A Brief History of Jaguar at the Le Mans 24 Hours

Jaguar D-Type 13 photos
Photo: Jaguar
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The first endurance race took place in 1894 from Paris to Rouen, and the French Republic still is the king of endurance racing. Inaugurated in 1923, the 24 Heures du Mans is the best-known endurance race of them all.
Organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the world’s oldest active endurance racing event is won by the car that covers the longest distance in 24 hours. As far as overall wins are concerned, the most successful manufacturers are Porsche with 19, Audi (13), and Ferrari (9).

The very exclusivist club further includes the Leaping Cat of Coventry, which dominated the 1950s with five overall wins for the C-Type and D-Type. Two further victories came in 1988 and 1990 for a grand total of seven.

Managed by Lofty England, the successor of Jaguar founder William Lyons, the British automaker’s racing team won Le Mans in 1951 with the help of Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead after 267 laps in the XK-120C. This is the official name of the C-Type, with the C standing for competition.

The Walker-Whitehead car was the only one to finish because the other two had to retire over a broken connecting rod and a cracked oil feed pipe. Also known as XKC 003 after the chassis number, the winning car had covered a total of 2,243 miles (3,611 km) at an average speed of 93 mph (150 kph).

What’s even more impressive about Jaguar’s first win at the Circuit de la Sarthe is the humble underpinnings of the C-Type. The tubular frame and aluminum body are complemented by XK120 running gear, including the XK straight-six mill that Jaguar produced continuously from 1949 to 1992.

The XK120 was the fastest production car when it premiered in 1948, capable of hitting 120 mph (193 kph) with the windshield removed. More powerful than the XK120’s engine, the sixer under the hood of the C-Type used to make approximately 205 ponies with SU carburetors. From 1953, the company switched to Weber carburetors and high-lift camshafts for better performance. Another important mod comes in the guise of disc brakes, which made the C-Type much faster over the duration of the race.

Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton finished 304 laps with an average speed of 105 mph (170 kph), the first car to break the three-digit barrier at Le Mans. The 1953 edition also marks the first use of a radar gun to measure top speeds on the very long Mulsanne Straight. The Cunningham C-5R had the upper hand thanks to a larger V8 engine, but nevertheless, the C-Type was less than five kilometers per hour down on the fastest car on the grid.

Initially disqualified over a stupid reason, Rolt and Hamilton were eventually allowed to enter the race a few hours before the start. They weren’t in their best form, though, after a well-deserved drinking session in a nearby bar. Be that as it may, Lofty believed that both were vital for the works team.

Jaguar C\-Type
Photo: Jaguar
Instead of coffee, which made his arms twitchy, Hamilton fended off the looming hangover with brandy. He continued to drink the distilled wine at every pit stop, and the alcohol sure helped the Irishman when a bird struck him face first, breaking his nose at 130 mph (208 kph).

Even more beautiful than its predecessor, the D-Type used a space frame and magnesium alloy for the body shell. Lighter and more rigid as well, the monocoque racing car won Le Mans three times on the trot, with many other overall wins at circuits that include Goodwood, Reims, Spa, and Sebring.

Cars built from 1955 featured slightly longer noses, lengthening the car by 7.5 inches to further increase the maximum speed. Combined into a single unit, the headrest fairing and aerodynamic fin give the D-Type a very recognizable aesthetic. From a mechanical standpoint, the biggest changes over the C-Type concern the oiling system, valvetrain, and cylinder heads.

The prepossessing D-Type was influential in Jaguar’s development of the E-Type, arguably the prettiest car in the world according to Enzo Ferrari and a few other notable gentlemen. Jaguar fielded the E-Type at Le Mans in the 1960s, but couldn’t fend off the more powerful Italian competitors.

Fast forward to 1980s, and the XJR program paid off in 1988 with a dominant season for the XJR-9 sports prototype. Developed in collaboration with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, the Le Mans-winning car featured Silk Cut sponsorship and a low-drag package that maximized the potential of the 7.0-liter V12 engine on the Mulsanne Straight. Within months of winning the most celebrated endurance race out there, Tom Walkinshaw Racing started developing the XJR-15 that preceded the record-breaking XJ220.

Then owned by the Ford Motor Company, Jaguar started the 1990 season with a one-two finish at the 24-hour Florida classic at Daytona. The XJR-12, which is pretty much an evolution of the XJR-9, also took a one-two finish at Le Mans with the help of Martin Brundle, Price Cobb, and John Nielsen.

These being said, the eighth success at Le Mans seems to be wishful thinking at the present moment. Jaguar is currently involved in Formula E, and it’s likely that Jaguar will remain in the all-electric series for the foreseeable future because the automaker intends to go fully electric by 2025.
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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