Le Mans roars on to the roads again this weekend. Forty years ago all eyes were on the Jaguar D-type as it broke all course records. Phil Llewellin took it for a spin
Forty years ago the world's most prestigious motor race was won by one of the greatest cars that ever turned a wheel. Driven by Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb, the Jaguar D-type had averaged a record-breaking 107mph for 24 hours when it took the chequered flag at Le Mans. But the mood was sombre that June afternoon. Eighty people had died, earlier in the race, when a Mercedes 300SLR had plunged into the crowd.

That unprecedented tragedy was discussed on 14 April 1956, when I joined a small group of friends on a bus trip to Oulton Park, Cheshire. We went to watch Stirling Moss and other young lions duel for the British Empire Trophy. I was 15. Never before had I seen cars racing in anything other than black-and-white images on a screen. We chipped in for a packet of cigarettes and wondered who looked old enough to buy beer at the equivalent of 5p a pint.

What thrilled me most of all were the D-types whose drivers included Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson. They won Le Mans a few weeks later, setting Jaguar up for a hat-trick of victories.

Winning big-time motor races was not Britain's forte during the immediate post-war years. Several top-class drivers had emerged, but what we needed was engineering worthy of their talents.

Jaguar turned the tide. It is now difficult to appreciate just how much the Coventry cars did for the nation's morale. The sleek XK120 was proof that John Bull could be a winner. Then the C-type Jaguar's victories at Le Mans in 1951 and 1953 endorsed that message. But it was the D-type that made the deepest impression, for winning races and for being such a peerless blend of style, speed and stamina.

The D-type was announced in 1954 and could be bought for pounds 2,686 - the price of five Morris Minors. The modern racers, whose Le Mans battle starts today, include the mid-engined, 636bhp McLaren F1 GTR. Packed with state-of-the-art technology, this is the expensive version of the McLaren that costs pounds 634,500 in road-going trim.

When the D-type made its debut, magazines disclosed most of its secrets. Up front, the bare bones consisted of a tubular frame for the suspension and the 3.4-litre engine, which developed 250bhp at 6000rpm. The frame was fixed to an alloy "tub" that formed the cockpit and provided mounting points for the rear suspension. A smaller frame carried the 37-gallon fuel tank and the spare wheel. Malcolm Sayer, an aerodynamicist who had joined Jaguar from the aircraft industry, created one of the most graceful, purposeful bodies that has ever clothed the skeleton of a race or road car. The shape is not quite as efficient as it looks, but the D-type's pace is a matter of record. Figures on the high side of 180mph were recorded lap after lap at Le Mans. But these cars were also docile enough to be driven on the road.

In his autobiography, Touch Wood!, Duncan Hamilton, who won Le Mans in 1953, recalls driving a D-type from Coventry to Surrey after a heavy fall of snow; "Many sports-racing cars would be undriveable under such conditions. No one has ever had to take a Jaguar to a race on a transporter. Lofty England [the team manager who became Jaguar's chief executive] always said that if you cannot drive a car on the road, it will never be reliable in a race."

The boy who went to Oulton Park was destined to drive a Jaguar D-type. Covering 750 miles in two days - thanks to Robert Brooks, the auctioneer who specialises in mettlesome machinery - was the reward for a lifetime of prayer, although not to be recommended if comfort is a priority.

The D-type's driver sits on a skimpy rectangle of padded leather with another press-studded to the rear bulkhead. The wrap-round windscreen, the bare metal and the rows of rivets combine with dollops of decibels to create the illusion of being in the cockpit of a piston-engined fighter plane.

At speed, it is impossible to hear yourself shout. But the noise is magnificent. I now know why Antony Hopkins, the eminent musician, chose the sound of a D-type at full-throttle as one of his Desert Island Discs.

Bold, muscular curves create the illusion of a big car, but the Jaguar is only 10 inches wider than a Mini. It feels compact and agile while boosting confidence with a smooth clutch, superb steering and a gearbox that poses no problems if you remember not to hurry the shift from first to second. There is no need for wrist-snapping haste, because the engine is very responsive.

Jaguar pioneered the use of disc brakes, but the D-type's demand a lot of pressure. That had to be remembered when I encountered a Ferrari 512TR on the road from London to Dover. You need to play safe, leaving a little more space than usual between the D-type's nose and the tail of the vehicle that is never in front for very long. Unless it is a modern Ferrari.

Driving a Jaguar D-type far and fast can be likened to climbing a mountain or racing a powerboat. The rudimentary seat, the firm ride and the strident battle cry of wind, tyres and engine - the stubby, side-exiting exhausts look like the barrels of a sawn-off shotgun - make this a challenging experience. The reward is an elemental thrill and the knowledge that you now have a shred of something in common with so many of yesterday's heroes. Stopping to get out and stretch for a few minutes made me all the more appreciative of their round-the-clock efforts at racing speeds. Forty years ago, Hawthorn lapped Le Mans at 122mph.

I must confess to the D-type losing a little ground as its days as a front-line racer drew to a close. The car that featured more prominently in my rose-tinted automotive dreams at the end of the decade was Ferrari's short-wheelbase 250GT.

It cost crazy money - pounds 6,000 when new - but the beautiful Pininfarina body and the terrific 3.0-litre, 12-cylinder engine made this a car to rob banks for. A roof and a proper passenger seat place this delectable coupe well up the league table of classic competition cars that can be driven on the road.

When I win the National Lottery, I will have one of those Ferraris for long journeys and a Jaguar for the sun-blessed, wind-lashed, hedonistic and slightly masochistic sprints that make the years fall away. Driving the D-type is the nearest I will ever get to sipping the elixir of youth.

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