“Like all Jaguars, the D-Type has a wonderfully smooth engine. It has, in fact, perfect traffic manners, and can be used for shopping without any thought of its potential performance . . . one’s nearest and dearest could drive it through the West End without demur.” This was John Bolster, the broadcaster and motoring journalist writing in Autosport in February 1955.
The car he was testing on public roads - was owned by Duncan Hamilton. It was the second D-Type built by Jaguar’s Competition Department in 1954 and had taken second place in that year’s Le Mans 24-hour race driven by Hamilton, a former Fleet Air Arm pilot, and Major Tony Rolt, who had been part of a cunning plan to escape from Colditz Castle during the Second World War in a makeshift glider.
First place at Le Mans had gone to Froilan Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant, driving a Ferrari 375 Plus. The brand new Jaguar, however, was just 50 seconds behind the Ferrari, which boasted a massive 5 litre V12 engine in contrast to the British car’s 3.4-litre ‘straight six’. Even then, the lithe and lightweight Jaguar was faster than its Italian rival along the three-and-a-half mile Mulsanne Straight, pulling a maximum of just under 173mph.
What made the car so efficient was its streamlined monocoque structure – chassis and body were one – designed by Malcolm Sayer, a brilliant aerodynamicist who had come to Jaguar from the Bristol Aeroplane Company. His C-Type Jaguar had won Le Mans in 1951 and 1953 (Rolt and Hamilton again), while his later cars were to include the sensational E-Type that made its racy public debut in 1961.
The D-Type, though, was Sayer’s, and Jaguar’s, masterpiece. It went on to win Le Mans three times in a row, with many other victories at Rheims, Sebring, Spa and Montlhery as well as Goodwood and Silverstone. In 1957, D-Types had taken the first four places and sixth, too, at Le Mans.
A work of art
Aside from its outstanding success as a racing car, the D-Type was also stunningly good-looking, a glorious fusion of voluptuous curves crafted in aluminium and magnesium alloys. The cars built from 1955 with slightly longer noses are arguably the best-looking of all, rolling sculptures that still draw gasps of admiration. Hanging from a gallery wall, a D-Type would rival the very best of 20th Century art.
In his Futurist Manifesto of 1909, the poet and polemicist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti declared, “a thundering racing car is more beautiful than the [Winged] Victory of Samothrace”, one of the most prized of all Ancient Greek sculptures. And a D-Type – imagine one stripped to its shell and set alongside such classical beauty – is indeed one of those engineering designs of the past century that stands comparison not just with 20th Century art, but art down the ages.
Because it was a racing car, comparatively few were built. Jaguar had planned to make a hundred, but although their success helped promote the company’s saloon and sports cars, sales of the D-Type dropped off when Sir William Lyons, the company’s autocratic managing director, decided to pull out of motor racing altogether.
Sayer himself received little public recognition in his lifetime. And yet the D-Type was as beautiful, and more purposefully so, as any of the cars designed by Italian stylists whose names have long been familiar to design enthusiasts worldwide, among them Nuccio Bertone, Marcello Gandini, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Battista Pininfarina and Ercole Spada. There is, though, something truly moving - in every sense - in seeing such beauty as the D-Type’s, emerging from a highly cost-conscious factory in the West Midlands of England, and with little or no hype.
The curvaceous lines of the D-Type lived on, however, in the design of the hugely popular E-Type, but also in the XK-SS, a road-going conversion of the racing car put on the market in 1957. The XK-SS was a car with panache, and scorching pace. Which other road car at the time could storm to 100mph from a standing start in just over 13 seconds, or cruise at 120mph? No wonder it was the choice of the American actor Steve McQueen. Just sixteen left Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory before a major fire in 1957 halted production.
Originally sold for a scarcely believable, and loss-making, £1,895, D-Types fetch upwards of £2m ($3m) today. Many are raced, foot-on-the-floor, while finely crafted replicas are manufactured by a number of companies to satisfy the demand for this legendary and heart-stealing machine.
Driving a D-Type remains a real pleasure. Snug and secure, its tight ‘cockpit’ draws aesthetic as well as practical inspiration from contemporary fighter aircraft, all white-on-black dials, toggle switches, rivets and painted metal finishes. It can truly feel a little like an extremely low-flying Spitfire or Hawker Hunter jet.
And, with its light steering and comfortable ride it can be driven to the shops, although it might be considered a little too noisy for London’s West End. But, with its dramatic shape - complete with stabilising tail-fin - it could well threaten to upstage the very best of those treading the boards in the city’s theatreland. Nearly sixty years on, the D-Type’s presence remains as commanding as its breathtaking performance, glorious looks and all but peerless history.