Striped for action

A temporary identity crisis over its nose stripes hasn’t diminished this works racer’s remarkable originality. We gave Jaguar’s design chief Ian Callum his first D-type experience in a car that almost won Le Mans
Writer Gordon Cruickshank, photographer Matthew Howell

Consider a car which was rebuilt out of two separate machines, which has had a succession of engines, has worn two different bodies and was once passed off as something it wasn’t. Doesn’t sound a paragon of authenticity, does it? Yet the vehicle concerned possesses a fully traceable historical trail as a continuous entity, something Denis Jenkinson dinned into me as the one factor that allows you to say a car is ‘right’ when I joined this magazine. And while it’s dubious if restorers or dealers make misleading claims, things are different when all this happens as part of a machine’s first-line race career.

And this car, XKD603, comes from that front row; a works long-nose D-type built in 1956 to contest the great sports car races for Jaguar. That subsuming of identities happened at Browns Lane under Lofty England, and it was David Murray, instigator of Le Mans-winning team Ecurie Ecosse, who passed it off as something it wasn’t. In order to sell it at a premium when it was out of date and no great use to anyone, he changed its livery to turn it into the 1957 Le Mans winner and packed it off to the USA. It’s not always collectors and dealers who muddy the archive waters…

It was noted Jaguar historian Andrew Whyte who put things right. In 1973 603 came into the care of Anthony Bamford, still wearing the single white nose stripe of the ’57 winner, but Whyte had the evidence to confirm it as 603 – not a winner at La Sarthe, but a genuine second-placer there and boasting a unique and significant history of its own, one evinced by the patches, welds and bracketry that accrue on a much raced machine and confirmed by one unique and slightly bizarre piece of bodywork that it wore to only one party.

To return to 1956 and, in the wake of the previous year’s Le Mans disaster, a new set of rules for sports car racing. To steer away from prototypes and reduce speeds, cars now had to have a passenger door and a full-width windscreen, which affected Jaguar most as the ’55 cars boasted that wrap-around fighter screen and a mere hatch for the ‘passenger seat’. Malcolm Sayer’s tests showed a 10mph drop with the wide screen, so other changes had to be made to claw that back, notably Dunlop alloy wheels and lighter construction, as much to reduce consumption to cope with a new Le Mans tank limit as anything. Six cars were built, XKD601-6, and the team experimented with injection and both De Dion and independent rear suspension to supplant the C-type system of trailing arms and torsion bars that normally hung from the back of the D-type monocoque.

Having missed out on the new cars’ unpromising Sebring debut, it fell to 603 under Mike Hawthorn to make a mark at Silverstone’s Daily Express meeting with fastest lap – followed by a DNF due to a steering problem. Nor did the Nürburgring bring joy: Hawthorn and Desmond Titterington took 601 but a snapped halfshaft ended a miserable run, while Paul Frère, teamed with Duncan Hamilton, rolled 603 in practice. Full of promise, the new cars were not yet delivering.

Le Mans should have been next, but as track alterations postponed it the team chose to enter the 12 Hours of Reims, not to score points as this was non-championship, but in the main to test fuel economy to deal with Le Mans’ new 120-litre tank limit. At last it happened: a 1-2-3 for the works Jaguars, backed up by an Ecurie Ecosse D-type in fourth. True, this was not a strong field, but as a run-up for the big one it was perfect. Yet for 603, which finished third with Titterington and Jack Fairman, it was the end of its first life.

Come Le Mans the team was buzzing. Sayer had devised a plastic tonneau that smoothed back a few mph from the Appendix C screen, and with three entries plus a spare, not to mention short-nose Ds for EE and Écurie Nationale Belge, the cat was preening its whiskers. And it was a D that collected the garlands – but wearing the blue of Scotland. Only 10 minutes in, Frère spun 603 into the unforgiving wall at the Esses, sending team-mate Fairman into a spinning Ferrari and side-swiping two-thirds of Coventry’s hopes. With a split injector pipe dragging Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb 26 laps back, even their spirited recovery to sixth was a dispiriting end, for Jaguar then announced its withdrawal from racing.

Which caused a glass or two to be raised in Merchiston Mews, Edinburgh. What with pulling off the Le Mans win Jaguar craved, Ecosse inherited three of the ’56 long-noses including 603 – or what 603 had become. Frère’s clash with the laws of momentum caused serious damage to the monocoque, so Browns Lane replaced it with that of recently scrapped XKD602, retaining the front subframe of 603. Puzzled why it isn’t now called 602? Today we think of a monocoque as the core of the car. Not so then. Though ahead of the game, Jaguar’s engineers weren’t entirely confident about single-hull construction so the steel engine cradle in fact extends down the prop shaft tunnel to the rear bulkhead, with the riveted alloy centre section sitting astride it like saddlebags. The firm saw this subframe as the entity of the vehicle, hence the identity lying with that. There’s plenty of evidence of this, including interior panels stamped with both numbers and 602 pencilled under the metal of the fin, and also some valuable paperwork has accompanied the car to this very day – a blue notebook in which works competitions manager Phil Weaver recorded everything done to the car. There was one of these little books for every D, works or customer, and to possess car and book together is a rare prize.

With David Murray focused as much on exposure and prize money as any championship, 603 would have a busier time in its new Ecosse blue suit than with the factory outfit, starting in 1957 with Buenos Aires when Argentinian Grand Prix driver Roberto Mieres joined Ninian Sanderson in 603 for the 1000Kms. The Scot was lucky to hang on when a bird struck the screen; result, a disappointing fourth. While Murray sent Flockhart on an unsuccessful solo foray in the Mille Miglia, 603 travelled to the Ardennes where Sanderson and John Lawrence were well overshadowed by the opposition. In fact despite an Ecosse 1-2-3 at Reims (603 the tail-ender) the D was entering its sunset period, but reflected glory of Le Mans made the blue cars welcome at any meet and Murray made the most of it. Maybe he over-extended his little équipe, for ’57 brought much disappointment, but also one great prize when Bueb and Flockhart stroked 606, now with a fuel-injected 3.8, to victory at La Sarthe – and just six laps behind came 603. Even if the works Astons and Ferraris did fall out, it was a remarkable double for a private entrant and a major boast for this car.

It made two other splashes in the racing pool that year: victory in a 2hr race at St Étienne (its sole win) and a little trip to Italy to square up to some Yanks in ‘The Race of Two Worlds’. This attempt at a Monza set-to between Indianapolis and European racing cars faced a boycott by the Grand Prix world, but Murray, eyeing the huge prize fund, sent three cars, lightened by removing headlamps and using magnetos so as to ditch the battery. Running on the famous banking was obviously geared the US way and, despite small scoops in the rear wings, the stress on the D’s enclosed tyres forced them to limit speeds, Jack Fairman having a huge moment when 603 threw a tread. Nevertheless he finally placed fourth behind a trio of bellowing Offy roadsters. The car returned in 1958, steered by Ivor Bueb and equipped with something radical – a towering scoop like a 1970s F1 air intake, riveted over a hole in the right rear wing and gulping the Monza air to cool that critical tyre. This remains with the car, still bearing the metallic blue paint, a little faded but perfectly shaped to sit on the flank, a unique relic of an odd episode. It may have helped the tyre, but a broken fuel line stymied the effort.

For these two years while Jaguar worked quietly at E-type experiments and Ecosse plotted various XK-powered Lister and Tojeiro projects, the Ds continued as the workhorses, entering the important sports car events. But the new 3-litre capacity limit for sports cars put a short-stroke rod through Jaguar’s hopes of keeping its star aloft until a new racer appeared. Murray had arranged that the factory would install the smaller engines in his cars and prepare them (all detailed in 603’s blue book) but that didn’t save them. For 603, now registered RSF 303, the low placings of ’57 became a series of DNFs through 1958 and ’59, relieved by a couple of sevenths.

She did have some interesting people aboard, though: chain-smoking Masten Gregory from Kansas City, “lapped the Nürburgring faster than any works Jaguar ever has” said Motor Sport. Later he shared 603 with Fairman in an unsuccessful ’58 Le Mans trip, then with ebullient Scot Innes Ireland a year on. Before the engine curse again struck they ran third behind the Astons – impressive for a senescent model.

During ’59 David Murray’s plans expanded and he chose to sell Le Mans-winning 606. In the event he pulled a fast one: the three Ecosse cars carried one, two or three white nose stripes to tell them apart, 603 the corporal in the barracks. But while it gained a 3.8 motor for the sale it also lost a stripe, and what James Munro took home to America was not the winning car. But happy with his prize he kept it for many years before passing it on to well-known collector Anthony Bamford. It’s in this period you may have seen the car back on the track, often in the hands of Willie Green or Frank Sytner. Willie loved it: “Fantastic car,” he enthuses. “A lovely old lady. She just welcomed you aboard.”

In Green’s hands 603 returned to Le Mans for the classic event of 1978. “She was like a dog let out of the kennels – oh, we’re back here again, are we?” he remembers. “Just shook herself and got going.” To take a second place behind Stirling Moss – in a 250F. Green was supremely impressed by her stability. “Through the Mulsanne kink at 185 a Daytona goes fingertip light, but in a D at within 10mph of that you can drive with one hand. In fact,” he continues, “I followed Stephen Bond’s Lister down the straight and I could see the nose slowly rising. I went past in the D waving with both hands! It’s a serious compliment to Malcolm Sayer. He just got it right.”

Willie raced the car in original form, but as historic racing intensified she received a new engine with all the benefits of years of XK development, plus a fresh nose and tail which wouldn’t hurt so much in a bang. But the real engine and bodywork were carefully set aside, and restored to the car when Bamford sold it to Jonathan Turner, who raced the Orient Express with her. From Turner it went to collector and historic racer Stefan Ziegler and now, retired from the track, lives with Clive Beecham, who has finally returned it to NCO rank with that second stripe and had it refreshed by David Brazell Engineering. Luckily David is as intent on originality as the owner, and when I went to inspect it he gave me a run-down of what makes this such a unique survivor among these much-modified cars – works oil tank, brackets and cut-outs from when the factory briefly fitted injection, 1956 quick-change brake calipers, war surplus switches from a Lancaster bomber, BRG still showing under Ecosse blue, repairs made after Gregory hit a bank in 1958, and around the car those numbers 602 and 603. But more emotive are the leather and the wood. The cockpit trim was fitted at Browns Lane, and the steering wheel is that grasped by Mike Hawthorn in the car’s debut race at Silverstone almost 60 years ago. And although there’s a day-to-day seat in the car, the original one is brought out to show me, fabulously tatty as you’d hope after so many famous bottoms have settled into it. With the blue book recording its entire race career, and never being restored, 603 is a remarkable survivor almost straight from 1959 and the close of its first-line career.

Having got the car to the last Goodwood Revival in its proper livery, Brazell is sorting out those few things that have departed from spec over the years ready for entry to the 2015 Mille Miglia. Sharing the driving will be Jaguar design chief Ian Callum, and we all met when Ian came to experience it – his first D.

But before that it was my turn. Getting from a wheelchair into a D, even one with a tiny door, is formidable, but finally I was posted down the passenger hole and could take stock. Knees up high, feet braced on a bare bulkhead, heat gushing from round the handbrake, it’s a raw experience, separated from the driver by that central bar below which his hand ducks to click the angled gearlever. You feel both in and outside the car – folded round the mechanicals yet exposed to the gale over the shallow screen, envying the driver’s headrest as the acceleration pulls you back, revs dipping instantly between shifts and the next gear throwing you forward again in a relentless surge.

On these country roads the car jogs around on its suspension yet it isn’t wayward, and the noise is sublime – rich and hard-edged, blasting back from passing walls in glorious staccato barks. A thousand miles will be tough, but I envy them…

From the cockpit, Ian Callum
Jaguar design director forgets the pressures of the studio

Despite his wide experience Callum hadn’t driven a D before. “The first thing to hit me was a moment of nostalgia – growing up in Scotland I kept hearing about these cars and seeing it was like meeting an old film star who hasn’t aged. It’s a real privilege. I never take such things for granted despite the opportunities I have through work.”

As a trial for his planned Mille Miglia run Ian first had a ride. “It’s cramped in that little hole and enormously hot,” he said as he extricated himself. “Made me nervous about doing 500 miles in there!” Then it was time to change seats. Time to listen to David Brazell’s briefing, to feel the pedals, clack the short lever through trial changes, hear the trusting owner telling him to enjoy it. Time to prod the little Lucas button that unleashes that predator bark only a racing six can deliver.

After an experience like this you don’t leap out and walk away. And Callum doesn’t. Engine cut, goggles go up, he pats the wheel, inhales the smells of oil and brake dust and hot metal, and grins. “Fabulous!”

Dusting himself down he reflects. “A racing car on the road has its challenges, but I settled in quite quickly. You have to get into the right state of mind; recalibrate your senses, give yourself more space on the road. I expected it to be harder – the fact that it’s well sorted made it easier. The ride was almost civilised and the clutch wasn’t fierce. But the torque – bloody instant! I loved that engine. I love hearing something so mechanical. You don’t know the Jag marque until you’ve experience those sensations – it’s to do with the racing heritage, it tells you you’re in touch with a mechanical entity.”

Callum stepped into the D from his bright red E-type coupé. A contrast in physicality?

“I found the big wheel a bit bizarre and the thin rim takes getting used to. The box felt good; you’re aware of the revs without looking at the tach. Going down the gears was tricky – I had to remind myself to double-declutch and I crunched the gears a couple of times but once you find the rhythm it flows through the gears. The steering was good, not heavy, and the stability at speed was impressive; I don’t know if the fin really helps but there was no wander. You could keep it in a straight line without effort – although 175 on the Mulsanne might demand your attention.”

What about slowing down? “Once you learn to temper the pedal it will stop as you want,” Callum reckons, then goes on, “the remarkable thing was how drivable it was – you could tackle corners like in a modern car. I only drove it in tune with my ability; this isn’t about speed, it’s about enjoyment. Being a designer I have a peripheral view of things; I need to know what’s behind that bulkhead, and when you’re in this thing you know that XK engine is there! You’re aware of all the mechanical elements that make it alive.

And if he had to select a finest moment?

“We went on some wonderful country roads, but actually the outside lane of the M1 was memorable. Maybe because that was the closest to the Le Mans experience. The windrush was amazing – and the stares we got!”