamic science, and Jaguar designer Malcolm Sayer was caught up in the new spirit of sweptback wings and supersonic speeds. When he saw Alfa Romeo's Disco Volante ("flying saucer") concept car in 1952, Sayer began work on a modified shape for the Jaguar C-Type, which had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1951.

Sayer had come to Jaguar in late 1950 from Bristol Aircraft, and he brought with him the latest thinking in aerodynamics. He was familiar with wind tunnel testing, and he had also learned a unique mathematical method of computing an aerodynamic shape with individual calculations. He had his new design on the ground in the spring of 1953, but the press of business at the newly prosperous Jaguar factory left it overlooked until October 1953, when Lyons finally decided a team of the new cars should be built for Le Mans in 1954. The XKDs were completed in April 1954, and every aspect of the design represented a technological tour de force:

•Sayer had designed bodywork that not only had low aerodynamic drag, but also incorporated his thinking about directional stability and the center of aerodynamic pressure while the car was passing other cars, which represented incredible subtlety at the time.

•Beneath the bodywork lay a chassis with a central monocoque, made possible by lessons Jaguar had learned in building aircraft spars in World War II as well as the recent development of aluminum welding with argon gas.

•The traditional, Jaguar dohc 3.4-liter, six-cylinder engine now had a dry-sump oil system, reducing both aerodynamic frontal area and the car's center of gravity, and it developed 245 bhp at 5750 rpm through an all-syncromesh four-speed gearbox and a solid axle with a Salisbury-type limited-slip differential.

•Dunlop supplied both disc brakes (introduced to competition by the C-Type in 1953) and new disc-Type aluminum wheels with knock-off hubs. Dunlop also provided the first low-profile, steel-belted radial tires ever used in competition.

When the Jaguar D-Type appeared for its technical inspection at Le Mans, there was a huge crowd among the sheds at Place des Jacobins, the market area at the center of the city that is still used today for pre-race scrutineering. Just like today, there were excited whispers about the speed that this sleek, scientific new car could be expected to attain. In fact you would recognize all the elements of the race's magic, including a display area behind the pits by manufacturers in the automotive trade and a vast carnival featuring the Fat Woman of Antibes and Sydney Bechets' New Orleans Jazz Band.

There were even celebrities, in this case Porfiro Rubirosa, a Dominican playboy who occasionally drove race cars, and his companion Zsa Zsa Gabor, one of three voluptuous blonde sisters from Hungary who had recently fled the communist regime in hopes of becoming Hollywood actresses.

Yet the biggest celebrity at Le Mans in 1954 was there to drive a D-Type, as Stirling Moss had returned again with the marque that had given him his first professional break at the 1950 British Tourist Trophy. Talkative, quick-witted, charming with men and flirtatious with women, Moss was already the most famous athlete in Britain at just age 24, the prototype of the modern professional driver who would drive anything if the money were right. He was shadowed everywhere by Alfred Moss, his father, the owner of a chain of dentistry practices who had gone to dental school in America so he might drive in the Indianapolis 500 (which he did in 1924). Moss looked almost comical in his clean, white driving overalls, like the movie image of a racing driver, but he was fast, and it overcame his hyperactive personal style.

The weather at Le Mans already threatened rain when the flag dropped at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, and rain indeed would fall for seventeen of the next 24 hours. As always during the traditional Le Mans start, Moss prided himself on being the quickest to run across the road to his car parked next to the pit counter (the road was still a narrow lane in those days, which contributed to Pierre Levegh's deadly crash in the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR the following year). But Moss wasn't the first away for a change, because the grid was arranged according to engine size, and there were the Cunningham C-4Rs with their 5.4-liter Dodge hemi V8s in front of him, as well as three examples of Ferrari's latest weapon, the 375 Plus, powered by a 5.0-liter V12.

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