Jaguar, determined to continue its winning ways at Le Mans in the mid-50s, set out to design an aerodynamic bullet, built for speed. The resulting D-Type was not only quick but beautiful too.
Jaguar was the marque to beat at Le Mans in the 1950s, taking five wins throughout the decade. The famous endurance race was the pinnacle of sportscar racing at the time. Victory brought prestige to the winning make, for it shone a light on the manufacturer’s ability to make not only fast cars, but reliable ones.
The British sportscar maker’s first win at Circuit de la Sarthe would come in 1951 with the XK120C, more commonly known as the C-Type. It did so again in 1953, which was the same year that car’s successor, the XK120C Mk II, first appeared. The latter would soon be known as the D-Type, an easier name to say and remember, and a memorable car it would prove to be.
While the C-Type had been a successful racer, its replacement needed to be lighter and more aerodynamic in order to obtain higher speeds down the 3.7-mile long Mulsanne straight. The new D-Type was just that. Where the C used a space frame chassis, the new D-Type employed a central monocoque tub fabricated from magnesium alloy for ultimate lightness, with square section tubing making up the front and rear subframes.
Wishbones were used up front with torsion bars and dampers while the rear end saw a live axle located via upper and lower trailing arms and a special A bracket. A longitudinal torsion bar and dampers took care of the bumps. Dunlop disc brakes were used all around, the C-Type being the first race car to use such a brake set-up on track. Dunlop also supplied the centre-lock wheels, a more aerodynamic design than the usual wired rims of the time. The four-speed, full synchro gearbox was Jag’s own design and worked with the company’s XK series engine. This iron block, straight six employed alloy heads with twin overhead cams and two valves per cylinder.
The 3.4-litre engine was dry sumped in the D-Type to allow it to sit lower and was positioned behind the front axle for improved balance. With a few modifications for life in the D-Type, which included wilder cams and bigger inlet valves, it made 250hp breathing via a trio of twin choke Webers. Improvements over the years included even larger valves with increased lift and in 1957, they bored out the capacity to 3.8-litres, lifting power to 300hp.
The D-Type’s svelte form was shaped by Malcolm Sayer, an aerodynamicist who had previously worked on Bristol aircraft. It was the body, honed for ultimate velocity, that allowed the D-Type to top 180mph (290km/h) down the long straights of Le Mans. To get the nose as low as possible the engine was tilted over slightly. The one piece bonnet featured only a small opening to feed the radiator and the headlights were faired with form fitting covers.
The original D featured just a wrap-around screen for the driver and an enclosed passenger portal, while rule changes in 1956 required both a full width windscreen and a passenger side door. The D-Type’s trademark fin behind the driver aided directional stability at speed. Jaguar held off debuting the D-Type until Le Mans in 1954 where two of the three works entries suffered DNFs, one with brakes woes, the other a gearbox issue, but the third came in second, two minutes behind the winning Ferrari.
Its first competition win was a month later, up the road at Reims, another circuit were top speed was key. The D-Type’s first Le Mans win would come in 1955 among tragic circumstances however. Englishman Mike Hawthorn was leading the race when he overtook a slower Austin Healey before promptly pulling over to pit.
This saw said Healey swerve wide around the slowing D-Type and into the path of the fast charging Mercedes-Benz SLR 300 of Frenchman Pierre Levegh, launching the Benz up and onto the barrier. The impact ripped the engine, axle and body work from the SLR, and the flaming debris was sprayed lethally through the tightly packed crowd, killing more than 80 people. Levegh would be killed too as his magnesium-bodied SLR burned on the barrier in a dazzling ball of fire. The officials however did not stop the race, but late, during the event, Mercedes-Benz withdrew its remaining entrants. This left Jaguar and Hawthorn to claim victory, the first of a hat-trick for the D-Type.
While the works effort’s failed in 1956, the privateer team, Ecurie Ecosse, claimed victory, as it did again in 1957. For ‘58, the Le Mans rules were changed to limit engine capacity to 3.0 litres, and that was it for the D-Type’s competitive racing days. In total 87 D-Types were made, which included 16 of the XKSS road-going derivatives.
That makes it a rare and ultra-desirable car. The one you see here isn’t an original but a painstakingly recreated homage. The owner of this rolling recreation says he’s had this D-Type for years, too many in fact to remember precisely when he bought it, though it would be at least 20 years by his reckoning.
He first saw it in the Monterey car museum in West Auckland before tracking down the then owner and persuading him to part with it. This faithful replica of a 1957 model was built by Ray Larson in Queenstown some 35 years ago and, as the owner says, it has developed quite an authentic patina over that time. However, he says it’s now a more convincing replica than it was originally, thanks to continued work to bring it closer in every aspect to the real thing. It received a comprehensive restoration a decade or so ago, the process taken care of ‘in house’ over three years.
Among the steps taken to make it more authentic, the owner commissioned the build of the correct triple twin-choke Webers which were cast in Italy at a cost of $20,000. Most of the components used on the car are correct for the period including the Lucas electrics.
It has an original Jaguar gearbox and crucially the hand-beaten and riveted alloy body work. Brakes have been updated with a period-correct and improved set-up. The original Dunlop brakes used a vacuum servo off the gearbox and, as the owner says, you wouldn’t want those on it any longer. The D-Type gets an outing every few weeks and you’ll see it out racing in historic events too.
The owner says it’s not the easiest car to drive, quite harsh but fun. Though it took some time and effort to set up correctly, it’s been a reliable runner over the years. As to replacement parts, most are sourced from England but when they rebuilt the front suspension, they were able to use parts from David Brown’s Classic Car Development in Invercargill, which is in the business of making components to keep old racers going.
The car is still in nice nick considering the usage, and the D-Type remains a unique beauty in the way only a sculptured race car can be. Nothing looks new about it, the reproduction Dunlop tyres keeping in theme. There are the leather straps holding the bonnet in place, the bakelite housings for the Lucas electrics on the dash and even period lenses for the tail lights. It sounds, and smells, suitably authentic on start-up, complete with its grumpy idle and general lumpiness.
We slumped down into the D-Type’s low slung seat, not very graciously we might add, even after unclipping the quick release steering wheel. While the footwell isn’t too cramped, with enough arm twirling room between the door and the central rib separating pilot and passenger, the driving position is bolt upright and we can’t imagine it would be a comfortable place to be, flat chat for hours on end.
The lack of a safety cage or even a roll bar says it is from the era when men were men. And then there’s the fact you’re sitting just inches from the fuel tank in behind the driver’s seat. As to how much this car is worth, the owner says he wouldn’t have a clue, and has no interest in selling it.
Genuine D-Types, one of which resides in Christchurch, go for moonbeams with the winning 1956 car, XKD 501, selling in 2016 for $US22 million. At those prices, the case for an authentic replica stacks up more thoroughly, being more usable than a genuine investment grade classic. And when they are this good, you don’t have to make excuses for it.