Bitter sweet success

This Jaguar D-Type raced just once, at Le Mans in 1955, and won the most tragic event in our sport’s history. Matthew Franey remembers how it was then and discovers what it is like today.

Studying the ways in which people react under conditions of great stress, a recent television programme concluded that while some simply go to pieces amidst scenes of great catastrophe, others, for reasons too complicated to explain here, are able to cope far better when all around is chaos and confusion. These people, so the programme makers suggested, are the ones who can exert influence on their chances of surviving terrible accidents and even help others to escape them.

In 1955, as few of you reading this doubtless need reminding, that catastrophe happened just a couple of hours after the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes wreaked unimaginable suffering among the crowds that lined the bank opposite the pits, mayhem replaced the sense of order that professional organisations like Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz had brought to the event. Yet while officials and emergency services struggled to reach the dead and injured some clear heads remained.

At race control, officials of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest were under intense and understandable pressure to call a complete halt to proceedings. How could people be expected to continue to sit there and watch a sporting spectacle when so many lives had been ended? Thankfully good sense did prevail. In Mark Kahn’s study of the events leading up to and following Levegh’s appalling accident, Death Race – Le Mans 1955 he tells of people standing just a few hundred yards from the crash who were unaware that anything had happened. If, officials argued, the race was stopped then a mass exodus of spectators would block the roads for miles around. Blocked roads would mean no access for ambulances and no ambulances meant further suffering for those in desperate need of medical assistance. The race went on.

In the pits, meanwhile, coolness of thought was to influence the eventual outcome of the race itself. As leader Mike Hawthorn, at the time involved in a spell-binding battle with Mercedes driver Juan Manuel Fangio and an unwitting catalyst to the events that led to Levegh’s accident, roared towards his pit crew for a fuel stop and change of driver, his D-type overshot under braking, coming to an eventual halt three garages further down. Aware that right behind him were unfolding scenes of great tumult Hawthorn jumped from the Jaguar. As his team manager Lofty England later explained in Kahn’s book, “Hawthorn had seen Levegh fly out of his car. He had seen all those people mown down. It wouldn’t make anybody very happy.”

Failure to stop opposite his own pit counter, however, had potentially serious ramifications for Jaguar’s eventual race success. Prevented by the rules from pushing the D-type back to its correct slot, England realised the only option was for Hawthorn to complete another lap. And so, despite the obvious trauma that he was witness to, England issued the following edict: “I took Hawthorn back to the car and said, ‘Do one more lap and we’ll put Bueb in.’ He did it. He was a chap who did what he was told.”

Under impossible pressure, the Englishman completed that lap and handed over to team-mate Bueb. The D-type sailed on relentlessly into the night and, when it was announced in the early hours that the Mercedes were to be withdrawn from the race in a mark of respect to those who had died, the D-type was handed its first Le Mans victory, the first of a hat-trick of wins that would make the car a classic. What a tragic shame that its success should come on the back of such suffering.

The Hawthom/Bueb chassis, XKD505, never raced again. Its record would stand forever at: Entered: One; Wins: One (Le Mans 1955). Thereafter it became a test bed for the D-type’s engineers who used it to work on replacing the solid rear axle with independent rear suspension and then, until 1958, as a ‘mule’ for tyre development. In 1959, as with so many racing cars past and present, XKD505 was broken up for spares. Its chassis subframe later reappeared in another D-type that had been rolled beyond repair at Snetterton and it wasn’t until the early 1980s, when the ‘Snetterton D’ was sent for restoration, that the illustrious history of the chassis within was discovered. Further searching unveiled other integral parts of the original car including the wide-angled cylinder head and the original live rear axle; so equipped and under the expert eye of Lynx Engineering, XKD505 was reborn.

As the car sits silent in today’s Le Mans pitlane, it is easy to fool yourself into believing the events of 1955 are far removed from the safer, modem facility that exists today. But just feet from where the D-type rests as we prepare for the photo-shoot once stood Lofty England and his Jaguar team. On the far side of the asphalt the crowds huddled then as they will this year to witness the world’s fastest sportscars and their drivers, and at the end of the pit road lies the rise to the Dunlop Bridge where Hawthorn and Fangio battled neck and neck for two solid hours, repeatedly breaking the lap record, lapping well in excess of 120mph, two of the world’s greatest racers refusing to run below ten-tenths despite the fact that nine-tenths of the race were still to be run.

Returning such a car to the scene of its sole triumph and doing justice to it on these pages is some responsibility; even more so when the rest of the MOTOR SPORT team are tackling with self-evident success the spectacular XJR9 that precedes this feature. It is therefore a relief to find the D-type, despite its race heritage, is as accommodating as the XJR9 is all-consuming. Swing open the tiny door that would be superfluous were it not for the wraparound windscreen that prevents you leaping straight into the driver’s seat, drop you legs below the ultra-wide, wood-rimmed steering wheel and gently snap the door shut behind you. You’re there. All it needs is the turn of a key, a press of the ignition and a sliver of throttle and the heart of this magnificent racing car, the ultra-reliable twin-cam six engine, crackles into life. In original race trim XKD505 ran a smaller capacity 3.4-litre block. It now possesses the 3.8-litre bottom end used by privateer D-types from 1957 onwards. This boosts power from an already healthy 270bhp to around 300bhp. Allied to reserves of torque that would shame cars with engines twice the size – perhaps 300lb ft at a shade over 4000rpm – the D-type, it is abundantly clear, will require very little in the way of ‘working the gearbox’ to make it go.

Not that that is a bad thing, for on XKD505 the transmission is its weakest link. The clutch action is refreshingly light, a vital requirement for endurance races, but the throw of the four-speed synchromesh Jaguar ‘box with its strange forward-tilted lever seems slower and longer than it really is. Second gear is especially hard to engage without unhurried double-declutching. Opinion over D-type ‘boxes is divided – Andrew Frankel’s experiences last year in the Equipe Nationale Beige car were far more positive, while racer-cum-journalist Willie Green’s test of XKD606 in the 1980s gave rise to a similar complaint. What is not in doubt however, is the fact that on the long, smooth straights at La Sarthe, shifting gears was the least of a driver’s worries.

What Messrs Hawthorn and Bueb would have been demanding was high speed and with it stability and handling. The D-type does not disappoint. In Le Mans guise, with its ultra-long gears, the car would have been cresting the Dunlop Bridge in excess of 150mph, at the end of the Mulsanne Straight 180mph would have been a possibility. Yet for all its phenomenal straightline speed, which is apparent the minute you come barrelling on to the start-finish straight and almost immediately need to select third gear, the D-type remains poised and reassuring. With the throttle buried the car accelerates with something approaching fury, the engine coming alive above 4000mm with a growl that is as unmistakable from the pit wall as it is from the cockpit. The only hint that it is running on skinny Dunlop racing tyres comes with a slight shimmy through the steering wheel when you take the quick right hander before the bridge on a trailing throttle.

The all-round Dunlop disc brakes, famously pioneered by Jaguar in the 1950s, are also gratifyingly efficient. So much so that Win Percy, on hand to help with the XJR9 shoot and a regular D-typo driver in historic events, declares them to be better than any `D’ he has previously driven. Power-assisted by a gearbox operated servo, the pedal requires little in the way of pressure to shed speed from the Jaguar but it remains, even when discs and pads are up to working temperature, a rather dead instrument. When the rears lock on, as they are apt to do under hard braking, especially downhill, the warning is not particularly pronounced.

What matters, of course, is how easily the driver can counter any form of oversteer, either under braking or acceleration, and here the D-type is in a class all of its own. The rack and pinion steering, acute and accurate at any speed and any angle of drift, is as close to perfect as you can get from a 1950s racer. Great swathes of lock are translated into waves of feedback and all it takes is a dip or lift of the accelerator to set the car up in dramatic opposite lock cornering shots. They are, in reality, ridiculously easy to do and are greater testament to this car’s ability than any its driver on that clay might have had. Only through the high-speed Esses did this car display a tendency to push onwards, but after just a handful of laps you learn to combine the live rear axle and kerbs on each apex to unsettle the rear end and swap understeer for oversteer. It’s not the fastest way around a race track, of course, but in the limited time available, it was certainly the most fun.

I had just one regret when it came to parking XKD505 for the last time, and that is that I will never get to race a D-type against other cars of its ilk. For this was probably the most confidence-inspiring sportscar I have driven, and surely must be one of the most enjoyable ways to spend a Sunday afternoon; or even 24 hours non-stop. That it won three Le Mans on the trot is a reflection on the genius of designer Malcolm Sayer and the Jaguar engineering department. Having driven one, it comes as no surprise at all.

Our thanks go to the owner of XKD505 for his tremendous generosiy; and to Menyn Garton Vehicle Movements (01604 858387).far transporting the D-type to and from Le Mans.