D-type approval

Andrew Frankel drove the most original factory D-type of all in the Le Mans Classic parade, then opened it up on William Lyons’s favourite testing ground the English country road Words: Andrew Frankel. Photography: Ian Fraser

For a moment, it was real. This was race day at Le Mans and I was in XKD605, the last but one of the works D-types. If I looked ahead, all I could see was Mulsanne straight stretching to the horizon, but to my sides I was flanked by two other D-types, XKDs 501 and 573 which, by freakish coincidence, happened to be respectively the first and last the private D-types offered for sale by the factory. In arrow formation, racing twin-cam straight sixes howling, we split the air asunder as we hammered towards the kink.

But while ‘my’ D-type had set fastest lap at Le Mans in 1956, it was Ecurie Ecosse’s 501 that went and won it, with Equipe Nationale Belge’s 573 coming home fourth. Looking at the dials, I noted the rev-counter registering 5500rpm in top gear — at this very place during that race 50 years ago, it would have pulled no more than 5800rpm. I don’t know how fast we were going, nor even if it retained its Le Mans gearing, but it didn’t matter. In that brief instant somewhere on the far side of 140mph, I caught the slightest flavour, the merest, most fleeting taste of what Mike Hawthorn would have seen, heard and felt as he sat in the same seat half a century before. Within minutes we were back in the paddock, demonstration over, faces grinning, throttles blipping as we returned to the pits and reality. It was race day, but for a different generation of racing car. Even so, it is not something you forget.

Spool back a week or two, leave the hubbub of the Le Mans Classic parade and join me and XKD605 as we’re parked at the side of a quiet lane in rural Oxfordshire. This is not only Hawthorn’s ’56 Le Mans car but also the most original of all the factory Ds. It started life with a fuel-injected 3.4-litre engine and won its first competitive outing, the Reims 12Hrs with Ivor Bueb and Duncan Hamilton at the wheel. Hamilton claimed he was fired by Lofty England for winning, rather than slowing and gifting victory to the Paul Frere/Hawthorn Jaguar. It then went to Le Mans as Jaguar’s brightest hope, soon to become the factory’s only hope when the two other works cars took each other out on the first lap. Hawthorn established a 200-yard lead on that lap alone and it seemed fairly clear that only bad luck would deny it victory. That luck arrived on lap four when a split injector pipe brought a stuttering D-type in for the first of several stops, costing the car the race. It was sixth by the flag with the lap record to its credit, but Jaguar’s blushes were saved by Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart in David Murray’s XKD501 who took the flag 10 miles ahead of Stirling Moss and Peter Collins’s Aston.

It then became the first D-type to be fitted with a 3.8-litre engine (which it retains to this day) before being shipped to the US to be used by Briggs Cunningham. Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb drove it to third place in the 1957 Sebring 12 Hours, its last major competition outing before becoming a display item. It ended up in the Biscaretti museum in Turin in the early 1960s, where it stayed for years, some even claiming that the 1970s Leylandrun Jaguar was unaware of its existence. When Jaguar did try to recover it in the mid-70s, it was suggested that under local law ownership had passed to the Italians, so it was arranged to be swapped with an XJS. Returned to the UK, it has been the flagship of the Jaguar-Daimler Heritage Trust collection ever since. Every important part is original, the car having been simply maintained in peak working order, without being restored: to this day every tiny dent, scratch, split and nick survives to help tell the story of this extraordinary car.

My plan was to experience a side of the D-type all too rarely seen. When we think of the Ds, we think of racing in general and Le Mans in particular: we hardly ever consider what a fabulous road car it made as well.

The idea came from Norman Dewis, Jaguar’s chief test driver for more than 30 years and the man whose first proper job upon arriving at Jaguar in the early 1950s was to turn the D-type into a competitive proposition. And while the likes of Hawthorn and Hamilton, Bueb and England have long since gone to the great race-track in the sky, Dewis is an absurdly sprightly 85 year old who needs no excuse to drive D-types, even today. He competed at the ill-fated 1955 Le Mans in a works D-type but today he talks at least as fondly of driving the cars to and from the circuit on the public road.

“Sir William always wanted to reinforce the link between our road cars and the racers,” he says today. “While the D-type was developed at Silverstone and MIRA, it was thought important to show that it could be used as road car. And what better way could there be of doing that: we drove them from Coventry down to Le Mans, won the race, and drove them back again. The crowds were amazing.”

I’d once driven a C-type on the road but Dewis suggested that today would be rather different. “I know that knocking the C-type is not the thing to do these days but I never thought it was a very impressive car. It had a 40-gallon fuel tank slung out the back so you can imagine how much its handling changed from full to empty. But the D… now that was proper.”

Surprisingly, my 6ft 3in frame fits the D’s cabin rather well. It looks more like the cockpit of an aircraft than a car, but it’s all fairly straightforward: turn the key, thumb the button and wait for the bang. It arrives instantly as the 3.8-litre motor is woken. The engine is tuned for fast road use as sensibly JDHT does not allow it to be raced, but it still puts out around 300bhp, which in a car weighing less than a tonne is more than enough to warrant your undivided attention. It’ll also dispatch any modern road car you’re likely to chance across.

And yet it is surprisingly easy to drive. The clutch is sharp but not savage, the engine as tractable as you could wish. The Moss gearbox has syncromesh on all four ratios to make it easy for even very tired racing drivers to get the right gear and the steering is light enough even at parking speeds.

The roads are empty and, despite the car’s seven-figure value, I see no reason at all not to enjoy it to the full. JDHT has imposed no restrictions on how I drive so I simply straighten my right foot and go to work.

What strikes first is how comfortable it is. Though it has a live rear axle — and this was its undoing on tighter circuits — its ride quality is actually pretty impressive, even on unyielding Dunlop race rubber. It seems born for undulating lanes, rolling just enough to feel supple without ever pitching or heaving disconcertingly. The engine has a vast spread of power — it’s alive at 2000rpm, interested at 3000rpm, exhilarating at 4000rpm and positively feral above 5000rpm, so you can drive it how you like. You can work the slow and steady ‘box hard, keep the straight six screaming and really motor, but I found it just as pleasurable to leave it in third, ease off a tenth or two and savour the occasion.

It is also set up to perfection for the road. The correct approach is to turn into a corner on a trailing throttle, which gets the nose sniffing the apex, before then using the engine’s immense torque and progressive power delivery to place the tail precisely where you’d like. This does not result in lurid oversteer, but merely coaxes the car into that delicious neutrality whereupon its direction of travel can be determined as much by foot as hand. Just to feel a D-type drifting gently beneath you is one of the rarest privileges I have been afforded.

But soon it’s time to give the D-type back and amid the sorrow at its departure, so also there is relief. Relief that I did not place this priceless piece of history in the smallest mechanical or bodily peril; but also the relief that comes from discovering that the D-type really is as good as its reputation suggests. Jaguar might have thought that driving these cars from Coventry to Le Mans was a publicity stunt, but I suspect those like Dewis who actually did it had another motive: there is no other machine that would look, sound and feel better than this.