Le Mans Classic 2006 - Adler and Porsche
Le Mans Classic 2006 – Adler and Porsche. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Peter Bleakney

Le Mans, France – With all due respect to the cars competing in today’s modern racing series, there is not much that beats the thrill of getting up close and personal with some serious vintage racing at a legendary track. The sounds, the smells, and the wonderful machinery instantly transport you back to an era that, well, most would think had been lost forever.

Such was my experience at the Le Mans Classic, which ran July 7-9 this year at the storied French circuit. The event featured a dizzying array of vintage racers spanning over five decades. Ferraris, Jaguars, Astons, Ford GT40s, Lotus, Porsches, Lolas, Bentleys, Maseratis, Alphas� the list is endless, and we’re not talking just a handful of each. There were literally hundreds of cars here, and although not all were racing, the paddocks and surrounding fields were jammed with every imaginable racing conveyance from the most obscure to some very famous vehicles.

It’s amazing to think there were that many cars here, as Britain’s Goodwood Festival, which is a similarly huge vintage event, was held this same weekend. It’s seems the old French/British rivalry is still alive and well. Being guests of Jaguar, we saw some rolling of the eyes and heard more than a few comments to the effect that the French were just being bloody difficult.

Le Mans Classic 2006 - 1934 Talbot
Le Mans Classic 2006 – 1934 Talbot. Click image to enlarge

Adding to the Monty Python-esque feel of the whole experience was the fact that our Jag team leader and the various French officials running about made zero attempts to communicate in the other nation’s language.

Jaguar has quite a history at Le Mans, having won the race several times in the fifties. This year, they brought a few vintage racers to parade around the circuit between races.

Le Mans Classic 2006 - 1951 Jaguar XK150
Le Mans Classic 2006 - 1951 Jaguar XK150
Le Mans Classic 2006 – 1951 Jaguar XK150. Click image to enlarge

I got to ride shotgun in a 1951 XK120 Fixed Head Coupe for a tour of this 8.2-km track; and not just any old XK120, this. In August of 1952, this car ran for seven days and seven nights at the Motlhery Circuit here in France, averaging over 100 mph. One of the drivers was a young Stirling Moss.

The car still has the original paint and interior, and like all old British cars with leather seats, it exudes that wonderful aroma that if bottled could be called Eau du Worn Connelly.

Driving was Gary Jones, a retired Jaguar engineer who now volunteers at the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust, restoring and maintaining Jag’s extensive historic collection.

We headed out on the track right behind the one-and-only 1966 XJ13; more on that car later.

Le Mans Classic 2006 - 1971 Porsche 917
Le Mans Classic 2006 – 1971 Porsche 917. Click image to enlarge

Our XK120, powered by a 180-hp 3.4-litre straight six, made the most glorious noises as Jones worked his way through the four-speed crash box. We struck a leisurely pace, with the old girl listing like a torpedoed freighter through the turns. We were passed by everything out there, including a Jaguar XJ220 supercar and a couple of Bugatti Veyrons.

They can have their 1000 hp, wacky aerodynamics and all-wheel drive. It takes a real man to drive a vintage car with no seat belts. Jones tugged on the manhole cover-sized steering wheel and double-clutched the whole way while I enjoyed the scenery. I felt my spine tingle as we passed under the famed Dunlop Bridge. Heading down the Mulsanne Straight the speedo showed 90 mph, but it felt a lot faster than that, what with all the engine and wind noise.

Le Mans Classic 2006 - Jaguar XJ13
Le Mans Classic 2006 – Jaguar XJ13. Click image to enlarge

While our XK120 carried some serious providence, the car creating the most buzz for Jaguar at Le Mans Classic was the 1966 XJ13. This 5.0 litre, mid-engined V12 beauty was built to take on the Ford GT40 at Le Mans but never turned a wheel in anger due to a change in Jaguar’s commitment to racing after they merged with British Leyland.

The car languished for several years, and Sir William Lyons, Jaguar’s founder, instructed that the car was not to be circuit tested.

Le Mans Classic 2006 - Ferrari
Le Mans Classic 2006 - Ford GT40
Le Mans Classic 2006 - 1931 Blower Bentley
Le Mans Classic 2006 – Top to bottom: Ferrari, Ford GT40 and 1931 Blower Bentley. Click image to enlarge

Against his boss’ wishes, test driver Norman Dewis took the XJ13 to the Motor Industry Research Association test track, where it turned in some impressive numbers. Subsequently, Lyons allowed for further development of the car, but never let it race.

In 1971, while making a promotional film for Jag’s new V12 E-Type, the XJ13 was essentially destroyed after a wheel bearing broke at 140 mph, causing a horrendous crash. Dewis survived by curling up under the dash and riding out the numerous flips and rolls.

The XJ13 sat for many years before Jaguar decided to rebuild it. Recently the racer underwent a complete ground up restoration and this weekend was the XJ13’s Le Mans debut – 40 years late.

Other highlights of the Classic included witnessing the legendary rivalry between the Ford GT40 MK II and Ferrari 275 GTB/C played out again, and seeing a herd of 1920s vintage Blower Bentleys bellowing past pit row.

The racing continued throughout the night. Since there were some fine local vintages beckoning me from the hotel, I elected to return and sample another longstanding aspect of the French culture.

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