Few sports-racing cars have achieved such legendary status as the Jaguar C-Type, which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice for Coventry during the company’s domination of the event in the 1950s. The C-Type began life as the famed XK120 roadster, which had taken the world by storm in 1948 with its revolutionary dual overhead-cam engine.
Several privateering customers entered factory-supported XK120 examples at the 1950 Le Mans race, and Leslie Johnson’s car was remarkably competitive, spending considerable time in 4th place. After watching the event, Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons and engineer Bill Heynes were convinced that a lighter, more aerodynamic body with modified XK120 mechanics had a strong chance of winning the race.
Development work soon commenced, starting with a new lightweight tubular space frame, one of the very first uses of the technique in sports car construction. The XK120’s rear suspension was redesigned with additional positioning links, and the 3.4-liter XK engine received a new cylinder head, high-lift camshafts, racing pistons, and an un-muffled dual exhaust system, raising the motor’s output to 200 horsepower. Most noticeable, however, was the new car’s exquisite coachwork, a fluid aerodynamic conjunction of curves and bulges penned by Jaguar stylist Malcolm Sayer. The first three cars were hand built in only six weeks and were the first purpose built race cars for Jaguar. That purpose was to win Le Mans, which they did twice.
Initially known as the XK120C (C for competition), the C-Type debuted at Le Mans in 1951 with a team of factory-sponsored cars. While two of the three entries were forced to retire early with oil line issues, the car driven by Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead took the overall victory, the first British car to win Le Mans in nearly 20 years.
Jaguar not only won Le Mans, but they did so handily, finishing 77 miles ahead of the 2nd-place finisher and setting the following records: fastest lap speed of 105.232 mph, 24 hour speed record of 93.495 mph, and they travelled the greatest distance in 24 hours, 2,243.886 miles.
The triumph spurred considerable customer interest, of course, and the new racing model was put into limited production, with 50 cars built by early 1953. The factory’s 1952 Le Mans campaign was less successful, with all three Works cars retiring early due to cooling system issues. Considering the domination of Mercedes-Benz’ 300 SL, Coventry’s engineers realized that the C-Type required a few upgrades to remain competitive for 1953, and a final run of three cars began development.
XKC 052 – On the Track
Chassis XKC 052 is the second of those three lightweight Works examples that were prepared specifically for the 1953 running of Le Mans. These cars constituted the final examples of the mighty C-Type (a last development car wore a D-Type-style body), and featured a number of upgrades over the prior examples. Improvements included new thin-gauge aluminum coachwork, more powerful Weber carburetors, a fully synchronized gearbox and triple-plate clutch, an additional upper link to the rear axle, and a rubber aircraft fuel bladder amongst other lighter weight-saving components. Most importantly, the three cars were the only lightweight C-Types built by the factory, and were the first disc-brake equipped entrants to ever run Le Mans, the only cars so outfitted among the 1953 field. This distinction proved to be quite significant in the race’s outcome.
On February 12, 1953, chassis no. XKC 052 was tested by Norman Dewis in preparation for the upcoming race. Wearing #19, the C-Type was entered with its two sister cars (XKC 051 and XKC 053) during Le Mans weekend of June 13, 1953, piloted by Peter Whitehead and Ian Stewart. As the sun set on the first day of competition, Jaguar, Ferrari, and Alfa Romeo appeared to be the teams to beat. But with the rigors of endurance racing taking their toll, only one of the three Ferraris managed to stay in the race by the next morning, while all three Alfas retired early.
The three C-Types, essentially unmatchable through the curves with their low weight and disc brakes, continued to set the race-leading pace, with 051 and 053 in 1st and 2nd place respectively, and 052 only a few laps behind in 4th. This order remained through the race’s conclusion, with Briggs Cunningham’s C5-R preserving third place to stave off a 1-2-3 sweep by the Coventry team. With Ian Stewart concluding driving duties at the end of the 24 hours, XKC 052 completed 297 laps compared to the winning Jag’s 304 laps, with an average speed of almost 167 km/h.