Octane
By Amos Kwon
on 11.4.13

When it comes to iconic vintage Jags, the stunning E-Type comes to mind for most, but there is a British racing legend that came before the XKE. Though just about everyone recognizes the E-Type, only the true automotive cognoscenti can identify the D-Type, a car that’s far more rare and even more coveted when one of the two happens to come up at auction. The D-Type made use of some of the most cutting edge technology racing had seen to date, and the result was a car that could perform impressively in one of the toughest automotive endurance races in the world. Not only was it victorious on the racing circuit, it was one of the finest cases of form following function. The D-Type was as beautiful to behold as it was fast, but that beauty was undergirded by the magnificent racing chops it garnered during its brief but storied life.

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What It’s All About

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One look at the D-Type betrays its racing aspirations. No one would think to design a car with a bulbous front and rear end with one seat and giant fin just for pure road going. But there’s no denying that the car is iconic from a design standpoint. There’s no other car that even looks like it. Though the curvature of the D-Type (1954-1957) bore some similarities to the C-Type (1951-1953) it replaced, the D-Type lacked some of the C’s elegance but seriously upped the purpose-driven design — to levels that bordered on revolutionary. Jaguar poured everything they had into making the D-Type fast, and the multi-faceted effort paid off beyond expectations.

Its grand racing reputation started when racing was still dangerous and regulations were few. Jaguar won the 1955 Le Mans race with the D-Type, but under dubious circumstances: the winning car was involved in a tragic crash of a Mercedes-Benz and an Austin-Healy that killed 83 spectators and a driver. The D-Type’s powerful braking was initially blamed for the ripple-effect of the accident, but the driver and his vehicle were later exonerated. After the crash, Mercedes-Benz withdrew all of their cars from the race in a gesture of respect for the victims; Jaguar did not and went on to win. 1956 proved a far better year for the D-Type, as it took top spot with no tragedy directly connected to the victory. The D-Type that won was not a Jaguar factory car, but one entered by the much smaller Ecurie Ecosse team; still, Jaguar’s D-Type beat the likes of both Ferrari and Aston Martin, a huge statement in the racing world.

Jaguar pulled out of factory racing after the 1956 race but supported the victorious Ecurie Ecosse team in 1957. It was the third Le Mans victory for the D-Type and its winningest year: teams driving the D also placed second, third, fourth and sixth, with Ferrari a blip on the radar in fifth place. Unfortunately, racing rules decreasing displacement to 3 liters capsized the 3.8-liter D-Type’s run. In response, Jaguar installed a smaller engine in the D-Type body that just couldn’t do justice to the legacy. The car went on to win smaller races in both Europe and America, but it never achieved the same fame as it had during its glorious Le Mans days.

Technical Rundown

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The D-Type’s slippery, sexy body was no accident. It was designed and created by Malcolm Sayer, a former employee of Bristol Aeroplane Company during WWII, and he brought his experience with him to Jaguar’s racing endeavors. The front end was significantly smaller — and therefore much more aerodynamic — than the C-Type. It looked like less of a roadster and more like a dedicated race car. The small horizontally set oval grille flanked by two flush headlamps was clean and handsome; the profile was much leaner than its predecessor’s, with no flat surfaces except the portion of the body next to the single seat cockpit. The large front fenders aided the aerodynamics without making the car wider than the C-Type. The D-Type’s body communicated an aggressive racing aesthetic unlike any Jaguar before it.

But the genius wasn’t just skin deep. Sayer also created both rigidity and aerodynamics by building the driver tub using folded sheets of aluminum alloy for the monocoque construction. Additional aluminum was used in the subframe for the engine, the steering and the front suspension, decreasing weight and increasing strength. Sayer even made use of an aviation-style fuel tank, departing from a conventional metal tank and instead employing a flexible Marston Aviation bag used in airplanes. But easily the most noticeable aspect of the car was the huge fin that comprised quite possibly the coolest car headrest ever created. More than just an eye-catcher, the fin aided the D-Type’s high-speed stability and gave drivers the confidence to push the car hard. Dry sump lubrication helped reduce the height of the engine, resulting in a lowered hoodline and center of gravity and aiding in aerodynamics, handling and straight line speed.

Drivers even testified that driving the finned D-Type on the Mulsanne Straight was “relaxing”, stating that they could actually remove their tired hands from the wheel for portions of the 3.7 mile stretch.

Power from the straight-six engine was rated at 250 hp (whereas the C-Type’s was maxed out at around 205). These higher numbers were largely due to the D-Type’s larger intake valves, new cam timing and freer flowing exhaust system. Jaguar also installed a new gearbox on the D-Type, a new front suspension setup and a modified rear suspension. The beautiful wire wheels from previous cars were ditched for magnesium Dunlop discs, which were lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic. Though they weren’t as stunning as the wire versions, they were more functional and consistent with the rest of the car’s sporting intentions. In fact, we couldn’t picture the D-Type any other way.

The overall dimensions of the D-Type were smaller than the C-type, but in later versions the hood of the D was stretched, aiding in top speeds at Le Mans of 174 mph. Most importantly, those speeds were comfortable for the D-Type’s drivers thanks to the stability lent by its giant fin, which was built as one with the headrest in order to maximize weight savings and reduce the drag. Drivers even testified that driving the finned D-Type on the Mulsanne Straight was “relaxing”, stating that they could actually remove their tired hands from the wheel for portions of the 3.7 mile stretch.

Why It Matters

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Though the D-Type’s legacy at Le Mans was a short one, it will forever be considered one of the greats. It was the first time aviation technology was used so successfully in a race car and proved that Jaguar could make a car that was faster and more victorious in its created purpose than the impressive C-Type. When factory racing ended for Jaguar, they were smart enough to offer up the small number of remaining D-Types as road cars. This was the famed XKSS, modified by adding a passenger seat and door, functional bumpers, a framed windshield with wipers, side windows and an actual real interior that was befitting a sports car instead of the rather spartan race car interior. Though it wasn’t as beautiful as the original D-Type, the XKSS presented an opportunity for the car to live on beyond the racetrack. Unfortunately for Jaguar and car-lovers (but great for storytelling), nine of the XKSS cars were burned beyond repair in Jaguar’s Browns Lane plant on February 12, 1957. It wasn’t just the cars that were destroyed, either. The equipment needed to modify the D-Types into the XKSS were gone, too, marking the end of the production XKSS cars.

Today the D-Type and the XKSS are revered in the higher echelons of car collecting. Most recently, a 1955 XKSS commanded a whopping $6.3 million at auction. The car’s fame and lasting desirability stretch far beyond its Le Mans wins. The D-Type is a car so uniquely designed and purpose built that its reputation in vintage racing car collection is only outdone by a few marques and brands. There’s no question that the D-Type was ahead of its time, but it came at the right time for Jaguar and motoring fans everywhere.

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