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Jaguar C-Type

Jaguar C-Type at LeMans 1952

While the Jaguar C-Type didn't get disc brakes for its 1952 LeMans effort because they weren't fully tested, it did get an improved version of the 3.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine.

Compression ratio was reduced to 8.5:1 to better cope with the poor-quality gasoline supplied by the French race organizers, and the torque curve was fattened up with larger two-inch carburetors.

Jaguar C-Type
©2007 Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc.
Overheating plagued the Jaguar C-Type at the
1952 running of the 24 Hours of LeMans.

The combined effect was better acceleration despite the loss of a single horsepower at the top end. Then, at the last minute, the company decided to run completely new bodywork. It would prove a disaster.

The purpose was sound enough: more top speed. So was the motive: new competition. The instigator was Stirling Moss, just returned from the Mille Miglia in Italy (where he had been race-testing disc brakes, incidentally), reporting that his Jaguar C-Type been blown off by the new Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe, a car that also would run at LeMans.

Moss pressed his case so emphatically that better judgment was abandoned. Thus were radical new aerodynamic shapes drawn up and built, and the trio of cars went off to France without any testing -- and without any backup in the form of proven cars from the previous season.

There was time enough for practice laps, though, and the new "droop-snoot" Jaguars proved faster down the Mulsanne Straight by some 10 mph, about 153 mph all-out. But there were two problems.

One was the new shape. Low and rounded at the nose, low and pointed at the tail, it not only looked like an airplane wing (in cross-section) but acted like one. The cars wanted to fly. In fact, their rear ends lifted so much that load on the rear tires was reduced by a good quarter, and the drivers came back to the pits ashen-faced to report evil instability. The older body had shown a tendency to lift a bit, but nothing like this.

The other problem was even worse: overheating. Within a few laps of practice, all three cars started boiling like teakettles. And the damage done was apparently permanent, compounded by an evident lack of any spare engines.

Although two radiators were hastily modified before race time, all three cars retired in ignominy just an hour after the start. To William Lyons, it must have seemed the realization of his blackest dreams.

Ironically, the new Mercedes coupe showed nothing like the straightaway speed that Moss had feared. But it won.

As later tests proved, the new Jaguar C-Type's overheating problem was not caused directly by its aerodynamic shape but by insufficient water flow in a new cooling system hastily designed to fit under the drooped snoot. But this, at least, was easily solved.

At that stage of aero-dynamic know-how-and the company's limited resources-the high-speed instability seemed inherent and incurable. It would be another decade before American driver Richie Ginther, during tests with Ferrari, would invent the trim tab, or "ducktail spoiler," to tame such handling quirks.

Jaguar didn't give up its low-drag dreams after LeMans 1952, but it did scrap the droop-snoot and revert to the proven original C-Type body while making a firm resolve never again to go racing in haste.

Later in the year, Moss provided a history-making bright spot by making haste at Rheims to give disc brakes their first-ever competition victory.

That 1952 season saw other successes-and other failures-all with special lessons to teach. The Jaguar team thus contemplated a fourth visit to LeMans with a lot of experience under its collective belt.

For more on Jaguar and other great cars, see:

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  • 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.