Jaguar D-Type – a four-wheeled Spitfire

Jaguar’s racing D-Type was the nearest thing to a Second World War fighter plane for the road, featuring aluminium monocoque construction, a tubular steel framework to hold the engine, and even an aviation bag fuel tank. Plus that unique tail fin!

white Jaguar D-Type

The 1950s Jaguar D Type: A Racing Legend

The Jaguar D-Type achieved tremendous success in racing, including winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans three years in a row from 1955 to 1957.

But it was not just a great racing car – the D-Type was also a technological tour de force that showcased Jaguar’s engineering prowess. In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at this legendary car.

Jaguar D-type racing car

How Many Were Made?

Total production is thought to have totaled just 71 D-Types, including 18 for factory teams and 53 for privateers (plus an additional 16 D-Types were converted into road-legal XKSS versions).

Jaguar D-type unique tail fin

Jaguar’s initial plan was to build 100 examples that were intended solely for motorsports use. These competition cars were hand-built at Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory in Coventry, England.

However, once the D-Type started winning races, particularly at Le Mans, wealthy customers came calling looking to purchase road-going versions.

close-up fin of Jaguar D-type

Jaguar responded by modifying some of the original race cars into road cars by adding full-width windscreens, passenger seats, and luggage racks. About 18 of the original 75 chassis were converted this way.

Jaguar also constructed approximately 16 all-new cars between 1956-1957 that were specifically built as road cars from scratch.

Jaguar D-type tail fin

So in summary, the D-Type production can be broken down as follows:

  • 71 competition examples built 1954-1956
  • 18 converted to road use from 1956-1957
  • 16 road cars newly constructed 1956-1957
Jaguar D-type showing the fin

This means that today, of the original 100+ cars, only a handful remain with perhaps 60-70 examples that are either in private collections or museums around the world.

Their rarity and racing pedigree make D-Types highly sought after by collectors with prices easily exceeding $10 million at auction.

Jaguar D-type with Aerodynamic Shape

What Makes it Special?

There are several aspects of the D-Type that made it noteworthy in the 1950s and still make it special today:

Innovative Monocoque Design – The D-Type pioneered the use of an aircraft-style monocoque chassis design in racing cars.

This did away with a separate body bolted onto a ladder frame and instead provided an integrated structure that was lighter, stronger, and more rigid.

The monocoque was fabricated from aluminum alloy for weight savings. This gave the D-Type an advantage over competitors such as Ferrari still using traditional construction.

Jaguar D-type aircraft-style monocoque chassis design

Aerodynamic Shape – Its flowing, aerodynamic shape was wind tunnel tested, making the D-Type one of the first race cars designed with a focus on aerodynamics. This improved high-speed stability and reduced drag.

Distinctive features included the large covered headlights, tail fin, and elongated rear to house the spare tire tail fairing.

Jaguar D-Type interior

Independent Rear Suspension – The D-Type was among the first race cars to utilize an independent rear suspension. This allowed each rear wheel to react independently for better traction and handling.

The advanced rear suspension used wishbones and coil springs adapted from the C-Type.

Powerful Engine – Power came from Jaguar’s race-bred straight-six XK engine enlarged to 3.8 liters and featuring triple carburettors. In racing tune, it produced 250 horsepower in standard form.

Further enhanced Special Equipment (SE) models made nearer 300 horsepower for added performance.

Successful Racing Pedigree – Although Jaguar withdrew from motorsport at the end of the 1956 season, 1957 proved to be the D-Type’s most successful year.

3.8-litre engine Jaguar D-Types took five of the top six places at Le Mans, and Ecurie Ecosse, with considerable support from Jaguar, finished first and second, the best result in the D-Type’s racing history.

Who Designed It?

The man credited with designing the D-Type was Malcolm Sayer. Although not formally trained in engineering or automotive design, Sayer brought an aeronautical perspective to Jaguar.

He started with the company in 1950 after working for Bristol Aeroplane Company during WWII. Bristol was one of the most intensely scientific factories of the war.

Applying principles of aerodynamics and lightweight construction technology from aviation, Sayer was responsible for crafting the elegant, wind-cheating shape of the D-Type.

Some of his concepts proved too advanced for manufacturing at the time, requiring Jaguar’s engineers to simplify aspects of his designs. However, it was Sayer’s vision that defined the essential elements that made the D-Type unique.

Sayer went on to design other landmark Jaguar sports cars over the next two decades, including the E-Type introduced in 1961.

Just as the D-Type established Jaguar’s racing reputation in the 1950s, the E-Type would cement the company’s sporting and luxury credentials throughout the 1960s and beyond. Sayer retired in 1968 and died in 1970 at the age of 53.

The Specifications

Here are some key specifications for the Jaguar D-Type:

  • Engine – 3.4 liter inline 6-cylinder, DOHC, 3 Weber carburetors
  • Power – 250 hp (standard), ~300 hp (SE competition models)
  • Transmission – 4-speed manual
  • Chassis – Monocoque aluminum construction
  • Suspension – Front: double wishbones, torsion bars, Rear: independent with wishbones, coil springs
  • Brakes – Dunlop disc brakes
  • Weight – ~2,240 lbs
  • 0-60 mph – ~6 seconds (estimated)
  • Top Speed – On the Mulsanne Straight, D-Type could achieve a speed of 192.4 mph (309.6 km/h).

The D-Type evolved over its racing tenure from 1954 to 1957, with Jaguar continually making enhancements.

Later SE models featured more powerful engines, five-speed gearboxes, and larger disc brakes for improved performance. Dunlop developed special tires to handle the increased power and speed.

On the exterior, changes included a full-width front windscreen on the 1957 Longnose cars that improved aerodynamics. These later specification D-Types were the ultimate expression of the model’s design and helped Jaguar achieve continued success.

Jaguar D-Type wheel

The Engine

The D-Type was powered by a development of Jaguar’s proven XK inline six-cylinder engine first launched in 1949. For the D-Type application, the engine was enlarged to 3.8 liters from the road car’s 3.4-liter displacement.

Additional modifications were made to raise power output for racing, including:

  • Lightweight aluminum construction
  • Triple Weber carburettors
  • Higher compression ratio (8.5:1)
  • Special crankshaft
  • Racing camshafts with stiffer valve springs
  • Dry sump lubrication system with oil cooler

This engine produced about 250 hp in standard race trim. The later Special Equipment models boosted output to nearly 300 hp thanks to further tuning tweaks.

The responsive, free-revving engine provided tremendous performance in the lightweight D-Type, with its shrieking exhaust note becoming one of the car’s defining auditory characteristics.

Relatively few modifications were needed during the D-Type’s career, demonstrating the inherent strength and development potential built into the XK design by Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons and his engineering team.

It was this outstanding powerplant that helped drive the D-Type into the winner’s circle time and again.

1998 Longnose D-Type Jaguar replica information

The Interior

The minimalist interior of the D-Type reflected the fact it was built foremost as a purpose-built race car. Speed took precedence over comfort and amenities in the tight, Spartan cockpit.

Racing essentials were prioritized while extraneous creature comforts were discarded to reduce weight.

The cramped driver’s seat was scooped out for shoulder room within the monocoque body. A strut to the driver’s left ensured the integrity of the monocoque.

Early cars had only a single bucket seat, with a passenger seat added in later road cars. The seats featured leather upholstery and four-point harnesses for containment while cornering.

Controls were ergonomically laid out for the driver’s access, dominated by the wood-rimmed steering wheel, metal gear lever, and pedals.

The dashboard contained only the most necessary gauges monitoring rpm, oil pressure, fuel level, water temperature, oil temperature, and speedometer.

Interior fittings were minimized with no headliner or carpet. Aluminum panels lined the cockpit instead of conventional trim. A small storage shelf behind the seats could hold a tool kit and battery, or the spare tire in racing setups.

For racers, a stripped-down barren cockpit enabled unobstructed visibility and reduced distractions.

The absence of soundproofing also meant the driver could clearly hear the engine’s pitch to optimize gear changes. Spartan yes, but ideally suited to the D-Type’s function as a thoroughbred racing machine.

interior of Jaguar D-Type

How Many Are Left?

Due to the high-risk nature of motorsports in the 1950s, many D-Types were destroyed or wrecked during competition.

Of the 100+ examples originally built, about 60-70 cars are estimated to survive today. Out of those, approximately 25-30 are still the original competition chassis rather than the later road cars.

Many surviving D-Types have a long and colorful racing history. Some models competed for a decade or more, changing hands between privateer teams and undergoing extensive repairs or modifications in their careers.

A few examples boast racing pedigrees covering hundreds of events.

Over the decades, D Types have become among the most valuable collector cars in the world. In 2015, a 1955 longnose D-Type sold at auction for over $21 million – one of the highest prices ever paid for a British car at auction.

Even corroded wrecks or barn-find chassis lacking engines can command seven-figure price tags due to the exclusivity and historical importance of surviving examples.

Active preservation and vintage racing activities have helped maintain original D-Types in running condition. The Border Reivers team operates a three-car squad of D-Types restored to exact period specifications, still competing in historic events.

Factory continuation cars constructed by Jaguar have also helped fill out concours show fields, though all the cars with actual 1950s racing provenance remain exceptionally rare and precious.

There are many replicas around, some better than others.

Jaguar D-Type replica
front view of blue Jaguar D-Type wheel

For all of these reasons, the 1950s Jaguar D-Type occupies an elevated status as one of the most iconic sports racing cars ever produced.

Its advanced design, success on the track, and rarity today have cemented its legendary reputation. The D-Type remains a high-water mark for Jaguar’s racing heritage.

Jaguar D-Type fin