1955 Jaguar D-Type
1955 Jaguar D-Type. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The highly regarded English Jaguar, now owned by the Ford Motor Company but presently for sale, had humble roots. It began in 1922 when two Blackpool motorcycle enthusiasts, William Lyons and William Walmsley, established the Swallow Sidecar Co. to build zeppelin-shaped, aluminum-clad, motorcycle sidecars.

They advanced to customizing Austin Sevens, and moved the business to Coventry where they were soon building a whole car which they called the SS, using Standard Motor Co. chassis and engine. The Jaguar name was introduced in 1935.

Following the Second World War, the SS name had taken on sinister connotations, so the company became Jaguar Cars Ltd. It continued to build pre-war designs until it could develop new models, the most outstanding being the XK120 Roadster, introduced in 1948.

The XK120 was a stunning car in both appearance and performance. While not intended as a racing car, enthusiasts soon started campaigning them, and the factory even entered a three-car team in the famed Le Mans, France 24-hour endurance race in 1950. Although not expecting a win, they acquitted themselves so well that Jaguar decided to develop a competition model, the C-Type, in an attempt to return Britain to the Le Mans glory that Bentley had brought it in the 1920s.

The C-Type fulfilled Jaguar’s hopes by winning Le Mans in 1951. It returned in 1952 fitted with a long, aerodynamic nose with a small air intake. This caused engine overheating and the entire factory team dropped out early. First and second places went to the stunning new Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupes.

Jaguar brought the regular nosed C-Types back for 1953 with a new secret weapon, disc brakes, which allowed them to go deeper into corners before braking. They finished first, second and fourth.

In spite of the success of the C-Types, the competition from such marques as Ferrari, Cunningham and Aston Martin was getting stronger. Jaguar decided that a new design was needed to remain competitive.

The result was the D-Type which appeared in 1954. Whereas the C-Type had a multiple steel-tube space-frame, the smaller D-Type had a monocoque body in which the car’s light alloy skin and panels contributed to overall stiffness. An aluminum front space frame that carried the engine, suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, etc, was initially welded to the central “tub,” but later bolted to facilitate repair. A rear subframe carried the spare tire and fuel tank.

Suspension was independent in front with longitudinal torsion bars and a solid axle at the rear with a single lateral torsion bar anchored in the middle to serve both wheels. The rear axle was secured by four trailing arms and a vee-shaped frame attached to the tub. A large fin behind the driver improved aerodynamic stability.

Power came from the XK120’s sturdy double overhead cam inline six. Horsepower was up to 245, from the XK 120’s 160, and would ultimately reach over 300. For a lower profile the engine was tilted eight degrees to the right and fitted with dry-sump lubrication. It drove through a new four-speed, all-synchro manual transmission.

In spite of only three months of development time, the D-Type ran at Le Mans in 1954, coming in second between the winning 5.0-litre Ferrari V12 and the third place 5.5-litre Cunningham V8. The D-Type suffered fuel filter clogging from a batch of dirty gasoline.

Nineteen-fifty-five was the beginning of the D-Type’s Le Mans glory years. With its 190 mm (7.5 in.) longer, aerodynamic nose, It finished first and third that year. In 1956 a D-Type came in first, and in 1957, first, second and third. It was a fast fading era when race cars were still driven to the races, including right through London traffic to reach the ferry to France.

The factory decided to drop out of racing in 1956, but Jaguars continued to be raced by a Scottish Team called Ecurie Ecosse. D-Types would score many more victories both in Europe and America, but its pinnacle was Le Mans, the race for which it was really designed.

How fast was the D-Type? During the 1954 Le Mans race Stirling Moss reached 278 km/h (173 mph) down the long Mulsanne straight. On regular roads Road & Track (5/56) tested a D-Type and reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 4.7 seconds, and zero to 161 km/h (100 mph) in 12.1 seconds. They got a top speed of 261 km/h (162 mph) in the California desert. Those figures stand up remarkably well 50 years later.

Although the D-Type was designed for competition, Jaguar did put it into production for those hardy types who wanted to either race it or drive it on the highway. Some 67 were produced.

There was also a more civilized sports car called the Jaguar XKSS spun off the D-Type. It was fitted with a wider cockpit, proper windshield, bumpers and a rudimentary folding top and luggage rack (the trunk was full of fuel tank and spare tire). The stabilizing fin and driver’s headrest was removed.

With its three consecutive Le Mans wins the Jaguar D-Type gave Britain its finest hours in international sports car competition. It was truly an iconic car.

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