• 1954 - 1957 Jaguar D-Type

When the 24 Hours of Le Mans started up again after WWII, it took a few years for any one company to clearly dominate the race. The first several races were each wins for different marques, but Jaguar became the first one to win two postwar races in 1953, with the excellent C-Type racer. But, as good as the C-Type was, it was up against the technological marvel that was the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, as well as the Ferrari 375 Plus — a car that was almost more of a giant V-12 engine than it was car. So, even as the C-Type was taking an overall win in 1953, Jaguar was already working on a new version of the car.

The story of the D-Type starts with the XK120, Jaguar’s first postwar sports car. At the time, it was the fastest production car in the world, and so when Jaguar wanted to compete at Le Mans, it just made a competition version of the car (this being the C-Type). But, with the XK120 having debuted in 1948, most of the technology that went into it was prewar and by the mid ’50s there was a lot of new thinking and technology that could be applied — most importantly, a lot of airplane technology.

Continue reading for the full story.

  • 1954 - 1957 Jaguar D-Type
  • Year:
    1954- 1957
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Transmission:
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
  • Torque @ RPM:
  • Displacement:
    3442 L
  • 0-60 time:
    4.7 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    167.8 mph
  • 0-100 time:
    13.5 sec.
  • car segment:
  • body style:


1954 - 1957 Jaguar D-Type
- image 653770

Even though the D-Type is based on the C-Type, it is almost completely different in appearance. This is because the body itself is one of the most advanced parts of the car, or indeed of any car at the time. Jaguar hired Malcom Sayer, an aviation aero dynamist, to help design the car, and the result was incredibly light and aerodynamic. The design used a monocoque tub made with stressed aluminum body panels (early prototypes used magnesium, but this proved to be too expensive) and the D-Type was one of the first cars to ever employ this kind of design.

The hood was as low as the designers could make it, and this necessitated the bulge for it to fit over the engine.

The hood was as low as the designers could make it, and this necessitated the bulge for it to fit over the engine. The engine is canted slightly as well, and some say that this was in order to get the hood even lower — the same strategy that Mercedes-Benz employed with the 300SL. But, it’s nowhere near as extreme in the D-Type, and there isn’t a consensus about the purpose of this design element.

The driver sits way over to one side of the car, even though there isn’t a passenger seat. This is because it was designed so that the passenger section could be opened up and a seat added to allow the car to race as a road-legal car in various series in America. This particular car is also a long nose example. Not all of the cars have this feature, but after the car debuted at Le Mans in 1954, future Le Mans racer D-Types were lengthened for aerodynamic purposes.

What is probably the most prominent design feature of the car is the large dorsal fin. This was a feature made specifically for racing at Le Mans, and specifically for the Mulsanne straightaway on the La Sarthe track. This straightaway is unusually long, and cars reach higher speeds on it than they do anywhere else in this style of racing. So, Jaguar gave the D-Type a fin for aerodynamic stability at Mulsanne-level speeds, and it wouldn’t be the last car given a special aerodynamic feature just for this section of this one track.


1954 - 1957 Jaguar D-Type
- image 653774

Admittedly, there isn’t much of an interior on the D-Type, and expecting one would be madness. The D-Type was built so that it could be made technically road legal, and moreover, its roots go back to the XK120 road car. So, the dash layout won’t strike anyone as looking usual, and the steering wheel is what basically all sports car steering wheels looked like in the ’50s.

What might be surprising, however, is that there is also a generally fair amount of leather inside the car as well. This clearly includes the seat upholstery, but the prominent center tunnel is usually wrapped as well — an odd move on a car built so obsessively with the goal in mind of reducing weight.


1954 - 1957 Jaguar D-Type
- image 643587

The 3.4-liter, inline-6 engine from the XK120 was carried over first to the C-Type and then later to the D-Type. The twin-cam design was obviously advanced enough to make the XK120 the fastest production car in the world, but Jaguar was constantly improving on it, especially in its racing versions. So the XK120 had between 160 and 180 horsepower, but the C-Type was putting out 205 horsepower when it was new.

This was improved upon, and the D-Type was up to 245 when it was new, and would eventually get up to around 300 horsepower. RM auctions hasn’t published how much this specific car is making, but it would probably be nearly impossible to say with any certainty without a dyno test.


1954 - 1957 Jaguar D-Type
- image 653775

Any race car that didn’t require homologation is obviously going to be very rare, although one as successful as the D-Type isn’t nearly as rare as some others that have been all but lost to history. Jaguar built 18 cars for factory racing efforts and another 53 for customers. When a rule change disqualified cars with engines over 3.0-liters from participating in Le Mans, Jaguar planned to turn the 25 D-Types that were still in the process of being built into road cars.

A factory fire destroyed 9 of these, but the other 16 became the XKSS. These are obviously much rarer and more valuable than the standard racing D-Type, but that doesn’t mean the D-Type isn’t still staggeringly expensive. RM Auctions hasn’t published an official estimate for this car, but they did sell a 1955 version earlier this year for $3.6 million. This one will probably go for a bit more, as it is the long nose and was a works race car. Unofficial estimates put its worth at about $5 million, or possibly more. Just for comparison, an XKSS once owned by Steve McQueen has an estimated worth in excess of $30 million.


Mercedes-Benz 300SL

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Alloy Gullwing High Resolution Exterior Wallpaper quality
- image 478542

Before it became the fastest production car in the world and arguably the world’s first supercar, the 300SL was a hugely successful racing model — confusingly known by the exact same name. It took the win at Le Mans in 1952 to break up a potential winning streak for the C-Type. It was the Le Mans tragedy of 1955, where a 300SL crashed into the stands and killed dozens of spectators, that put an end to the car’s racing career. It had the potential, however, to at least challenge the later supremacy of the D-Type.

Read our full review here.

Ferrari 375 Plus

1953 - 1955 Ferrari 375 Plus High Resolution Exterior
- image 46856

A relative of Ferrari’s America line of grand touring cars, the 375 Plus had a 4.9-liter V-12 under the hood, at a time when its biggest competitors had six-cylinder engines that displaced less than 4 liters. Boasting 330 horsepower, the car was also very powerful and didn’t have a lot of weight to haul around. That added up to a Le Mans win in 1954 — the debut year of the D-Type. Ferrari kept fiddling with the formula, but the car didn’t race the following year.

Read our full review here.


1954 - 1957 Jaguar D-Type
- image 653773

The D-Type’s debut year of 1954 might not have been spectacular, with a few mechanical kinks that still needed to be worked out. But, once they were, the D-Type took overall wins at Le Mans in 1955, 1956 and 1957. Since the D-Type was based on a road car and used an engine from an existing road-going car, Jaguar’s reputation reached an all-time high. Rule changes kept it from racing after 1957, but its legacy was secure by that point, and Jaguar would evolve the idea into a road car — known fittingly as the E-Type. This was arguably the single greatest road-going car ever produced by the company, and it never would have existed without the D-Type. It is a hugely important car in not only the history of Jaguar, but of race cars in general.

  • Leave it
    • Not road legal and not an XKSS
    • The dorsal fin is weird, and you’d probably have to explain it a lot
    • No passenger seat, no roof, no doors

Source: RM Sothebys

Jacob Joseph
Jacob Joseph
About the author

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