28 July 1956 – the 24 Hours of Le Mans starts at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and it’s raining in France. An inauspicious start to an already exceptionally dangerous motor race! With 60 years of history in its rearview mirror, the starting grid of the race is utterly jaw-dropping, with legends like de Portago, Trintignant, Gendebien, von Trips, Hill, Maglioli, Behra, Fangio, and Castelloti piloting prototype and production machinery with names like Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Talbot, Porsche, Lotus, and Gordini on their bonnets. This is the golden age of motor racing: the era of an unbroken Mulsanne Straight, mind-bending speeds, and supreme, life-risking danger in pursuit of eternal glory. But this will not be an easy race, and the gentlemen on the starting grid, about to sprint across the front stretch and jump into their cars, know it. After all, 49 cars will start the race, only 14 will finish, and one man will even lose his life.
One of the most stunningly beautiful cars on the grid was the formidable Jaguar D-Type, bathed in traditional Scottish dark blue with a white cross, the traditional colors of the Scottish outfit Ecurie Ecosse. Standing across the track is Ron Flockhart, one of its two drivers, an Edinburgh-born Scottish gentleman driver, who might not have known it, but was on his way to two consecutive Le Mans wins. Quite the adventurer, he would, several years later, make two attempts at breaking the flight record from Sydney, Australia, to London, England, in a war-era P51 Mustang. The Glasgow-born Ninian Sanderson was also on hand, Flockhart’s teammate, and by all accounts his polar opposite – a practical joker with a biting sense of humor but the same spirit for adventure … a yachtsman, he raced aggressively in regattas on the Clyde Coast of Scotland.
There they stand – two privateer entries in a competitive field, about to begin a 24-hour battle in condition that Motor Sport Magazine described in the September 1956 issue as “terrible, with rain and mist, and driving at all, let alone racing, was a nightmare … How drivers can take a quick two or three hours’ sleep and then go on again defies explanation!”
So what brought Flockhart and Sanderon to Le Mans in 1956 behind the wheel of a D-Type?
Crafting a Le Mans Winner
Following their win at Le Mans in 1953, where Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt led a veritable parade of C-Types to three of the top four finishes, Jaguar faced a problem. It was evident that the limits of the XK 120-based race car had been reached, and that to remain competitive at Le Mans, a new car would be required.
While the C-Type had been one of the first cars of its era to employ a steel-tube space-frame, its successor was perhaps the first to claim unitary monocoque construction, with the body and frame being combined for structural integrity. The successful and proven 3.4-liter XK engine was retained, but it was now fitted with triple Weber carburetors good for 245 horsepower. A dry-sump lubrication system was also adapted that reduced height, allowing the engine to be mounted lower, and correspondingly reducing the overall profile and coefficient of drag. It was clear that the design was effective when one of the new cars hit 169 mph on the Mulsanne Straight at the Le Mans trials in April 1954. As the previous Jaguar had been called the C-Type for “competition,” the new Jaguar was dubbed the D-Type.
The D-Type made its debut at the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Rolt and Hamilton were tasked with repeating their victory of the prior year. However, all three of Jaguar’s team entries were plagued with firing problems, and two of the D-Types retired before the #14 car of Hamilton and Rolt was adequately sorted to contend. As 4:00 p.m. approached on Sunday afternoon, the D-Type and the powerful 4.9-liter Ferrari 375 Plus, driven by Froilan Gonzales and Maurice Trintignant, were far ahead of two Cunninghams, a Gordini, and the Garage Francorchamps’ C-Type. After all was said and done, the Ferrari had only a narrow lead over the D-Type, besting the Jaguar in one of the closest Le Mans finishes ever.
Six team cars were constructed for 1954, with chassis numbers in the range of XKD 401 through 406. In 1955, Jaguar began selling customer cars with 3.4-liter carbureted engines as the company gradually established the production minimum necessary to satisfy FIA homologation requirements. Fifty-four such cars were eventually built, with chassis numbers starting at XKD 501. The factory simultaneously developed a version of the car for its competition purposes, most immediately recognizable by a longer nose.
Chassis Number XKD 501
Chassis number XKD 501 was the first 1955 customer car produced, sold to the Scottish racing team Ecurie Ecosse, and dispatched on 4 May 1955. A principal factory customer, Ecurie Ecosse was founded in 1951 and successfully ran C-Types through the early 1950s before eventually purchasing several D-Types. XKD 501 was liveried in the team’s signature Scottish Flag Metallic Blue with the St. Andrews Cross emblazoned on the front fenders. It was initially entrusted to driver Jimmy Stewart, brother of the legendary Jackie Stewart. Jimmy unfortunately crashed the D-Type twice during practice in May 1955. Each time the car was returned to the factory for repairs.
XKD 501 was therefore sidelined during June 1955, when Jaguar entered three longnose D-Types at Le Mans and played an unwitting role in one of motorsports’ most tragic disasters. Three laps into the race, team driver Mike Hawthorn, who had just lapped a much slower Austin-Healey, suddenly turned into the pits. The surprised Healey veered left to avoid hitting Hawthorn, pulling directly into the path of Pierre Levegh, who was driving one of Mercedes-Benzes new 300 SLRs. The SLR careened into the crowd, forever changing motorsports–yet the race continued.