Thunder & frightening

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Of all British sportscars, the Jaguar D-type and Ford’s GT40 are the most successful. Yet, though separated by just four seasons, they feel a generation apart. Andrew Frankel braves the weather to find out more.
Photography by Andrew Yeadon.

There will, doubtless, be those who argue that these two cars are not the finest of all British sportscars. Neither do I doubt that some will suggest that one of them isn’t even British, though given the Ford GT40 was designed, built and developed almost entirely in Britain and almost entirely by the British, it seems just to claim it as our own.

To me, though, there is no doubt. These are British greatest sports racing cars, as proven by the greatest race for such cars: the Le Mans 24 Hours. The seven victories they hold between them means they stand unapproached, by this measure at least, by any other British car of any era.

That’s one reason they’re here. In an issue that’s devoted largely to celebrating 75 years of British sportscars, it seemed entirely natural to put these two pinnacles of achievement together. But there VMS another reason. We wanted to provide graphic illustration of how the face of sportscar racing changed for all time between the eras these two occupied. Stand them side by side and you could imagine 30 years separating their competition careers. In fact it was just four short years that split the last appearance of a D-type at Le Mans and the first of the Ford GT40, the car that would change the face of its sport for all time.

There are some D-types more famous than this, chassis XKD573, but not many, and fewer still that are more instantly recognisable. Sporting the bright yellow bodywork of Equipe Nationale Beige, it was built and prepared by the works for the 1956 Le Mans race where it finished fourth driven by Jacques Swaters and Freddy Rousselle, a feat repeated the following year, this time with Paul Frere splitting the shifts with Rousselle. Significantly, in the ’57 event, it lapped quicker on average than any other D-type in the race, the victor included, and it was only due to spending over 80 minutes out of action during the race, compared to just 13 minutes for the long-nosed winner, that victory was denied.

For well over 30 years it has belonged to John Coombs and recently had its original 3.4-litre engine substituted by a wide-angle 3.8-litre motor and used to no small effect by Frank Sytner to come second in the pre-1960 Sports Cars race at the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique. Considering it was beaten only by Lindsay Owen-Jones’s Birdcage Maserati, a car rather more suited to the twisting Monagasque track, this rates as some considerable achievement for both car and driver.

The Ford, it should be said, is lacking such an illustrious history. In fact it was only built in 1995 and has yet to enter a single race. Even so, it has as much right to call itself a GT40 as any other. It is one of three cars for which parts were originally made and the sole difference between them and all other GT4Os is merely that it took rather longer than usual to bolt them all together. In every respect it is absolutely an authentic GT40, complete from its P/1088 chassis plate to its deafening 289cu in Ford V8 located just inches behind your left car.

It made sense to try the D-type first. You will have spotted by now that the weather chose to put on a special show for the day we decided to put these two side by side on a track, and the prospect of kicking off the proceedings by taking on the pond-proportioned puddles littering the circuit with the Ford’s 15in hand-cut rear slicks was rather less than inviting.

Climbing aboard the Jaguar is simplicity itself. The tiny door hooks open, you raise a leg over the high sill, stand on the seat, brace yourself with your arms as you aim each foot either side of the wooden steering wheel with its perforated alloy spokes and let go. By the time your backside hits the squab, your feet will have collided gently with the pedals and you will find yourself safely and sensibly ensconced in the D-type. Though you sit most definitely in, rather than on the car, you remain aware of being a way off the ground in an entirely comfortable but rather upright position. The pedals are offset to the right, but not drastically so and the gear lever lies curiously almost horizontally on top of the transmission tunnel.

The starting procedure is elementary. You turn the key, press a button and, seemingly before the crankshaft has completed its first revolution, all cylinders fire on cue. The noise is unmistakeably that of the British racing twin-cam straight six, coarse and rasping at idle, rising to a rich, silken bellow as more and more of its 300-plus horsepower is put to work. Yet there is nothing intimidating about this, despite the volume of the sound. Even in this weather it all sounds rather inviting.

Nor is there anything too difficult when taking your first tentative steps in this British icon. You have to take care of the clutch and avoid the temptation to slip it away from rest. Its bite is quite sharp but there’s enough torque at little more than idling revs to pull away without abusing the left pedal. The gearbox is wonderful. Unlike many rivals of both its and the GT40’s era, it has full syncromesh and slots deftly through its ratios so long as you take the slightest care to blip the throttle on your way back down the box. It’s not the quickest change around hut it never interrupts your progress for long.

Forget thoughts of the D-type being just another nice old racing car. All ‘D’s are quick and this is one ‘idle swiftest of all, behaving exactly as you’d expect any car would with, conservatively, a power to weight ratio of well over 350bhp per tonne. There’s no road-going Ferrari made today which would stay with this Jaguar up to at least 100mph — and very probably rather more than that — while, with Le Mans gearing, something close to 185mph would be attainable. This is a massively quick and powerful car that needs respect in all conditions, let alone the deluge with which we were honoured.

The power, however, is not the joy of the D-type, it is the way in which it interacts with the chassis. It uses wishbones at the front, a live axle located by trailing arms at the back and torsion bar springing at both ends. Even in this still actively campaigned D-type, the suspension feels more than sufficiently supple to provide a comfortable ride and soft enough not to skate across the soaking tarmac. Tyres, the inevitable Dunlop racers, come on 16in rims and are 6.51n wide at the back and half a inch narrower at the front.

Even in such conditions, the D-type grips unreasonably well but the proper fun begins when adhesion is finally challenged. This Jaguar is a car which will flow into oversteer if you wish but it’s a stance more readily and enjoyably adopted with a swift prod of the foot and even a destabilising flick of the wheel. Where it goes from there is entirely up to you. What’s most entrancing is that, despite the truly ridiculous angles of attack it will readily adopt, it seems quite unwilling to spin, making oversteer seem an almost stable attitude. Best of all is the even flow of torque flooding rearward from the mighty engine, providing a precise and predictable reaction to every movement of your foot.

More than anything, then, the D-type is an easy car to drive and I would suggest it was this, as much as any mechanical or aerodynamic advantage, which made it supreme in endurance races. It might be alright for a car to be a twitching monster if that is the only way to make it quick over a Grand Prix distance; but when your drivers are worn out after a day and a night on the limit, the fact it will forgive inevitable mistakes by providing huge mechanical and dynamic safety margins counts for more than pure grip or power ever could. The quickest car in the race will not win if an exhausted driver cannot keep it on the track. The D-type gave its drivers confidence: confidence that it would be reliable, comfortable, forgiving and, should it all finally go wrong, unusually strong too. To the drivers of the day, all too used to seeing friends pay with their lives for seemingly small mistakes, such knowledge must have been worth many horsepower.

You don’t have to clamber out of the D-type and slot yourself into the Ford GT40 to appreciate the legion advances made in those few years between their respective heydays. You just have to park the Jaguar next to the Ford and look at them. The first thing you notice is how much larger the Ford appears. This, in fact, is largely illusory. Its wheelbase, track and, most surprisingly, width are all greater by little more than 4in, while the Jaguar’s height advantage, perhaps where you’d expect to find the greatest difference to the measurements of the Ford, is just 3.5in. The Ford’s height may come within half an inch of the 40in alleged in its name (the GT40’s height, in Fact, did not drop under 40in until the Mk1V came along in 1967) but the Jaguar still fails to tower above it.

Inside, however, the world of the GT40 is utterly different. To climb aboard you have to hook open the long slim door handle and spend a little time assessing your next move. You’re saved by the fact that the door-top cuts into the roofline almost to its centre, rendering the GT40 effectively an open car with its doors ajar. Even so, there’s still a wide sill to negotiate, the right-handed gear lever to avoid, a tarty channel either side of the wheel into which your legs must be funnelled and no obvious bracing Points. Soon you learn the procedure and then learn to stick to it as any variance results in usually acute discomfort and embarrassment.

And you only have to be scalped once by the top of the door as it closes to learn to duck in future. The driving position is entirely different to that of the Jaguar. Though the dashboard appears further away and you’re less aware of the car’s internal extremities than in the effectively single-seater D-type, the GT40 is still by far the more claustrophobic. Partly this is no more than you’d expect from a closed racing car, but the lack of legroom, the fact you seem to be almost lying down after the upright Jaguar and the sense that if something went wrong it would be far from easy to escape, all suggest that this will be a harder car to know and love. Visibility, in all directions other than dead straight ahead, is predictably lousy and the instruments, while more comprehensive in number and perhaps logical in arrangement than those of the D’, are still not what you’d rush to call cohesively sited.

It’s no more difficult to start than the Jaguar. There’s no particular priming sequence to execute before the four huge twin-choke carburettors will supply the 4736cc motor with mixture tempting enough to coax it into life; you simply flick on the petrol pumps, wait for the ticking to subside a little and turn the key. If you hear a noise akin to a dozen supermarket trolleys hitting the tarmac behind you after falling twenty storeys, there’s a fair chance you have gained the V8’s attention.

It is stupendously loud and combines with the cramped driving position, the colossal, scarcely grooved slicks and the appalling weather to make me wonder how I ever got into this mess in the first place. You give thanks for small mercies under such circumstances and the ZF five speed gearbox with its easy throw and gentle syncromesh gives me one less worry to handle. All you have to remember is that the gearbox has an interlock system, designed to prevent wrong-slotting in the heat of the moment, making it effectively a sequential unit as you cannot miss gears out. The clutch is kind too.

As soon as track starts to move under the GT40’s tyres, so it starts to rain inside the car. As I peer through the gaps between the doors and body to view the leaden skies beyond I now know where the two inches of water I’m sitting in came from. Still, looking briefly on the bright side, there’s so much air rushing into the car there is at least not a chance of us steaming up in here. The single-blade wiper works better than you’d expect too, clearing a small but vital patch of glass without smearing.

But there is no escaping that the GT40 is less happy here than the Jaguar. Where the D-type had shrugged off the conditions and got on with the job, it proved impossible to gain the same commitment from the Ford. The problem came from the tyres which were never going to get slightly warm in the downpour. The car felt edgy at best, tramlining under brakes and squirming uncomfortably if a little too much power was applied too early at the exit of a curve. Even on the straights it was unable to much more than skip across the surface of the puddles, tugging disconcertingly at the wheel all the while.

You have to give the car the benefit of the doubt here. Many drivers with more experience in such cars have pronounced the GT40 a joy to drive. Moreover, when they explain their fondness for the car, the words have a rather familiar ring. They will tell you a GT40, compared to its rivals, was an extremely comfortable car to race wheel-to-wheel for hours on end, and they will also tell you it was a car without serious vices, one you could trust to behave in a civilised fashion even when this was not reciprocated by its driver.

It was also searingly quick. Though the engine in this GT40 is not yet to full race specification, and possesses a little less than the 380bhp claimed by the factory when new, its fourth gear acceleration (this being the lowest ratio that will tolerate full throttle in these conditions) is still eye-opening. Given unlimited space, or the Mulsanne Straight, a healthy 289cu in GT40 is good for 200mph.

While the V8 could hardly be more different in execution than the Jaguar six, its goals are similar. While its pushrod operated valves may sound inelegant next to the Jaguar’s twin overhead camshafts, the result is that most precious thing for a sportscar engine, a flow of reliable torque which allows you to stay in the higher gears, and spare the engine and transmission from strain. Read about the McLaren F1 GTR elsewhere in this issue and you’ll find this recipe for sportscar success is unchanged to this day.

Chassis stillness is a world apart from the Jaguar. Quite apart from the obvious extra rigidity of the monocoque, the suspension, with wishbones at the Front, upper and lower trailing arms behind with coil springs and anti-roll bars all round, feels much more race-bred. The ride is solid and the rack and Pinion steering much quicker and more precise than that of the D-type.

In those years between D-type and GT40, the sports racing car changed more fundamentally than at any other time, and it’s not manifest purely in the obvious like the relocation of the engine to behind the driver and advances in tyre technology. Though both were technically designed for road-going use too, it is the Jaguar which would feel immeasurably more familiar to those not used to driving racing cars. Though it’s faster and more agile than any roadgoing machine of its era, the difference between what worked on the road and what worked on the track could be seen and identified.

The GT40, on the other hand, appears as if from another planet. To those not familiar with racing cars of this era, its environment would appear entirely alien. This was a car built to be best on the track and you only have to drive its road-bound sister the MkIII, a interesting but ultimately dreadful road car, to know it. Trim a D-type for road use, call it an XKSS and the result is broadly wonderful.

There seems little point trying to draw further comparisons between these two. Despite the only brief period that elapsed between their careers, the difference in nature between a D-type Jaguar and this GT40 is truly as wide as that between the GT40 and the McLaren F1 GTR, 30 years its junior. There is really just one concrete area of common ground between them, and that is that, relative to their competitors, both made unreasonable efforts to look after their drivers. And to me, it is this which not simply explains a large part of their prodigious successes but also sets them apart from the pack.

Paul Frère tells how he could have won Le Mans with this D-type

It all began one year earlier with my Le Mons blunder, when after less than six minutes racing, in the Esses before Tertre Rouge, I spectacularly shortened the works D-type that Desmond Titterington was to share with me, involving Jack Fairman’s other D-type in the accident at the same time.

That the road was much more slippery than I had anticipated was a pretty poor excuse. Mike Hawthorn was in the pits with an injection problem which eventually cost him 17 laps – a hopeless situation – so Jaguar was virtually out of a race we should easily have won. Knowing what Le Mans meant to Lofty England and the company, and how much of its business depended on the race, I felt just terrible. Walking back to the pits, rain-soaked and as slowly as possible. I hardly dared to face Lofty, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said “Well, that’s motor racing”. Everyone was so kind to me and Pat Appleyard, Bill Lyons’ daughter, brought me a cup of tea. Fortunately, Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson saved the day for Jaguar after a heroic drive through a very wet night, driving for Ecurie Ecosse.

Then and there I decided that for 1957 I would not apply for a works car for Le Mans and would drive instead the D-type owned by Equipe Nationale Beige and try to redeem myself for the marque.

Before the race the car went back to Coventry to be fitted with all the latest developments, though the engine remained a 3.4-litre. I was given free choice of my co-driver among the members of Equipe Nationale and did not hesitate: I chose Freddy RousseIle, a garage owner in Verviers, little known today, but very gifted, fast, reliable – I can’t remember him crashing a car – and a very nice guy.

I loved the D-type. I always thought it felt like a real car, not a machine. It was so comfortable to drive with a powerful but flexible engine, a first-class syncromesh gearbox and wonderful brakes you didn’t need to be Goliath to operate. It also had very nice and accurate steering and a seat that made you feel truly part of the car.

After having been breathed on by the factory, our yellow D-type was so fast, and Freddy drove so well, that at 7am on Sunday we were running second behind Ron Flockhart and Ivor Bueb in the 3.8-litre car which went on to win the race. Then suddenly Freddy stopped at Mulsanne with a dead engine. Most drivers would probably have lifted the bonnet, looked for a detached wire and left the car for dead. Not so Freddy, who opened the distributor to find that one of he platinum points of the contact breaker was missing.

He quickly made a makeshift repair enabling him to drive back to the pit where the contact breaker was replaced, but we had fallen back to fifth. Now with nothing to lose, we pressed on, driving as fast as the Jag would go, overtook a Ferrari, but were unable to make a serious impression on the three leading Jaguars. In the end, we had to be content with fourth. But we had had a great time, thanks to Freddy’s perspicacity. Paul Frère

1969 Le Mans winner Jackie Oliver on the trusty Ford GT40

Ford’s fourth and final Le Mans victory in 1969 created several landmarks. It was the first of six wins for the great Jacky Ickx, and it was the first time the some car (chassis 1075) had won two years running, Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi having done the honours in ’68. But the race is best remembered for the closest finish in the history of the Vingt Quatre Heures.

The GT40 was past its best by 1969, and Porsche’s new 917 had moved the goalposts. But JW Automotive’s John Wyer was convinced that the old girl was still the ideal tool for the longer races. Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver duly won the Sebring 12 Hours, and teamed up again at the Sarthe.

“The GT40 was good and solid and reliable,” says Oliver. “It wasn’t competitive with Porsche’s latest creation, which was quicker round the corners. But John Wyer proved to be right.”

lckx nearly had cause to regret what proved to be the final traditional start after he refused to play the game and strolled somewhat casually across the track to his waiting car.

“We both protested the echelon start. His idea was to walk instead of run, but I remember the last few steps were a bit hurried. We had qualified quite near the front, so a few other guys had decided to take off when he was halfway across the track!

“You could never disagree with Jacky, he had fixed ideal, in his mind. It was a good partnership, and I didn’t argue with him. He was a bit of a superstar, but we worked well together, and we were the same size.

“That race was all to do with the team management. David Yorke and John Wyer just ran the thing like clockwork. We just picked up time in the pitstops; that’s what won the race, reliability and pitwork. The drivers didn’t really count for much.”

Nevertheless, young lion Ickx outwitted Porsche veteran Hans Herrmann in the final hour of the race, crossing the line just yards ahead.

“Jacky always wanted to start and finish the races!” recalls Oliver. ‘They changed the lead two or three times a lap over the closing stages, as I remember.”

The thrilling finale provided inspiration for Steve McQueen, who made his movie of the race just a year later. By then the GT40 was history, and JW Automotive and Gulf had teamed up with Porsche. Adam Cooper

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