Symphony in C

PETER ROBINSON’S Classic Wheels

Peter Robinson

EPIC TALES FROM OUR ARCHIVES FIRST PUBLISHED JUNE 1987

THIRTY YEARS AGO MICHAEL STAHL SPENT A PRECIOUS FEW HOURS OF ROAD TIME AT THE WHEEL OF A JAGUAR C-TYPE, THEN WORTH $350,000. SUCH HIGH VALUE, WROTE STAHL, “TENDS TO CONCENTRATE THE MIND WONDERFULLY.”

Would Michael dare take the wheel in 2017, knowing that today that superbly original C-Type had escalated in value to around, well, who knows? Two years ago RM Sotheby’s sold the C-Type that finished fourth at Le Mans in 1953 for A$17.6m; in 2016 Bonhams auctioned another for A$10.6m.

Jaguar C- and D-Types with a genuine racing history are almost as prized as racing Ferraris from the same era.

“In truth,” Stahl wrote in Wheels, June 1987, “The C-Type isn’t really all that difficult to drive. It’s not even difficult to drive reasonably well.” Yet, this car was conceived to win races and Stahl admits, “to drive a C-Type fully as intended, let alone to do this for hours on end at Le Mans, required the other-worldly skills of a handful of men.”

In 1951 the C-Type became the first (of seven) Jaguars to win the Le Mans 24-Hour, the race it was designed to win. For the C-Type, Jaguar’s classic 3.4-litre DOHC in-line six from the production XK120 sports car was tuned to develop a heady 150kW at 5800rpm on its twin SU carburettors, though this car was converted to the later three Weber carbies that gave another 13kW. Spaceframe construction, an all-aluminium body and absolutely minimal fitments lowered the weight to just 1016kg, with a claimed perfect weight distribution of 50/50. Stahly struggled with the infamous Moss gearbox (while pointing out that it was nothing to do with Sir Stirling Moss), and its heavy, long throws, weak synchromesh and extremely narrow gate. Fortunately, the engine’s flexibility and torque meant gear changing could be minimised.

In what became a Jaguar tradition, the three works C-Types were driven from the Coventry factory to Le Mans by the engineers. After four hours they led one, two, three, but shortly after midnight just one car remained: Peter Whitehead and Peter Walker went on to win easily. Only 54 were built before the C-Type was replaced by the even more successful D-Type.

Dr William Marshall, then the C-Type’s owner, raced the car in historic events in Australia and confessed to Stahl that he expected, “the C-Type to be a real heap – more like an XK120. But it’s much tighter, and obviously a hell of a lot faster. It just doesn’t bear comparison with cars like T-Series MGs. In fact, it handles better than the 275GTB, although the Ferrari came 15 years later.”

I don’t suppose Porsche would allow Wheels to drive last year’s Le Mans winner on the road. Still, we should ask.

“TO DRIVE A C-TYPE FULLY AS INTENDED, LET ALONE TO DO THIS FOR HOURS ON END AT LE MANS, REQUIRED THE OTHER-WORLDLY SKILLS OF A HANDFUL OF MEN” – MICHAEL STAHL, 1987

Not so cool for Cats

From 1952 Jaguar fitted the C-Type with disc brakes, to the enormous benefit of shorter braking distances, and fully expected to repeat its Le Mans victory. At the last minute it was decided to fit a more aerodynamically efficient bonnet and tail section to reduce drag and increase the top speed in an effort to match that of the new Mercedes-Benz SLs. However, the lower bonnet required a new radiator system that lead to overheating of the engines and all the works cars dropped out.

ALSO IN WHEELS, June 1987

Porsche addict Jeff Carter takes the G-series Porsche 911 Carrera to the Victorian gold fields; Ewan Page attempts to tame the Taipan, a Cobra-style beast running a twin-turbo 7.4-litre Chevrolet V8; Robbo’s column touches on the Camry’s top speed, which he had verified at 184km/h on the Hay Plain; an advertisement for Commodore 30 cigarettes suggests that smoking them will mean a pretty girl will share your windsurfer.

READ THIS STORY AND HEAPS MORE CLASSICS AT WheelsMag.com.au/classic

Next issue

Robbo reflects on driving a 993 Porsche 911 to interview Butzi Porsche in the Austrian Alps 20 years ago

THE WAY IT WAS

'87

Homer’s odyssey

The Simpsons gets its first TV airing as a 115-second short during The Tracey Ullman Show on Fox. Creator Matt Groening expected artists to redraw his crude representations of the family. They didn’t.

Black hole

World stock markets crash on Black Monday, October 19th.

The financial malaise starts in Hong Kong, eventually wiping 41.8 percent off the Australian Stock Exchange.

Grand final

Final Fantasy, a role-playing video game for the NES, is released in time for Christmas.

The franchise eventually becomes one of the richest in the gaming industry.