The Jaguar C-Type put Jaguar on the world's racing map, and that put Jaguar on the A-list of serious sports car lovers everywhere.

Encouraged by the showing of only moderately modified Jaguar XK 120 roadsters at the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1950, Jaguar launched an all-out assault on LeMans in 1951.

Jaguar C-Type racecar
The Jaguar C-Type twice won the 24 Hours of LeMans
in the 1950s, propelling Jaguar into the big
leagues of sports car performance. See more Jaguar pictures.

The weapon of choice was the Jaguar C-Type, technically, the XK 120C. The "C" was for competition.

 

The Jaguar C-Type retained a number of stock XK 120 parts, but the production twin-cam 3.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine was tuned for 204 horsepower, and the car got a new space-frame chassis, redesigned suspension, and fresh aero bodywork.

The Jaguar C-Type won its very first race, igniting Jaguar's run of five legend-making conquests of the French classic in the 1950s.

In a way, the origins of the Jaguar C-Type rest with something that, according to legend, William Lyons said one summer's evening in France in 1950. He said "Yes."

Actually, we can suppose he said something more like, "Right, then, let's have a ruddy good go at it!" His British sporting blood was up, you see. He'd just spent 24 hours watching a trio of his still-new XK 120 "Super Sports" roadsters competing in the LeMans "Grand Prix 'Endurance," the greatest sports-car race on earth.

They were virtually off-the-shelf street cars with only minimal racing modifications, and the entire program was no more than an investigation. Yet two cars had finished. That was honorable and encouraging. One of them had shown the potential to win. That was ... exciting, exciting enough to authorize something as unnecessary as it was grand: a full-scale attempt on outright victory the following year.

Under usual circumstances, Lyons was cautious, even wary, of formal participation by his factory in motor-sports competition. He saw more to lose than to gain.

Jaguar Cars, Ltd. was doing well, building up a following, making a profit. More orders had come in already for the sleek, spectacular, sensual XK 120 than could be filled for a very long time. Yes, mass production had just started on the steel-bodied version, and the impatience of the customer list was finally beginning to be sated, but the car certainly didn't need any boosting.

Nor, really, did the company. Jaguar's reputation was now established. A fine new modern sedan was about to be launched, the Jaguar Mark VII, with the same superb XK engine so widely desired in the sports car. It could scarcely fail.

No, there might have been many sound arguments made against spending money and man-hours to risk a very public loss on a venture as precarious as an endurance motor race. Happily, William Lyons had no need of harking to any negative counsel. Jaguar was his company. He could jolly well have it do as he pleased.

For more on Jaguar and other great cars, see:

  • Jaguar Cars: Check out more information on the great sporting cats.
  • How Sports Cars Work: Get the lowdown on hundreds of fantastic sports cars from the 1940s to today.
  • Classic Cars: Learn about the world's most coveted automobiles in these illustrated profiles.
  • Ferrari: Learn about every significant Ferrari road car and racing car.
  • New Jaguars: Reviews, ratings, prices, and specifications on the current Jaguar lineup from the auto editors of Consumer Guide.
  • Used Jaguars: Reviews, recalls, trouble spots, and more on pre-owned Jaguars starting with the 1990 model year. From the auto editors of Consumer Guide.