1952 Jaguar C-Type
1952 Jaguar C-Type. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

When the 1949 Jaguar XK120 two-seater roadster arrived in late 1948 it was a stunning new post-Second World War sports car. Its sensuously beautiful lines were penned by Jaguar founder William Lyons, and its 193 km/h (120 mph) top speed lived up to its name.

Under the long, tapered hood was a 3.4-litre, 160-horsepower double overhead camshaft, inline six-cylinder engine which was a jewel to behold. And while a price in the $4,000 range was not cheap, it was reasonable when compared with a Ferrari or Aston Martin, which offered comparable performance, or even a Porsche which offered far less.

Jaguar Cars Ltd. of Coventry had not intended the XK120 to be a racing car, but a high speed tourer in the grand tradition of scooting down to the Riviera for a long weekend.

But with the XK’s outstanding performance, owners soon began racing them. Even Jaguar itself couldn’t resist, and entered a team in the prestigious 1950 LeMans, France, 24-hour race. Competition quickly revealed the XK120’s racing inadequacies, including being overweight and under-braked. But one did run as high as third in the race before retiring. The other two finished twelfth and fifteenth.

Jaguar knew the XK had real racing potential so the engineers went to work creating a competition version of the XK120, to be called the XK120C, or C-type. Its goal was to win LeMans and return Britain to its 1920s Bentley glory days.

Chief engineer William Heynes and his crew constructed a light but strong frame made of steel tubes of various diameters. For added rigidity, stressed bulkheads were fitted ahead of and behind the cockpit. To cover it all, Jaguar aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer styled an aluminum alloy body that was lower, sleeker and slipperier than the XK120’s. But the oval shaped, vertical-bar grille left no doubt that it was a Jaguar.

The robust XK120″s driveline provided a good base for the C-type. The engine was given larger valves, higher lift cams, and twin 2.0-inch SU carburetors rather than the standard 1-3/4 inchers. This increased horsepower from the stock 160 to 210, which went to the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission.

The XK120’s longitudinal torsion bars were used in front, while at the rear the semi-elliptic leaf springs were replaced by a single, centrally-anchored, transverse torsion bar with trailing arms at each end. The XK120’s solid axle was retained.

With almost no time for testing, Jaguar courageously entered three new C-types in their first race, the 1951 LeMans. Although two retired, the third driven by Peter Whitehead and Peter Walker won the race, averaging a record 93.5 mph (150 km/h). It was a tremendous boost for British morale, their first LeMans victory since Lagonda in 1935.

Jaguar returned to LeMans in 1952 with its team of C-types carrying lowered noses to improve aerodynamic efficiency. Alas, the smaller grille opening didn’t admit enough cooling air, causing the engines to overheat. They all retired, never to appear again.

For 1953 Jaguar came back to LeMans with a team of lighter C-types with more powerful engines, thanks to the fitting of three 50-mm Webber carburetors.

But the real story for the 1953 C-types was Jaguar’s use of disc brakes. These allowed the drivers to gain valuable time by carrying more speed into the corners and braking much later. These brakes made all the difference, and the factory C-types finished first, second and fourth, with a privateer coming in ninth in a standard C-type.

Although not the first use of disc brakes in competition – the tiny American Crosley gained that distinction when it ran them in the first Sebring, Florida race in 1950 – Jaguar’s introduction was nevertheless an epochal event.

Jaguar replaced the C-type with the monocoque bodied D-type for 1954, and the Cs were sold to private campaigners.

In the hands of the car testers, the C-types proved to be very fast. Road & Track (8/53) tested one owned by racing driver Maston Gregory, who did the high speed driving. The 1,016 kg (2,240 lb) roadster recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 6.6 seconds, and zero to 161 (100) in 16.8. Top speed depended on which rear axle ratio was fitted, but R&T estimated the top speed at 227 km/h (141 mph), although C-types had approached 241 km/h (150 mph) on the LeMans Mulsanne straight.

Over its short three-year production life, only 54 C-types were made. Although built for racing, many were also driven on public roads, albeit with some compromises required by their owners. They were, after all, primarily racing cars with little provision for creature comforts. But at least they could be used, unlike the totally purpose-built competition sports cars of today.

The Jaguar C-type brought honour and distinction to Britain in the 1950s, when Jaguars would win LeMans five times, duplicating the great Bentley era when they also won that famous race five times between 1924 and 1930.

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