Thirty seven years ago Jaguar won Le Mans for the second time. At the wheel was one of motor racing’s most colourful characters Duncan Hamilton. He and Tony Rolt drove their legendary C-type to the finish in record time; they had led for most of the race, had set the distance record in the twenty second hour and were the first to win at an average of over 100 mph.
The winning car, Jaguar X120C now registered LSF 420, one of the most famous and historically significant Jaguars in existence, is now owned by Adrian Hamilton, Duncan’s son. Last month we pictured it thundering along the shoreline of Loch Leven on the Ecurie Ecosse Historic Motor Tour, and more recently we were fortunate enough to be invited down to Hampshire to see the car, now beautifully restored, and chat to Duncan about his famous win in 1953. Duncan gave us a rare and amusing insight into racing in general, and more particularly racing for Jaguar before the days of high profile commercialism and when even on the circuit one might occasionally say “After you, Charlie!”.
“In practice we had gone very well, and I had ended up the fastest of the team. Of course that had Stirling hopping about because I was quite a bit faster than him, and he said it was all down to the car. He asked Lyons if he could drive my car. ‘No, not likely’ I replied ‘but I’ll drive Stirling’s car, and see how I put it round’. So off I went and poked Stirling’s car round the track, and equalled the lap record with that, which kept Stirling quiet for a while.
“Really we had a fairly uneventful race, not even a gauge went wrong. The biggest drama was when I hit a pigeon travelling at about 140 mph. It hit the windscreen which broke clean in half and smashed onto my nose. So I ended up doing most of the race with a fractured nose.
“We started the race a few places back, but we were in no hurry. I’ve done ten or so Le Mans, and I’m usually on the leader board after the first few hours. Of course the cars don’t always finish, but in ’53 it was the car that was the main thing; the steering was right, the brakes were right, the balance was right, and the weather and the course suited the car.
“Of course one always had the problem of the French and all their little Panhards and what have you that they put in. The differential of speed was massive and made it rather like racing through Piccadilly Circus in a traffic jam. I nearly killed myself in ’58 when someone messed it up, went sideways across the road, and then stopped. I was doing 180 or so, and when I touched the bank I shot clean over the trees, went end over end and landed in a stream, which broke my fall, although I was very much unconscious by then. It was a good old accident, but in ’53 we had no dramas at all.
“However, in the night the fog came down, and it became quite tiring. We were driving for nearly four hours at a time, although I was used to that after flying ‘planes in the war. In the fog I dropped two seconds a lap. I knew the way, but we had to dodge slower cars. The only car that got near me, and I could tell by the beat of it, was a twelve-cylinder Ferrari. I could see the lights coming through the fog, although it was dawn at about 6.30 am. It was Tom Cole, and I waved him by. He was the only chap to pass me in the entire race, but I knew he was going too fast. My speed was about right for the fog, but no faster. Sadly he didn’t complete a lap at that speed. He was disorientated by the fog and he went through a hut at White House, was thrown out of the car and killed.
“We weren’t strapped in then. It was just as well I wasn’t strapped in when I came out of both a C-and D-Type. I came out at over a hundred in the Portugese Grand Prix. I was leading when the Ferrari behind me touched my car. I went straight into a pylon, chopped it down, and out I flew. I broke my neck and jaw and all that sort of thing and finished up on a slab with a big chunk out of me, and nuns nursing me. They were all busy trying to put the lights on — well of course I couldn’t talk because I had broken my jaw, and I couldn’t speak Portugese anyway — but I’d knocked the pylon down outside and so there were no lights. All I could say was `waarhter’, which I wanted to wash the blood out of my mouth and so forth. Then this old boy was brought in, and he said to me, ‘What is it that you want?’ in perfect English. `Waarhter’ I said. He then had a long chat, in Portugese, with the nuns and the surgeons, and then came back to me and said, ‘The water is bad here, you can’t drink it, but you can have some port’. So there I was lying on this thing with a bust leg, arm, chin and neck and a nun pouring a bottle of port down my throat!”
The question of the relative lack of safety in motor racing in the Fifties rather naturally brought us round to this season’s hoary chestnut — the Mulsanne Straight. What did Duncan think about the chicanes that had been added to allow this year’s race to go ahead?
“Tony Rolt always wanted chicanes on the Mulsanne, myself and Mike Hawthorne preferred the straight, because there was a slight bend to it, and to do that bend at full chat in a C- or D-type required a considerable amount of courage. We used to make up a lot of time there. Not cheating oneself one used to keep the thing there thinking `go on yer bugger keep it there’ — in the rain mark you — ‘keep it there’, and she starts to slide, a bit of left lock control, and you gradually ease off, just to make the heart feel a little better. But you don’t get any slower, not even an 1/8th of a mile an hour. So Mike and myself confessed to each other over a glass of beer that that is what we both did, and that was how we made up time.
“I’m not sure how fast we were going. If ever I had a speedo in a Le Mans car I had it taken out and another rev counter put in. I reckon I lost the Dutch Grand Prix, when on the second lap my rev counter drive sheared, and I drove the whole race and finished fourth without a rev counter, and without putting a rod out.
“But really I think the chicanes are going to heat the tyres, not cool them, and with the acceleration nowadays the cars are going to be straight up to top speed in between the chicanes.
“I always used to relax on the Mulsanne. I would wave my feet around, because you do tend to get cramp in them, and I would drive one handed once I was past the kink, in order to stretch my arms for a bit. I’d stretch one, then the other, and then the neck. One really needed it, because those cars had a lot of vibration at 6000 rpm hour after hour. After your stint it was straight into the masseurs for a heavy massage around the neck and shoulders.
“Racing then was nothing like it is today. The rather small Jaguar team was a very happy set-up. My wife used to run the stop watches. She was very hot with them, and knew exactly what was going on lap after lap. Out would go the old ‘As you are’ board, or ‘put your foot down’ or ‘Ease up’. We didn’t have caravans at the back of the pits in those days. At least we didn’t in 1953, but by 1954 I had one made. It was a vast thing that could sleep eight. In 1953 we had little boy scout tents out the back, and we used to rest in those with the rain running down our necks. I used to take a large chateau near Le Mans. All my friends used to come down, and Tony and myself used to go back and forth from the circuit like two chaps who had just fought and survived a war would. We were not teetotalers by any means, far from it. I always used to have a glass of coffee and a brandy and off I went. I’d been flying Spitfires since 1940 and you couldn’t do that on a dry stomach. Every time you took off could be your last, and sometimes you had to do that eight times a day.
“The camaraderie within the team was terrific. Although Lofty fired me in ’56 he asked me back, so I said ‘I’m not coming, I’m being paid a fortune’. We used to call him teacher because he was always telling us what to do. In the end I sent him a mortar board, a cape, and a cane for Christmas, with a note saying ‘with best wishes to Teacher from Duncan’. He sent me back three little cricket stumps and a little bat with a note saying ‘learn to play Cricket’.”