Going racing at LeMans must have pleased most of the people on the staff of Jaguar leader William Lyons. As was Lyons himself, many staffers were motor sports enthusiasts and had some personal experience at it.
His chief engineer, William Heynes, was keen on racing and dabbled in it as occasion permitted. The firm's service manager-cum-racing team manager, Frank "Lofty" England, had a deep background in the sport. There were others. In a careful, scientific, low-key sort of way, Jaguar Cars, Ltd. was something of a hotbed of auto racing fervor.
©2007 Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc.
Modified Jaguar XK 120 road cars (shown here)
proved fast and durable on the track and led to
creation of the C-Type, or "competition" version.
Yet the ambition was kept on the firm reins of judgment. Lyons agreed to go racing only when he saw his company could field a successful effort. Every step, though driven by emotion, was securely planted on logical methodology.
When Lyons invited the world to watch an XK 120 exceed 132 mph on a section of Belgian highwy near Jabbeke in May 1949, his henchmen first took great care in private to be sure the thing could be done.
Similarly, before the identical car and two of its fellows were entered for the 120's first circuit race that August, Lyons himself participated in preliminary testing. When the Jabbeke car won at Britain's Silverstone racecourse, it was no real surprise.
Doing so well at LeMans the following June was a little surprising, but only a little. By then, the XK 120 had begun to prove itself not only fast but durable. And the three cars entered in the 24 Hours were prepared with care and common sense. No attempt was made to squeeze more power out of the engines, or to abandon what had been working in other respects.
Bumpers were stripped off, and the cars did have the low, narrow aeroscreens and form-fitting bucket seats offered as racing accessories. But all ran without the belly pans used at Jabbeke, and their aerodynamics were further compromised by pairs of auxiliary driving lights.
To preclude the real chance of the long, rear-hinged hoods blowing open at speed, the mechanics added leather straps. Quick-action caps were installed on large, 24-gallon-Imperial gas tanks (28.8 gallons U.S.) that replaced the standard 14-gallon ones (16.8 U.S.). Since these took up most of the trunk volume, spare parts and tools were stowed in the only remaining vacant space, the passenger seat.
The greatest departure from stock specification had to do with brake cooling, which was going to be important for minimizing fade at the ends of the long, long LeMans straights.
Rather than buy aftermarket Al-Fin drums, which Jaguar feared might crack in such hard service, the team chose to try to increase cooling airflow by sandwiching discs with small vanes between the normal iron brake drums and the steel disc wheels. For good measure, they also drilled strategic air holes into the drums themselves.
All three cars started well, and mixed it up with the leading pack for some time. At the end of the first hour, the white 120 driven by Leslie Johnson was holding fifth place. He and his co-driver, Bert Hadley, continued pushing as hard as they could all night, and actually worked up to second place overall by noon the next day.
At that point they were lapping at a speed that by the finish could have reeled in the leading car, a 4.5-liter Grand Prix-based Talbot. However, in their concern to avoid overheating their brakes, which still were prone to fade despite the modifications, they were downshifting the transmission too brutally.
With just under three hours left in the race, their clutch center tore apart. Johnson's roadster coasted to a helpless stop within sight of the pits. The other two cars were driven more conservatively, and though neither was trouble-free, they did keep running and came home twelfth and fifteenth.
It's unlikely the Talbot team would have let the Jaguar beat it to the checkered flag. But to the men from Coventry, it was obvious their cat had all the inherent heart and muscle needed to win this race.
If what amounted to a stone-stock street sportster could lap at almost 97 mph, just 5 mph short of the lap record established by a Talbot GP car wearing lights and fenders, just imagine what the mighty XK engine could do in a proper racing chassis.
Heynes may well have shown some quick calculations and sketches to the Old Man during the race. Anyway, in the heady flush of euphoria soon afterwards, Lyons said "Yes."
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