Classic: Jaguar D-Type

By Ronan Glon

July 04, 2014

Photos courtesy of Jaguar and AutoWP
Developing a successor to the Jaguar C-Type was a daunting task.  The roadster had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1951 and 1953 so its heir had to be highly competitive, but stiff competition from big names like Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Aston Martin made winning the endurance more difficult than it had ever been.
Jaguar C-Type
Jaguar started working on the D-Type in early 1953.  While the C was an evolution of the road-going XK 120, management decided the D would be a purpose-built racer designed almost exclusively to bring home additional Le Mans victories.  This course of action allowed the automaker’s research and development department to ignore the rules and regulations that applied to street cars and focus solely on building a world-class endurance race car.
Beneath the D’s rounded and highly aerodynamic body hid a state-of-the-art chassis made up of a front sub-frame bolted to a monocoque.  Both components were initially made out aluminum – magnesium alloy in order to save weight, but the sub-frame was later crafted out of steel so teams could repair the car quickly and affordably.
Like many race cars of the era, the D-Type featured a minimalist, driver-focused cockpit with a handful of analog gauges and a three-spoke wood-rimmed steering wheel.  Interestingly, the two-seater variants of the D were equipped with a metal brace that separated the two occupants.
Power came from an evolution of the C-Type’s time-tested 3.4-liter straight-six engine.  Fed by three Weber carburetors, the mill sent 250 horsepower and 242 lb-ft. of torque to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual transmission, enough grunt to propel the sub-2,000-pound roadster from zero to 62 mph in about 4.7 seconds when properly configured.
The engine was tilted at an eight-degree angle and fitted with a dry sump lubrication system, a setup that lowered both the center of gravity and the hood line.
The D-Type made its public debut at the 1954 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Driven by Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton, the D ran a remarkable maiden race but it was ultimately beaten by less than two minutes by a Ferrari 375-Plus equipped with a 4.9-liter V12 engine.
Disappointed, Jaguar made several modifications to the D in order to prepare it for the following year’s Le Mans race.  The updates included the famous fin that continues to characterize the racer to this day, a slightly longer nose and a slew of mechanical modifications that gave the straight-six more power.
Jaguar entered three D-Types in the 1955 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Early on in the race, car number six set an impressive pace as it battled for first place against a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR driven by Juan Manuel Fangio.  Tragedy struck in the 34th lap when a 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh rear-ended an Austin-Healey and flew into the crowd, killing the pilot and 83 spectators and injuring over 100 more.  The two remaining 300 SLRs briefly led the race until Mercedes executives called from Germany and asked the team director to immediately tell both drivers to abandon the race as a sign of respect for those who had lost their lives.  With the two SLRs out of the way, the D-Type managed to win Le Mans for the first time.
The D-Type took on Le Mans again in 1956 but the three cars entered in the event by the factory were plagued with mechanical issues.  Two of them dropped out of the race, and the remaining example finished a distant sixth.  However, the company’s honor was partially salvaged by a D-Type owned by a private Scottish team named Ecurie Ecosse that took first place overall.
Jaguar put its factory-backed racing program on hiatus after the 1956 fiasco.  Privateers continued to race the D-Type in miscellaneous events across Europe and in the United States, and one of the model’s greatest victories came in 1957 when it captured the first four spots of that year’s Le Mans race. 
Jaguar initially planned on building 100 examples of the D-Type but it stopped production in 1957 after 54 customer cars and 6 factory cars had rolled out of its Browns Lane, England, factory.
The D-Type’s story didn’t end there because there were several unfinished examples on the assembly line when Jaguar announced the end of its racing program.  In order to avoid losing money, the automaker turned the racer into a street-legal roadster called XK-SS by fitting the D with a folding fabric soft top, a full-width windshield, standard tail lamps and a heat shield over the exhaust.
Sold largely in the United States, the 2,028-pound XK-SS packed a 250-horsepower 3.4-liter straight-six that allowed it to reach 62 mph from a stop in a brisk 5.5 seconds.  Just 16 examples of the XK-SS were built before a fire broke out at the Browns Lane factory and destroyed hundreds of cars including all of the remaining unfinished D-Types and the bulk of the tooling required to build additional examples.
21st Century D-Type
Jaguar’s newly-formed Special Vehicles division recently unveiled a limited-edition version of the F-Type roadster called Project 7 built to celebrate the D-Type’s 60th birthday.  Based on a stock F-Type, the Project 7 gains a retro-inspired paint job, several aerodynamic add-ons made out of carbon fiber and a D-Type-inspired fairing behind the driver’s head rest.
Under the hood, the Project 7 packs a supercharged 5.0-liter V8 engine that generates 575 horsepower and 501 lb-ft. of torque.  The roadster can sprint from zero to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, a figure that makes it the fastest-accelerating production car Jaguar has ever built.
Jaguar has announced it will build just 250 examples of the Project 7, and each one will cost approximately $230,000.