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Jaguar D-Type


Jaguar D-Type at LeMans 1956
Racing, like life, continues. Later in the summer of 1955, after the LeMans tragedy, Mike Hawthorn in the Jaguar D-Type and Juan Manuel Fangio in his Mercedes renewed their titanic struggle.

Once again, the Englishman's Jaguar was slightly faster than the Argentinean's Mercedes and set a new lap record at Dundrod. That all came to naught, however, because Moss, also in a Mercedes now, was already ahead, and Hawthorn blew his engine in trying to catch up. At the end of the season, after Fangio had captured his third world Formula One championship, Mercedes announced its withdrawal from all racing.

The Jaguar D-Type with a mandated full-width windshield.
©2007 Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc.
For the 1956 season, Jaguar D-Types had to
meet new design regulations imposed in the
aftermath of the 1955 LeMans tragedy.

For the 1956 season, Jaguar again fielded a team of new and improved D-Types. These had to meet regulations framed in the aftermath of the LeMans horror aimed at slowing things down, so they had full-width windshields. While that raised frontal area by 13 percent, to 14.5 square feet, Sayer cleverly continued the plastic over the top of the passenger's seat, making a transparent roof that minimized drag on that side.

Another new rule reduced fuel-tank capacity from 45 gallons U.S. to 33.5. Apparently to counter this, Jaguar adopted Lucas fuel injection and set it up for better low-end pickup, not more power. But while better fuel efficiency might have been a benefit, it wasn't evident. Economy was likely served just as much by thinner-gauge metal, so the cars were again lighter than the year before.

Their handling was improved by adding a sway bar to the rear suspension (a tweak first tried at Dundrod) plus a stiffer one to the front. To save time in pit stops, the disc brakes were given quick-change pads.

Another item was tested but not adopted for LeMans: a de Dion rear suspension. The D-Type had been designed specifically for the French circuit with its ultra-long straight, predominantly medium-speed corners and unusually smooth surface, and Jaguar's traditional live rear axle worked well enough there.

On other tracks, though, the D-Type sometimes lost ground through wheelspin out of slow turns and wheel hop over bumps. The de Dion system, then common on Grand Prix cars and some of Jaguar's more sophisticated sports-racing rivals, was a halfway step to full independent suspension.

It retained the basic beam-axle geometry, so that the driven tires remained squarely on the road, but relieved the wheels of carrying the burden of a differential. In back-to-back tests, it seemed to make the Jaguar a little faster around some tracks. It would probably have shown no advantage at LeMans, though, and as a still-new, somewhat heavier design, it was left off.

One additional interesting Jaguar project at this time was an experimental chassis tub fabricated at least partly in that still-exotic postwar material, fiberglass. This was kept secret and apparently never tried in a race, although a car built around it did appear once in public, Mike Hawthorn driving it through the streets of Coventry for public-relations purposes.

Though nothing came of Jaguar's "plastic fantastic," it was in 1956 that Colin Chapman began developing his all-fiberglass roadgoing Lotus Elite two-seater coupe, which was unveiled in the fall of 1957. It would be another five years before the Chaparral from Texas introduced fiberglass chassis structures into racing.

One of LeMans' slow-the-cars rules for 1956 mandated an upper displacement limit of 2.5 liters for protoTypes, which caused a number of manufacturers not to participate that year. The D-Types qualified as "production" because quite a few had already been made and sold. They thus had the largest engines, and were comfortably fastest in practice. About the only opposition within reach of the factory Jaguars were the Aston Martins, which had been allowed to keep their 3.0-liter sixes, and some privately entered D-Types.

Jaguar's list of opponents should have included itself. On only the second lap, running in the rain, a team driver crashed in the Esses; the resulting melee took out a second factory car. Shortly afterwards, the Hawthorn/Bueb D-Type began to misfire, and lost a lot of time in the pits while the problem was traced to a cracked fuel injector pipe.

The day was saved by the leading privateer team, Scotland's Ecurie Ecosse. Though not quite as technically up-to-date as the factory's British-green machines, its single dark-blue D-Type was fast enough to pull away from a battle with the Astons.

After 24 uneventful but tense hours, Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson brought home another winner for Coventry. The straggling survivor of the factory team wound up sixth.

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.