Jaguar D-Type at LeMans 1954
©2007 Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc.
The Jaguar D-Type's first run at LeMans in
June 1954 was unsuccessful, but a win at Rheims
the next month sparked a glittering career.
Racing, however, had not yet progressed to the "18-wheel transporter" stage in 1954. So in time-honored fashion, the first Jaguar D-Type, still unpainted, was driven over to France on public thoroughfares for springtime testing at LeMans.
The roads making up the circuit had been closed for a rally, and the time allotted was short, but the new Jaguar managed to avoid the officials with their angry flags long enough to beat the 1953 lap record, set by a Ferrari, by five full seconds. Of course, Ferrari had not been idle over the winter, and its 1954 entry arrived with 4.9 liters of V-12 power.
LeMans that year was plagued by heavy downpours. The three new 3.4-liter Jaguars ran well, better than the cars from Aston Martin, Cunningham, Gordini, Lagonda, and Talbot. Stirling Moss even out-ran the best Ferrari to take the lead and set his speed record down the Straight -- this in the evening, no less, and despite a bout of rain.
But then all three D-Types started misfiring and had to make long unscheduled pit stops to have their fuel systems cleaned. In its scientific zeal, Jaguar had chosen paper-element filters that were too efficient: They became clogged with dust floating in the gas supplied by the race organizers.
With the offending filters torn off, the Jaguars got back up to speed, but this was not going to be their year. Moss lost his brakes at the end of long Mulsanne and retired on the spot. A second car suffered gearbox trouble, then engine failure. The third car, driven by 1953 winners Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt, took an off-road excursion that caused some damage and another delay in the pits.
But this sole remaining D-Type was able to struggle onward, holding second to the Ferrari. A flash of hope came near the end, when the Ferrari balked at restarting during a pit stop, leaving the Jaguar to swish by in the rain and into the same lap. But the Ferrari finally fired and roared back onto the track, just 97 seconds to the good.
The British team tried its hardest, to the point that Hamilton was getting wheelspin in top gear at top speed on the straight in the pouring rain, but the big Italian managed to prevail. The D-Type finished 105 seconds behind it after 24 hurly-burly hours. A privately entered C-Type placed fourth. The D-Type contested two other races in its first year; Rheims was a win, Dundrod a loss.
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