There was a time when the Jaguar name didn't mean blue-haired matrons and aging lawyers. There was a time when Jaguars were driven by brave young men who took them to the very edge of their very high limits. And there was a time when Jaguar was a force to be reckoned with in the most grueling road racing of all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Britain emerged slowly from the wreckage of World War II, but by 1948 Jaguar's William Lyons was chomping at the bit to kick his company up into a higher gear. His bold stroke for the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show was a show car that would become the XK120 sports car.
The swoopy two-seat roadster whose shape, legend has it, came together in a period of just two weeks, was stunningly modern for its time while retaining the graceful feel of classic roadsters like the Mercedes-Benz 540K and the BMW 328. Housed within the lovely body was the XK engine, whose stature would eventually reach epic proportions before it was finally put to pasture after 40 years of production. In an era when many production cars still offered flat-head engines, Chief Engineer William Heynes and his staff put together a dual overhead cam engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, not as a special "racing" powerplant, but for everyday use in sedans. With chain-driven camshafts operating huge intake and exhaust valves, it was a brilliant achievement.
The original XK engine spun 160 horsepower from a displacement of 3.4 liters (210 cubic inches). Peak horsepower occurred at 5000 rpm, while peak torque of 195 pound-feet arrived at 2500. Not only did the engine offer terrific high speed potential (the car was dubbed XK120 because of its 120-mph capability), it was also wonderfully tractable around town in top (fourth) gear. Needless to say, the XK120 show car was a sensation at Earls Court, and orders poured in so rapidly that Jaguar was obliged to re-engineer the body from hand-formed aluminum over ash to all-steel construction.
The existence of a sports car immediately begged the question, "What about racing?" And Jaguar answered the call with an alloy-bodied version of the XK120 under the watchful eye of Walter Hassan, formerly of Bentley. Though early results were promising, Hassan, Lyons and Manager of the Service Department, Lofty England, quickly came to the conclusion that to win at Le Mans a competition version of the XK120 was necessary.
This car was the XK120 C, which came to be known as the C-Type. Sporting the XK120 straight six engine tuned to produce 210 horsepower, the 1951 Le Mans C-Type featured a multi-tubular triangulated spaceframe designed by Bob Knight, while the body was designed by an aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer, who had joined the company from the aircraft industry.
Arriving in France just prior to the race, the largely untested C-Types were driven by Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman, Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead, and Leslie Johnson and Clemente Biondetti. Pitted against Ferraris, Talbots and Cunninghams, the C-Types burst into the lead and a one-two-three finish seemed possible but then mechanical maladies befell the Johnson-Biondetti and Moss-Fairman cars. But Walker and Whitehead's luck held, and they bagged a remarkable victory.
The following year, though, Jaguar's luck ran out. Again the Jaguar team appeared at Le Mans with a largely untested "streamlined" body now adorning the C-Types, and within just a few hours of competition all three cars had retired due to overheating.
Jaguar's fortunes improved the following year, due to a technical masterstroke that changed cars forever. In conjunction with Dunlop, Jaguar engineers adapted disc brakes, which up to that time had been used almost exclusively on aircraft, to the C-Type.
With the new binders as the secret weapon, the C-types dominated. The Jaguars finished first, second, and fourth with Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton in the top spot. Moss and Walker finished second after suffering a fuel delivery problem early in the race.
In 1954 Jaguar introduced the XK140, the XK120 successor, equipped with a more powerful 190-horsepower version of the XK engine. At the same time the racing C-Type was about to be replaced by the D-type, which eschewed the spaceframe for a monocoque chassis. The "tub" was fashioned of aluminum, while a tubular front sub-frame was affixed to locate the engine, steering gear and front suspension. In its monocoque and its "bag" gas tanks, the D-Type borrowed heavily from contemporary aircraft construction.
For power, Jaguar again relied on the XK engine, but to limit frontal area, always a consideration at Le Mans, engineers shifted to a dry-sump system, and the engine was rotated eight degrees off the vertical to lower the hoodline. This resulted in the D-Type's trademark off-center hood "bump." In an effort to gain more stability during the high-speed runs on Le Mans' famous Mulsanne straight, a big fin was mounted behind the driver's headrest.
At the '54 Le Mans race the Jaguars were favored to win, but early on they experienced engine problems that were later traced to sand in the fuel supplied to the team. That problem solved, Hamilton and Rolt began a headlong charge to the front of the pack, but when the race was over they were still a minute and 45 seconds back of the winning Ferrari.
In 1955 Jaguar returned with a substantially improved D-Type that offered an asymmetrically designed head with larger valves plus "long-nose" bodywork. Again, a D-Type captured victory, but the outcome was overshadowed by the worst accident in motorsports history. Some three hours into the race, a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR punched an Austin Healey and plunged into the grandstands. The crash and resulting fire killed its driver and a shocking 80+ spectators. Mercedes-Benz immediately withdrew the remainder of its team, even as Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio were leading the top D-Type by two laps. Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb, who were piloting the Jag, went on to a rather hollow victory.
1956 was a bad luck year for the works D-Types, but, luckily for Jaguar, a private team called Ecurie Ecosse fielded two D-Types, and one -- piloted by Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson -- won the fabled event. At the conclusion of the 1956 racing season, Jaguar announced that it was leaving competition, but the following year, in the hands of private teams, the marque enjoyed its most successful Le Mans race ever. D-Types finished first, second, third, fourth and sixth, aided no doubt by the absence of Mercedes-Benz, which had announced its retirement from racing after the Le Mans disaster of the previous year.
Based on its racing successes Jaguar sold a limited number of "Production D-types," just as it had manufactured a small quantity of "Production C-types," Of the 42 production D-Types built, most were used in racing rather than on the street.
Those cars raced well into the Sixties, but the D-Type's brightest moment -- Le Mans 1957 -- was done. With Jaguar deciding to limit its involvement in motorsports other manufacturers began to field cars that put the D-Type out to pasture... not before, though, the Jaguar D-Type had established Jaguar as a performance car maker, bar none.