Top Cats!

In the overall scheme of things, forty years is hardly a big deal, and the pedigree of the late-Eighties racing Jaguar, the XJR-9 which recently revived the marques Le Mans-winning traditions, can be traced back in one bound to the C- and D-types which in their time were equally considered to be at the forefront of automotive technology. Although we still acclaim the attractive looks of the latter models, it is more difficult to appreciate that these open, skinny-tyred velocipedes were the business of their time.


Jaguar’s success in this year’s Le Mans 24-Hour Race has brought with it a flood of stories recounting the marque’s success in the 1950s. It is not often, though, that one gets the chance of driving one of those voluptuous machines, so when asked by Aubrey Finburgh of Classic Autos to try one of the original C-types in his care, I jumped at the opportunity.

From the beginning the standard XK120 was a sensational car both in looks and performance and, as was noted in Motor Sport at the time, it would always be remembered as the first car to combine the performance of a late-Twenties Grand Prix car with the smoothness, silence and docility of a high-grade town carriage.

Realising that it had something special on its hands (and pre-dating today’s homologation specials), Jaguar developed the XK120 into the XK120C (Competition) version with which to go racing. Of the 53 cars made, six were retained by the factory (three in 1951 and three in 1953) and 47 were sold to wealthy enthusiasts for £1495 plus tax.

Now approaching forty years old, Malcolm Sayer’s design is still very good looking, its long graceful bonnet extending back to the cockpit, with a slight kink over the back wheels and little rear overhang. Beneath the aluminium bodywork the suspension of the spaceframe chassis is torsion-bar and double-wishbone at the front, while the live rear axle is located by twin radius arms with an A-bracket, a transverse torsion bar and hydraulic dampers.

Utilising the six cylinder 3442cc long-stroke engine from the XK120, power output was increased by 50 bhp to 210 bhp by modifying the camshafts, enlarging the valves, improving the porting and installing larger SU carburettors.

One of the first purchasers of one of the “production” cars was Leslie Johnson, a competent driver who raced Jaguars and Nash-Healeys in the early Fifties. One of his greatest races was in 1950 at Le Mans when he and Bert Hadley worked their way up to second place in their slightly modified XK120 before being forced to retire in the 22nd hour when lapping quicker than the leading car. A year later he and Stirling Moss drove an XK120 coupé at Montlhéry and averaged well over 100 mph for the 24 hours.

The car he bought was chassis No 8, in August 1952. It was maintained at ERA in Dunstable, where it was fitted with a factory-supplied overdrive box. It was not extensively used in competition, since this was the Nash-Healey part of Johnson’s life, but he did take it to the 1953 Mille Miglia. Unfortunately he was forced to retire with a split fuel tank.

The C-type’s reign as top cat was about to come to an end as it was fast becoming apparent that it had been overtaken by the opposition, but it still had a good few years left in national championships. Even as late as 1957 this particular car, now in the hands of John Hogg and John Dekaert, was winning events and finished third in class in the Autosport Championship.

It then passed through several more hands, undergoing a restoration in the process, before being bought by Ian Barclay Wilson, its present owner, about 18 years ago. For the last 15 years it has been maintained by Classic Autos of Kings Langley which has kept the car as original as possible.

Modifications include an ignition cut-out (which has had to be installed to meet modern safety requirements) and a fire extinguisher located next to the passenger seat. The central spotlight behind the radiator grille is not original either, this being fitted earlier this year for the Beaujolais Run when relying on the poor original headlights could have been a recipe for disaster.

The front and rear suspension have been completely renovated over the years, as have many parts of the chassis, but the engine remains virtually untouched. A new head gasket was fitted at the end of last year to overcome a bout of overheating, but that was the first thne in fifteen years.

It is not a mollycoddled machine, however, for it is campaigned fairly vigorously in various historic events such as at the Nürburgring, Silverstone, Donington and Monaco. In the seasoned hands of historic car racer Paul Grist, it is driven to every meeting.

Other than one careful stride to get over the side of the car, there is little difficulty in getting into the seat. The driving position is low, in order to keep the air-flow clean, a small wrap-round aeroscreen providing protection from the wind.

At the press of a button, the car burbles into life, and its very sound informs you that you have six cylinders under the bonnet. Select first gear and the car is quite content to trickle forward in the thickest of traffic, but put your foot hard down and it surges ahead. Therein lies the car’s appeal, and a major reason why it is so sought after, for it is a pedigree sports-racing car which is not nervous about going shopping, is content to amble on the outside lane of the motorway mingling with rush-hour traffic, and is happy to blast full-bore whenever the opportunity occurs.

There are several things to take into consideration when driving at speed. One concerns the car’s brakes: even in their heyday the drum brakes had their limitations, and time has not improved them. Another is the handling, but such was the feedback from the road-going Cinturatos (rather than Dunlop Racing tyres) that any wayward behaviour could be overcome before a crisis was reached. Ride is firm, as is to be expected in a car of this ilk, and the steering is good and precise.

One brief spell in the car showed me just why there is a mini-boom in replica C-types which Classic Autos, the leading exponent of XK120s and 120Cs, is happy to service. But nothing can quite beat the real thing. WPK


It was in 1953 that Malcolm Sayer began working on the successor to the C-type, a new sports-racer informally referred to as the “D” by the factory. In fact, if one leafs through the Le Mans report in the July 1954 issue of Motor Sport, the Jaguars are not given any model designation at all, the D nomenclature being adopted by a journalist in another magazine so as to differentiate the new cars from the C-type.

Regarded as a thing of beauty at the time and likened to an aircraft on four wheels, the D-type is now regarded as the classic post-war sports-racing car. With a wheelbase of 7ft 6in, seven inches less than the C, and a scuttle height of 31.1/2in, its overall dimensions were kept to an absolute minimum.

The means of construction could be divided into three distinct sub-assemblies. At the front, the aluminium multitubular frame section on the works cars and steel frames on production ones carried the well-tried six-cylinder engine, gearbox and double-wishbone front suspension; a tubular tail section housed the 37-gallon flexible twin-bag fuel tank and spare wheel.

It was the centre section, however, which broke new ground in car construction, for it was an extremely strong elliptical cross-section monocoque, made from magnesium alloy, which was formed around the rear members of the forward spaceframe. Attached to the rear bulkhead were four flat, steel trailing arms which located the heavy Salisbury beam-axle with a transverse torsion bar and Girling telescopic dampers. An A-bracket looked after the lateral location.

To prevent oil surge as well as enable the bodyline to be lowered, the engine had been re-designed with dry-sump lubrication and so required an additional pump and modified sump. Crankshaft, bearing sizes, connecting rods and cylinder block were all retained from the production XK140 engine.

Three Weber carburettors, increased inlet valves, altered camshafts and exhaust manifolding enabled the power output to be increased to 245 bhp initially, although this was increased to 285 bhp a year later with a new wide-angle cylinder head. Fuel-injection pushed the output of the 1956 racing engines up to 300 bhp and a short-stroke 3-litre version, built to comply with the new regulations for 1958, gave 254 bhp.

Body shape evolved with the increase in engine power. The nose section was extended and rounded, while revised cooling ducts to the disc-brakes lowered the operating temperature by almost 200°F.

For their day, the brakes were quite advanced. Jaguar appreciated that 24 hours of racing places a great strain on the driver, so the company perfected a hydraulic servo system with which the brake pedal was no harder to operate than the accelerator, even after several hours of racing.

As it had done with the C-type, Jaguar put the D-type into production with plans to build an initial batch of 150 cars, but in fact a total of 71 cars were built.

Valentine Lindsay’s, which I had the opportunity of driving recently, spent much of its early life in Mexico owned by Julio Mariscal. It was raced quite extensively, a second place in the Grand Prix of Avandaro being one of its best placings. The car went through a series of American owners before being brought back to England by his father, the late Hon Patrick Lindsay.

In frequent use, it is by no means in pristine condition but its black paintwork is stunningly attractive despite chips which in some instances were several millimetres deep, testifying to the numerous coats of paint on the car. A quick touch-up effectively hides the blemishes, but the surface of the car is still inundated with small crevices.

The car was a delight to drive, proving very docile and tractable along country roads. Due to a tired engine, suffering from what sounded like valve-bounce, there was no opportunity to push the car to its limits, but it nonetheless managed to impress.

As expected, its brakes were far more comfortable to live with than those on the C-type, and the rack-and-pinion steering, straight from the XK140, was very direct. The one handicap all D-types share is that live rear axle. On anything but a smooth surface, the Jaguar tended to hop around, altogether losing traction in a bumpy corner at speed, the tyres unable to retain their grip as the wheels bounced over the surface.

As with so many cars, past and present, racing and otherwise, the most delightful aspect was the engine, despite the problems in this particular case. It had enough torque to accelerate without hesitation from 2500 rpm, and in real earnest from 4300 rpm.

One short run was enough to satisfy my curiosity as to why the D-type is regarded with such esteem. More than 30 years on, it remains handsome enough to set the heart pounding just that little bit quicker.

Whether we will be able to say that about the current racing Jaguars in the year 2018, let alone see them being driven on the public road by enthusiasts, remains to be seen; but in my opinion, despite the undeniable aura of today’s XJRs, they still cannot quite match that of the C- and D-types. WPK