Best of three?

In 1955 the Jaguar D-type, Ferrari 750 Monza and Aston Martin DB3S all contested the Goodwood Nine Hours. But which is best? It’s a tough choice
By Andrew Frankel

As the crowds arrived at Goodwood on August 20, 1955 for the Nine Hours endurance race, few if any of the fans knew that it would be the last long-distance, day into night race held at their beloved track – at least, until the circuit’s revived second life. And although the Porsche 550 driven by Stirling Moss had humbled many bigger, more powerful machines in practice, in the absence of the works Mercedes or Maserati teams, the race itself was always going to be between just three cars: the Jaguar D-type, Aston Martin DB3S and Ferrari 750 Monza.

With the race not counting towards the championship and coming soon after the tragedy at Le Mans, the three works DB3S cars were the only true factory machines there. Nevertheless Ecurie Ecosse had one D-type entered, while Duncan Hamilton had two ex-works cars at his disposal. Meanwhile, over in the Ferrari pit, all three 750 Monzas benefited from works assistance, so it was hardly as if the Astons were the only professional outfit in town.

Nor was the race short of top-name drivers. The lead Aston was to be driven by a Tony Brooks/Peter Collins dream team, ably backed by Le Mans winner Peter Walker driving with Dennis Poore, with Reg Parnell teamed with Roy Salvadori. The Ecurie Ecosse ‘D’ featured soon-to-be Le Mans winner Ninian Sanderson paired with Desmond Titterington, while Hamilton drove as usual with Tony Rolt in one car, with Peter Whitehead and Michael Head (father of Patrick) in the other.

Over at Ferrari all eyes were on the lead Monza, despite the likes of Harry Schell and Ken Wharton crewing its sister cars. And no wonder: as explosive partnerships go, you’d struggle to better the combination of Mike Hawthorn and Alfonso de Portago.

On paper, the Jaguars should have stroked it. The D-type was in its pomp, its 3.4-litre engine larger than the 3-litre units used by Aston and Ferrari, while its semi-monocoque construction was light years ahead of the simple ladder frames used by the DB3S and the Monza. It also had those unrivalled Malcolm Sayer aerodynamics. The Aston was the oldest of the trio, having first seen service back in 1953 but was, in fact, just getting into its somewhat belated stride thanks to the fitment of a twin-plug cylinder head and Girling disc brakes transforming its performance for the better.

By contrast, the Ferrari still looked stuck in the dark ages with its huge drums at each corner and a big-banger four-cylinder motor contrasting starkly with the glorious straight sixes in the British cars.

But thanks to the genius of Aurelio Lampredi, the Ferrari motor gave around 250-260bhp, and, as such, was probably at least a match for Bill Heynes’ XK motor in the Jag and at least 25bhp ahead of even Aston’s twin plug version of an engine originally designed by W O Bentley in the 1940s. Using every available rev and probably quite a few more besides, Hawthorn duly claimed pole for Ferrari.

The race, however, turned out rather differently. Hawthorn shot off into the distance, apparently driving as if in a 10-lap sprint, a style not to the taste of the Monza’s five-speed gearbox. As Hawthorn later wrote in Challenge Me the Race: “On paper it should have won, but after the first few laps I found it difficult to get the gears in and then difficult to get them out”. Incompetence in the pits dropped them back further and ultimately out of contention, though when it was running properly the car was so quick it not only claimed fastest lap but also climbed from 42nd to third place before retiring with a broken back axle.

That left Jaguar and Aston Martin to fight over the spoils. First the Collins Aston led, then the Ecurie Ecosse ‘D’. But Titterington crashed the Jag hard enough for it to need repairs, while Collins and Brooks experienced the unnerving phenomenon of the Aston’s lights going out in the middle of the night, gifting the lead to the sister Aston of Walker and Poore (the Parnell car had blown its clutch at the start). Years later, writing in Chris Nixon’s Racing with the David Brown Aston Martins, Poore robustly challenged Collins’ seemingly reasonable decision to stop and fix his headlights: “I wouldn’t have stopped, frankly, because I don’t think you really need lights on a course like Goodwood – you can see your way round perfectly easily”. Whether anyone else would have been able to see him was a subject on which he did not elaborate.

So the Walker/Poore Aston came through to win, hounded by the fast-recovering Ecurie Ecosse Jag, with the Ferraris nowhere.

Over half a century later, another DB3S, D-type and 750 Monza are howling around another track, this time the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit, seeking answers to questions that were never fully addressed at the time. I’ll say now that none of these individual cars was at Goodwood that day though, as you’ll read on page 64, each has a fascinating history.

Chronologically and alphabetically, it makes sense to look at the gorgeous Aston Martin first. Conceived to replace the heavy and underperforming DB3, Frank Feeley’s design is surely the prettiest open car ever to wear the Aston winged badge – it is less aggressive than the DBR1 for sure, but also cleaner of line and more pulchritudinous.

And though it was designed, engineered and built to race, when you climb aboard, it could almost be a road car. There’s acres of room in here for a start, a platoon of beautiful yet simple instruments beyond the large wood-rimmed wheel and a wonderful view down the bonnet to those front wings, rising as twin blades before you. This is a works car in ultimate specification with a twin plug head and disc brakes; flick a switch and press a button and you’re rewarded by a mellifluous burble as the straight six, fed by triple 45mm Webers, spins into life.

Stirling Moss came onto the Aston payroll in 1956 and reckoned this engine had its limitations, with too narrow a power band and the need for rigid adherence to redlines if it was to survive. We’ll not be going anywhere near the red today, but it’s equally clear that the engine, putting out well over double the power it had when first fitted to the DB2, needs revs and that the decision to revert to a four-speed box after the five-speed units used in the DB2 may have compromised performance, especially at tracks such as Le Mans where necessarily wide ratios were fitted.

In the wide-open spaces of Silverstone, it feels more fast than feral, but straightline speed was never the reason the DB3S was so adored by all who drove it. Its real talent came in the corners. For its age, the Aston feels not only absurdly nimble but also astonishingly accurate. The steering is unexpectedly light, with no slack around the centre, and allows you to place the car with total precision. It feels so manageable and inspires such confidence even on the first lap that you feel it was born to spend its life drifting through fast corners, guided by a master like Collins or Brooks.

And it’s not difficult to see why it was first to the flag that day back in 1955. Though these days we rate Goodwood as one of the quickest tracks in the world, back then when Spa, Monza, Le Mans and Silverstone ran in unrestricted form, Goodwood was merely a medium-fast circuit with short straights and lots of long, flowing, ultra-quick curves; in other words a track that could have been designed for a DB3S. The Monza might accelerate harder, the D-type might reach a higher top speed, but neither would have been so deliciously controllable to slither through Madgwick or Fordwater, and as a result might well not have carried quite so much speed onto the straight beyond.

The laps I did in the DB3S were among the most difficult of my life, because the history and value of the car commanded that I drive with saintly circumspection while the car itself quietly urged me to go ever faster. Through the Becketts complex where the track weaves left-right-left-right in a series of quick curves, each one a fraction slower and more tricky than the last, the Aston could be swung from apex to apex with a balletic grace I’ve not known in any other sports car of this era.

This is a car for connoisseurs, not a see-who-can-get-the-tail-out-furthest, powersliding hooligan, but one to be guided from the wrists, fine-tuned by the tips of your fingers. It must have been an awesome long-distance racer too – so easy and relaxing to drive that it would surely reduce driver fatigue to a minimum. When people consider Aston Martin’s record at Le Mans, it’s too easy to remember only that the DBR1 won it once, and forget the fact that the comprehensively outgunned DB3S came second no fewer than three times…

It is hard to imagine a contrast more stark between cars of similar genres, designs and engine capacities than that which exists between the DB3S and the Ferrari 750 Monza. Even its shape (attributed to none other than Dino Ferrari in Hans Tanner’s bible The Ferrari) looks threatening. This example has a slightly different nose to most Monzas thanks to an unusually creative repair to some crash damage in the 1950s and looks even more pugnacious than it should. The cockpit is cramped, the instruments pale in colour and difficult to read. There’s the classic exposed five-speed gearshift gate to remind you how easy it would be to select the wrong one and a vast wheel with that horse on its boss jutting out into your chest. Pumps and ignition are on the switch, so you just pull a string and wait for your world to explode.

The noise is about as far from that of a traditional V12 Ferrari racing engine as it is possible to imagine. There’s no symphony here, nothing subtle to its tone. This is not a sound to die to, it’s a sound to run away from as fast as possible. Breathing through monstrous 58mm Weber carburettors, it is the sound of pure mechanised menace: sharp, simple and savage. Painfully loud, it issues a direct challenge to you to choose a gear and try your luck. And in that instant you know there will be nothing easy in what follows. Even before it has turned a wheel, it is as intimidating as the Aston is welcoming.

As soon as you’re out of first gear, you flick down a cover that blocks off the left-hand plane of the ’box and go to work. The engine may not sound pretty but it’s unbelievably effective. There’s not much shove at 2500rpm, but it comes on strong thereafter and by 3500rpm it’s attacking like an axe murderer. Surprisingly, given the distance each piston has to travel, it will rev safely to 6000rpm, which is probably as far as you’d want to push a standard DB3S or D-type motor, but I’m not de Portago and this isn’t a race, so I keep it in the early fives which is more than enough to savour the beast in full flow. And there’s no escaping that it feels significantly quicker than the Aston.

Until, of course, you have to slow down for something. In period not everyone liked the DB3S’s discs – indeed at Rouen in ’56 Moss elected to revert to drums – but not only are they superior to the Monza’s drums in terms of pure retardation, they don’t need managing either, unlike the Monza brakes which have been known to wilt after a few laps of maximum attack.

But the bigger surprise lies in the corners. The common belief that Ferraris of this era were little more than engines on wheels withstands very little scrutiny. True, it has none of the steering delicacy of the Aston, and will both under- and oversteer more rapidly and to a greater degree, but once your terror is under control (it takes a while) and you’ve learned to trust it, it’s actually very capable. There’s a great deal of grip, a faithful reaction to every lift and dip of the throttle and, would you believe it, an actually quite faithful character lurking under all that intimidation. It’s never relaxing, would punish mercilessly any lack of respect from the driver, but if you take care and a deep breath, there’s a reward on offer that’s rare in any car of any age.

And so to the D-type. Statistically it was the most successful of the trio and by some margin: not only did it win Le Mans three times, twice in private hands, but it was alone among cars of its era in being able to keep up with the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR on a quick track. No wonder: different top speeds have been quoted for different D-types with different engines and body shapes during their Le Mans years, but it seems safe to say a 1955 works-specification car would have been good for around 175mph on the way from Tertre Rouge to Mulsanne, probably a good 10mph or more than anything a Monza or DB3S would manage.

As you slot yourself down into the dark, narrow cockpit, it feels more fighter plane than racing car. There’s even less room in here than the Ferrari and you’re kept so snug you feel part of the machine, rather than merely its operator. The pedals are offset to the right, the instruments to the left, so ahead there’s nothing more than one of the most evocative views in all of motor racing.

I’m used to hearing D-types with newly-built, wide-angle 3.8-litre engines that start with a bang followed by a rude rumble but this example, with as standard a 3.4-litre motor as ever sat under the bonnet of a ‘D’, is civility itself. It is perhaps even more closely related to a road car engine than the Aston’s motor (and quite unlike the Ferrari’s powerplant which arrived from the other direction, with an ancestry that can be traced back to the 2-litre GP unit that won back-to-back titles for Ascari in 1952-53) and it shows. Unlike its C-type predecessor it has a dry sump because Malcolm Sayer’s wind tunnel work mandated a lower bonnet line, but as you slot first, ease up the clutch and pull onto the circuit, it could almost be an XK120 roadster.

But not for long. I have to be specially careful with the Jaguar because unlike the Ferrari and Aston, which are kept in race-ready condition, this D-type is a time machine, unquestionably the most original in the world and preserved as a priceless piece of history. Even so, I am at least allowed to stretch its long, long legs, and soon that engine is snarling and vivid performance is being delivered. Subjectively I’d place it somewhere between the Aston and Ferrari for straightline shove but with power delivery characteristics much closer to those of the DB3S.

Its gearbox was designed by Jaguar and (unlike the Moss box in the C-type) had syncromesh even on first gear, specifically because it was needed for Mulsanne Corner. Today the change is slow even compared to the Aston’s and nowhere close to the lightning shift of the Ferrari, but it seems to suit a character even more languid than that of the DB3S.

Just for fun I run it up to reasonable speed on the Hangar Straight, take my foot off the throttle, press the clutch and see how slowly it sheds speed, which it does hardly at all. Right there, I can see precisely one reason why the Ds were so quick at Le Mans. In fact the clearest indication of its potential was provided by this very car at a practice session in April 1954 when Tony Rolt circulated 5.2 seconds under the lap record, held by Ascari in a 4.5-litre Ferrari 375MM.

Above all, the standard D-type is an easy car to drive. Perhaps not so delightfully communicative in the corners as the DB3S, but just as progressive and possibly quicker. Add in its power and aerodynamic advantage and it’s easy to understand why the most anyone ever saw of these cars at Le Mans was their rapidly disappearing tails.

Which to choose? Hawthorn reckoned the DB3S would “run away” from a D-type on a difficult circuit such as the Nürburgring but would have no answer to the power of the Jaguar at Le Mans. As for the Monza, he said, “I always think that the 3-litre was one of the best sports cars ever built”.

From my rather less informed perspective, each of these cars has a unique appeal: the Aston is the best to drive, the Ferrari the most challenging and the Jaguar substantially the quickest. Were you in a position lucky enough to be able to choose between them, the choice would be whether to have the D to race and win, the Ferrari to make you feel more alive than you thought possible, or the Aston just for the pure fun of it.

Me? I just feel blessed even to have spent a few hours at their wheels.

Our most sincere thanks are due to Silverstone Circuits and to the owners of the Aston Martin and Ferrari for providing their cars for this test, as well as the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust for lending us its unique D-type. We’d also like to especially thank both Gary Pearson and Chris Woodgate, without whom this feature would not have happened.