This gently patinated, tastefully restored 1956 Jaguar D-type sports racing car exemplifies all that was most impressive, most innovative-and perhaps above all most beautiful-about the legendary British manufacturer's mid-'50s design. The immortal D-type survives today as the supreme example of semi-monocoque frontier technology. After three Le Mans wins in 1955, '56, and '57, it was only eliminated by the change to a three-liter engine in 1958.

SCM Analysis


Number Produced:71
Original List Price:$11,000
Distributor Caps:$41
Chassis Number Location:Top of left front suspension mount
Engine Number Location:On head between cam covers
Club Info:Jaguar Clubs of North America 234 Buckland Trace Louisville, KY 40245
Investment Grade:A

This 1956 Jaguar D-type sold for $2,097,000 at the Bonhams Quail Lodge auction August 18, 2006.

The Jaguar D-type’s greatest achievement is in some ways also its greatest problem. It was such an advanced design for its time that most people mistake it for a really good late-’50s racer, competition for Testa Rossas, 300S Maseratis, and DBR Aston Martins.

In fact, it is a stunning engineering and design tour de force dating from 1953 and early 1954. In an era when the Italians we so venerate were building ladder-framed chassis with transverse-leaf suspension and handing them to various carrozzeria for bodies, Jaguar engineers were designing monocoques, calculating torsional rigidity, lift centers, and aerodynamic drag. Only Mercedes-Benz, with the Type 194 and 196 (300SL prototype and 300SLR) was as advanced.

Jaguar was a rather ordinary car company in the late 1930s, building what were effectively down-market Bentley competitors. Committed to war work in the early ’40s, management spent its spare time figuring out what to do when the war ended.

The first thing they were going to need was a new engine, something both powerful and impressive looking, to anchor an anticipated line of post-war vehicles. They settled on a six-cylinder dual-overhead cam concept, basically a knock-off of the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 engine, and it came to fruition with the XK (X for experimental, K because the final version was the eleventh concept. A, B, etc.)

Rather than blunt the impact of a cool new engine in a staid sedan, Jaguar decided to create a concept sports car for the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show. It was based on a William Lyons design and was called the XK 120 for the engine and the anticipated top speed. Though the car never ran, it was the sensation of the show.

The original plan to build 200 XK 120s to allow customers to help sort out the engine (an early “Beta test”) was quickly abandoned as customers clamored for the new car. Plans for an underpowered, four-cylinder XK 100 version were also ditched.

To build on their newfound success with the 120 and XK-engined Mk VII sedan, Jaguar set their sights on winning Le Mans. They knew they needed a purpose-built racer to do it and set about the “XK 120 Competition” project. Jaguar’s financial success in difficult times in England allowed them to tap a pool of aircraft industry talent to design the car. It was led by an ex-Bristol Aircraft aerodynamicist named Malcom Sayer, who became the central talent in Jaguar’s racing success.

Though the “XK 120C” was to share little but the engine and drive train with the XK 120, marketing required that the new car look as similar to the street car as possible. The result was the beautiful and now familiar “C-type,” which dominated the early ’50s international racing scene.

By mid-1953 it was time to move to a successor, so Sayer was given marching orders to come up with a new design. The “needs to look like a Jaguar” rule was abandoned, which gave Sayer a clean slate and the confidence for a great design.

Most of the sports car guys of my generation grew up with a well-established set of conceptions about the national character of various cars. Italian cars were impossibly romantic, impractical, but gloriously desirable fantasies. German cars were paragons of humorless Teutonic efficiency. French cars were, well, um, French. English cars were accessible, friendly and fun, if a little ordinary, sort of like the family dog.

Tractor-engined Triumphs, lorry-engined Healeys, and underpowered Sprites were great but “state of the art” and “English” were seldom thought of in the same breath. In view of that, the engineering prowess and sophistication that went into creating the Jaguar D-type is staggering.

First of all, the center section of the D-type was an aluminum monocoque structure, something that Formula One didn’t use for another ten years. The D used disc brakes six years before Ferrari dared try them. The distinctive curved sides of the body weren’t a designer’s flourish, they were engineered to minimize crosswind and close quarters instability at high speed. The distinctive shape and headrest fairing were the result of aerodynamic calculations and extensive wind tunnel testing, not some designer’s whim.

Enzo Ferrari notoriously said, “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines,” and for a time he may have been right, but for Jaguar, aircraft-quality engineering of all details was the key to success.

The result was a car that feels newer than its era. In my first track experience with a D-type, I was comfortable enough to toss it into corners and use throttle to drift through within a few laps. The chassis stiffness allows compliant suspension settings, and the package feels immensely stable and predictable at speed. I’ve turned some miles in a 1953 Ferrari 375MM, and it’s a truck with a big engine compared to the D-type.

There are several details about the design that are worth noting. The chassis design incorporates both a monocoque center section as noted and a tubular framework bolted to it that carries the engine and front suspension. Over the years, these components have been separated, mixed, and matched, which can create a nightmare of provenance issues.

The “official” chassis number is stamped on the left front suspension mount, which is on the tubular frame section, but there are also numbers on the monocoque. If they get split, which is the “real” car? The catalog copy for our subject car took pains to note that all numbers were correct.

The other detail has to do with configuration. Early factory and all “customer” cars-like this one-used the “short nose.” Beginning in 1955, the works cars got the 7 1/2-inch longer “long nose” for improved air penetration, but they are the only ones; there are no “long nose” cars except factory team cars. The iconic tailfin was not standard on customer cars but could be ordered.

Though nicely presented, the subject 1956 Jaguar was a very ordinary customer D-type with no particular history or outstanding features, and it sold for almost $2.1 million, on the high side of market-correct for what it is.

This brings up an interesting conjecture: Why do Jaguars consistently sell for about half of the value given to Italian cars they can walk away from on the track? My guess is that it’s two things: the old “friendly but dull” vs. “wildly romantic and unattainable” preconception about British and Italian cars, and the fact that Jaguars use a cast-iron six instead of an aluminum twelve.

At the end of the day, I’m afraid all the super-exotics in this category of car are all about fantasies, dreams, image, and cylinder envy. In the case of the D-type, it creates an undervalued car and, I think, a very good buy.

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