The Jaguar D-Type was built for the sole purpose of winning Le Mans and to continue Jaguar’s legacy. Just like its illustrious forebear the C-Type, it remains an icon of motorsport technology.
After the success at Le Mans 1951 & 1953 with the C-Type, Jaguar wanted to improve the car further. Sir William Lyons knew that racing success would boost the sales of road cars, so Jaguar looked at ways to improve the C-Type.
D is for Design
Instead of using a conventional steel space frame like most others, the Jaguar D-Type used a monocoque chassis made from magnesium alloy. This was a different approach to the previous C-Type and combined the body and chassis so the body supported the chassis and vice versa. The driver was positioned in a protective tub and front and rear subframes were attached to the monocoque to mount the engine, suspension and drivetrain to.
This new approach was lighter and stronger than a traditional space frame design and racing cars still use this method of construction today.
The bodywork was overseen by Malcolm Sayer, Jaguar’s aerodynamicist. His experience in the aviation industry was clear to see on the D-Type. The large fin and teardrop shaped bodywork was designed to work together to keep the car stable and aerodynamic.
The engine was the same as used in the C Type, but dry-sumped, so it could be mounted lower. The dry sump reduced the risk of oil starvation when cornering at speed too. While not the biggest or most powerful engine on the grid, combined with the lightweight chassis design and aerodynamic body – The D-Type had a purity and focus to the design. It was clear Jaguar were going racing to win.
Le Mans 1954
The D-Type made its first appearance at Le Mans in 1954. Issues with fuel filters lost time because all three cars had to pit to have them removed. Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt got their D-Type within a lap of the Ferrari 375 when it crossed the line. The car shared between Sir Sterling Moss and Peter Walker had been stranded on the circuit for almost an hour with a misfiring engine.
“I realised I was getting wheelspin at 170mph in top gear”
Duncan Hamilton when trying to catch up with Gonzales Ferrari 375
The D-Type had shown great promise, challenging Ferrari and setting a speed record of 172mph with Moss driving. The Ferrari was thought to have better braking and acceleration, but it was clear the little aviation inspired car from Coventry had superb potential.
Le Mans 1955
Initially this was to be a battle between Jaguar and Mercedes. The D-Type had shown massive potential the previous year. Mercedes had adapted it’s incredibly successful W196 F1 car as a sports racer. This new W196S (300SLR) included a powerful 300bhp engine and an air-brake. Sir Stirling Moss had opted to drive for Mercedes in 1955 and was impressed with the 300 SLR.
“The greatest sports racing car ever built – really an unbelievable machine”
Sir Sterling Moss on the Mercedes 300 SLR (W196S)
Tragically an enormous crash overshadowed the entire race. A Mercedes hit Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey which itself had tried to avoid Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar.
The Mercedes catapulted into the crowd killing around 80 people. A combination of fuel and magnesium bodywork ignited the wreckage causing more carnage. The race director decided the race should go on, despite numerous deaths and still burning wreckage.
Hawthorne pitted a few laps later and was inconsolable and blamed himself for the crash. Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis and Ivor Bueb took over driving responsibilities. Meanwhile Mercedes quietly pulled its cars from the race after a call from their Headquarters. Mercedes would retire from competitive motorsport altogether immediately after. The remaining cars continued to race as instructed and by this time Mike Hawthorn had returned for his stint behind the wheel. The Jaguar easily beat the Aston Martin, but given the circumstances this would never be a win to celebrate.
Le Mans 1956
Following the previous year’s crash, additional safety equipment was needed. Jaguar had adapted the D-Type to include a passenger door, a windscreen and a smaller fuel tank. Le Mans was held later in the year so the circuit could be prepared. The pit straight was redesigned and certain parts of the circuit were resurfaced.
Jaguar’s drivers Mike Hawthorne and Ivor Bueb drove the D-type (XK605) at Le Mans. While a misfire held them back to sixth position, the privateer Ecurie Ecosse D-Type won and finished with a lap record of 4:20.
The D-Type dominated the Reims 12 hour race that same year with a comprehensive 1-2-3-4 finish, decimating the competition.
On 13th October 1956, Jaguar announced the company’s withdrawal from racing.
Le Mans 1957
After withdrawing from racing Jaguar had no use for the remaining D-Types and converted them to XKSS specification. These were mechanically D-Types, but with a fabric roof and passenger seat making them eligible to race in production race series.
Just 25 D-Types were to be converted to XKSS spec, but a fire at Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory destroyed 9 cars and the tooling so the remaining cars were never completed.
While Jaguar had withdrawn from racing, privateer teams had decided to enter D-Types. Even without a factory team the D-Type absolutely dominated the competition. The Ecurie Ecosse team finished in positions 1 and 2. Belgian and French privateers finished 3rd and 4th. A single Ferrari finished in 5th and Duncan Hamilton’s D-Type completed the Jaguar dominance in 6th position. Despite having all 5 cars entered finish in the top 6, it would be over 30 years before Jaguar would win at Le Mans.
Jaguar D-Type: XKD605 / 393RW
This car is on show at the British Motor Museum, flanked by the XJ220 concept and the Le Mans winning XJR9. The D-type is in remarkably good condition and features practical little additions and modifications that tell you the car is still in occasional use. A sticker to mark the engine rev range, a modified steering boss and a modern fire extinguisher. Aside from that everything else is just about how it was in 1956.
Sitting in the car, even stationary reminds you just how dangerous motor racing was in the 1950s. My respect for those that drove this and other similar machines went through the non-existent roof. This is clearly a car from a different time.
You can see how every inch of the car has been honed to make it quicker and lighter. There are almost no concessions to safety, it’s simply extracting the most performance possible. The smattering of scratches and dings show this was a functional racing car, and while it looks dainty, it battled wheel to wheel in some very tough races.