Sports car racing was the premier form of motorsport in the 1950s. While the first Formula 1 race had already taken place in 1950, that series wouldn’t start to gain the prominence it now has before the 60s. This meant that any car maker trying to showcase its racing pedigree had to compete at Le Mans and other endurance racing events the world over. Consequently, manufacturers like Ferrari, Mercedes Benz and Aston Martin, among others, ran intensely competitive racing outfits. But Jaguar were most dominant in this decade, first winning with the C-Type in 1953 and then with the Jaguar D-Type in ’55, ’56 and ’57.
The D-Type’s legendary stature in automotive history though is despite its Le Mans success. It pioneered a string of technological innovations which are now commonplace in everyday cars and is arguably one of the prettiest cars ever made. The D-Type body design bore no relation to the C-Type, being a completely new set up. The aluminium body was designed by Malcolm Sayer, whose aviation background clearly showed in the highly aerodynamic shape. It sat on a magnesium alloy (later aluminium) tub, aluminium sub-frames were attached front and back to hold in all the other components. The independent front suspension and live rear axle though were carried over from the C -Type. The D-Type is also notable for being one of the earliest race cars to have been fitted with disc brakes on all four wheels.
The D-Type was fitted with the legendary XK straight six. First seen on the XK120 and then also on the C-Type, this engine was constantly tinkered with by Jaguar, and in the D-Type, produced between 245 going up to 300 hp by the end of production. The gearbox was a 4-speed manual. A total of 71 competition D-Types were produced between 1954 and ‘57 along with 16 XKSS cars, before a fire at the factory brought an end to production. The XKSS was the road going variant of the D-Type produced when a rule change at Le Mans left Jaguar with unused chassis components.
The D-Type’s stint in competition started off quite weakly in 1954. All three Works cars failed to finish Le Mans that year owing to failed fuel valves(they were the only team to have been supplied polluted fuel that year). The first D-type victory came in the Reims 12-hour race in July 1954 followed by three consecutive wins in Le Mans in ’55, 56 and ’57. The D-Types cemented their place as the most successful car in racing in 1957 when D-types finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th. These were by Jaguar backed privateer outfits as Jaguar had withdrawn from sports car racing after the horrifying crash involving the Mercedes car in 1955. Apart from Le Mans, the D-Type had numerous wins/podium finishes in events all over Europe and America throughout the 50s.
The car seen here (Chassis no. XKD 403, registered OKV 2) and up for auction at RM Sotheby’s Arizona sale is a cornerstone of Jaguar’s racing history. It was the third of 5 cars that Jaguar built in 1954, the D-Type’s first year in competition. It was driven in that year’s Le Mans by the legendary Sir Stirling Moss as the lead car of the Works team. It was then used as the main development car by Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis through much of the D-Type racing program. OKV 2 also saw a lot of competitive action, first as a Jaguar entry and then through privateers. The car was constantly updated throughout the D-Type’s development and raced right up to the early 60s.
The Jaguar D-Type was one of the most influential race cars ever made. It raised the bar in sports car racing and easily bettered the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes. It was also a major stepping stone in the development of the E-Type and can easily be called one of the most important cars ever made by Jaguar. Photos: Patrick Ernzen for RM Sotheby’s