Over the past ten years, Jaguar has clawed its way out of an ugly slumber. The revival has come on the back of a set of sharply designed, sharp handling saloons which hark back to an era where the Big Cat was all about wrapping sledgehammer performance in a velvet glove. On the track, no car epitomizes Jaguar's past success better than the D-Type which won Le Mans in 1956. So what price do you put on one of Jaguar's most significant racers? We'll know when it goes under the hammer at Monterey on August 19.
Goodbye C-Type, hello D-Type
Before it was usurped in 1954, the C-Type sat at the pinnacle of Jaguar's sports car pyramid. It won Le Mans in 1951 - its first attempt, no less - and managed first, second and fourth in 1953. The winning car from that year was the first to average more than 100 mph (161 km/h) over the course of the race, a feat achieved with Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton behind the wheel.
In spite of this success, the top brass at Jaguar decided the car's steel-tube underpinnings had reached their ceiling. A replacement was commissioned, and the D-Type was born.
The D-Type was a more sophisticated proposition than its predecessor from the outset. Gone was the steel-tube spaceframe, and in its place was a high-tech monocoque for greater torsional rigidity. Rather than using a conventional fuel tank, the car was fitted with a deformable bag system derived from aviation, and the fin behind the driver's seat was put in place to improve stability down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans.
Hampered by fuelling problems in 1954, time in the pits cost the D-Type a shot at victory. Instead the Jaguar came in second, hot on the heels of the leading Ferrari 375 Plus and well clear of the chasing pack.
Come 1955, Le Mans played host to one of the worst accidents in the history of motorsports when the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL driven by Pierre Levegh flew into the crowd, killing more than 80 spectators. Although it hung in the race through the night, Mercedes pulled both of its remaining competitors the following morning. With the first-placed 300 SL no longer in the running, Mike Hawthorn's D-Type jumped into the lead and took out the win.
D-Type XKD 501: privateer, winner
Up for auction this month is XKD 501, the first D-Type to be delivered to a private racing team. It was delivered to its Scottish owners, Ecurie Ecosse, on May 5, 1955, before Jimmy Stewart crashed it during practice. The car was duly repaired, returned to the team and crashed again.
Because of Jimmy Stewart's two testing prangs, XKD 501 didn't line up on the Le Mans grid in 1955. Instead, it would be forced to wait until 1956.
In 1956, the Ecurie Ecosse D-Type was up against some seriously stiff competition. On top of the factory-backed Jags, the Scottish D-Type would have to beat entries from Aston Martin and Ferrari. Early in the race, two of the factory-backed Jags were wiped from contention in an accident, and the third struggled with fueling issues.
The door was open for Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart in XKD 501, which crossed the line ahead of Stirling Moss and Peter Collins in an Aston Martin DB3S.
Last of its kind
After 1956, the role of XKD 501 changed dramatically. Jaguar withdrew from racing in 1957, selling its last D-Type Longnoses off to privateers in the process. Ecurie Ecosse scooped a few up, which meant XKD 501 wasn't relied upon as heavily. Although it was occasionally wheeled out, it never reached the lofty heights of 1956 again.
In 1970, the car was sold to Sir Michael Naim, who promptly had it restored to a close replica of its 1956 specification. Jaguar took care of the engine head and block, and the suspension was restored using genuine components. The car was driven at revivals and demonstrations up until 1999, when it was sold to an American collector.
According to RM Sothebys, XKD 501 is the only C-Type or D-Type in existence which remains true to "winning form." As you might imagine, that makes it (very) valuable. Estimates suggest it will sell for between £20 million and £25 million (US$26,103,800 and $32,629,750), which would make it the most expensive British car to sell at auction.
The D-Type goes under the hammer on August 19 in Monterey.
Source: RM Sothebys
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