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.

For an hour, Froilin Gonzalez led the chase in the big Ferrari, virtually a sports-car version of Enzo's 375 Formula One car from 1951, with a simple twin-tube frame, deDion rear axle, drum brakes, and a 4952cc V12 that produced 344 bhp at 6500 rpm. Moss picked off the Ferraris one by one, finally pulling his D-Type abreast of Gonzalez's Ferrari at the beginning of the road to Mulsanne, and the two cars ran side-by-side for almost four miles in one mighty blast. Moss had to use every bit of his 5600-rpm rev limit (and perhaps a bit more) to top 170 mph and make the pass.

After the Jaguars made their first pitstop for fuel, the D-Type engines began to misfire. It turned out that there was a fine, gray silt in the fuel tank that had been assigned to the Jaguar pits, and the restrictive fuel filters of the D-Types quickly clogged. By the time the problem had been rectified, both the Stirling Moss/Peter Walker and Tony Rolt/Duncan Hamilton D-Types had been delayed about thirty minutes each. Gonzalez ran remorselessly in the lead, the Argentine driver (who had recorded Ferrari's first victory in Formula One at the 1951 Grand Prix of Britain) proving as tough as his nickname in the newspapers, the "Pampas Bull."

By midnight, the rain had become torrential. Moss was charging when he suddenly had brake failure while trying to slow for the 35-mph corner following the 170-mph Mulsanne straight. He went more than a mile toward Mulsanne village while trying to stop the D-Type with the gearbox and emergency brake, narrowly missing a couple gendarmes who were smoking cigarettes in the middle of the road. Once Moss got the car back to the pits, the mechanics discovered that the booster pump for the hydraulic brake system had simply failed. They tried to coax their driver into resuming the chase once the problem had been repaired, but Moss was already spooked by previous problems during the development of the Dunlop disc brakes (usually pad knock-off), and he declined pretty quickly.

Once the clock had gone around once, it had come down to one Ferrari versus one Jaguar, and the good news was that Rolt and Hamilton were in third place. It was a desperate business. Every time the road dried, the Ferrari pulled away. But every time it rained, it fell back into the clutches of the Jaguar, and Gonzalez nearly lost the Ferrari once in a big slide going under the Dunlop bridge. Co-driver Maurice Trintignant had even more trouble with the car. At last the D-Type climbed to second place, but the Ferrari had a two-lap lead.

Finally Gonzalez pitted the 375 Plus at 2:22 p.m. for its final fuel stop, and it wouldn't restart! The exhaust valves were burned, and the soaked electrics didn't help. Ferrari put a handful of mechanics over the wall, changed the sparkplugs, and then held the throttle open once the engine fired so Gonzalez could get behind the wheel. Now Rolt was on the same lap as the Ferrari, but he had been driving for three hours already and looked exhausted. When he called at the pits with just an hour to go during a yet another torrential rain shower because he needed a visor for his helmet, team manager Lofty England impulsively decided to put Duncan Hamilton behind the wheel.

While the road was wet, Hamilton pulled ten seconds a lap out of the Ferrari's lead. He later reported that he had seen 5900 rpm on the tachometer on the Mulsanne straight, indicating he had been getting wheelspin in the rain at 170 mph. As the road dried in the final minutes, the gap between the cars stabilized. Finally the Ferrari prevailed by 1 min 45 sec after 24 hours, a distance of 2.5 miles after 2522 miles of racing.

After the race, the scale of Gonzalez's accomplishment became clearer. He had driven two-thirds of the race himself. According to speeds recorded on Mulsanne straight, the Ferrari peaked at just 160.1 mph while the fastest D-Type went 172.8 mph. When the top three cars were driven to Paris on the public roads for post-race celebrations, Gonzalez asked to try the D-Type. He reported that it felt like a touring car, with its fingertip-light steering and powerful brakes. Jaguar's team manager Lofty England took a ride in the 375 Plus and said it vibrated fiercely, and it took a huge effort on the brake pedal to get it to stop.

The Jaguar D-Type never again lost at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The factory D-Type prevailed in 1955 when Mercedes-Benz withdrew its 300SLRs following Levegh's crash. Fuel consumption regulations were introduced at Le Mans for 1956 to slow the cars, but they actually gave an advantage to the 3.4-liter Jaguar inline six-cylinder, and the privateer Ecurie Ecosse D-Type from Scotland won after the factory cars ran into trouble. Overall engine displacement was reduced to 3.0 liters at Le Mans in 1957, but again the car from Ecurie Ecosse won the race.

After the Jaguar D-Type appeared in 1954, Le Mans was never the same. The D-Type was the first prototype sports car at Le Mans, and it aroused a significant controversy about the inclusion of racing thoroughbreds in a race that formerly had been restricted to production cars. (In fact Donald Healey withdrew his team of Austin-Healey 100s in protest.) Ironically, Jaguar put the D-Type into series production, and the car flew the company's standard in all the countries around the world, notably the United States. Some 77 were built, and each is worth more than $850,000 today. Some 17 leftover D-Types were converted to XKSS street cars, the most famous of which is one formerly owned by actor Steve McQueen (though its fame might properly rest on previous ownership by James E. Peterson, the civil engineer who laid out Riverside Raceway, where his XKSS was the first car to circulate the track).

When we look back at the Jaguar D-Type today, it seems like a charming British antiquity. But in reality, the D-Type was the most scientifically conceived and executed racing car of the 1950s, far more futuristic than the Mercedes-Benz F1 cars of the time. We can see in it the makings of the racing cars that compete today at the 24 hours of Le Mans.

Jaguar XKD

Engine: Front-mounted, water-cooled, inline-six, dohc, 12 valves, Weber carburetors; Displacement: 3442cc; Power: 245 hp @ 5750 rpm; Transmission: four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive; Brakes: Front and rear discs; Steering: rack-and-pinion; Suspension, f: Independent, unequal-length A-arms, torsion bars, telescopic dampers; Suspension, r: solid axle, trailing arms, torsion bars, telescopic dampers; Weight: 1,904 lb (dry); Top speed: 170 mph.


Jaguar: the Sporting Heritage, by Paul Skilleter

Virgin Publishing, 2000

Jaguar Sports Racing Cars, by Philip Porter

Bay View Books, 1995

Jaguar Sports Racing & Works Competition Cars from 1954, by Andrew Whyte

Haynes Publishing, 2002

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