The D-type Jaguar is the kind of car that makes up for every past occasion when some enthusiastic journalist has flattered an average sports job with the term "going machine." From the tip of its mean and purposeful aerodynamic snout to the hindmost extremity of its sharklike tail fin it spells just one word—speed. Not the sort of speed by which ordinary sports-racing cars are judged, but fantastic speed in the region of 200 mph, and breath-taking, head-snapping pickup that gives you a sensation in the pit of your stomach something like a zooming elevator. It is a car the performance of which can only be gauged by formulating a new set of values. When Jaguar's public relations assistant Robert Berry handed over the test car to me at the Coventry factory, he remarked with a twinkle in his eye: "Have fun but take it easy. This isn't the production version we'll shortly be delivering to approved private owners; it's the practice car of the actual works team. You're the first member of the press ever to be accorded that privilege."
Painted British racing green, with the right-hand driving seat upholstered in light green leather, the D-type stood waist high to me at door level. As I clambered in and slid under the sharply raked steering wheel, it flashed through my mind that in the interests of sheer speed this was surely going to be a hard, uncomfortable ride and that to get anything worthwhile out of such a car would call for a brand of lightning dexterity associated only with young factory race drivers. I was completely wrong. The D-type's driving seat is as comfortable, as softly upholstered and snug as the "passenger" seat is hard, useless and wind-blown. With a full 16-inch width at the buttocks and a 45-inch span between the seat back and the pedals, it accommodates a fat man or a tall one with astonishing ease. You sit very low, with just enough support under the backs of your knees, head well protected by the high fairing that tapers up into the tail fin, face totally shielded from drafts and eddies by a tear-shaped plastic windshield. It is like sitting in an airplane cockpit without a roof. Even the pedals are thoughtfully arranged. There is plenty of room for the clutch foot; brake and gas pedals are close together so that you can heel-and-toe for fast downshifts.
"Just one thing," Berry added. "The clutch is either in or out." I nodded, turned on the ignition, tickled the gas treadle and pressed the starter button. Instantly the engine exploded into life and in one swoop the needle on the huge 8,000 rpm tachometer at my left zoomed to the four mark. Disconcerting until you get used to the sensitive throttle—which doesn't take long. Into reverse, clutch up—and the engine stalled. Berry's meaning was then clear. With 210 foot-pounds of torque and 285 hp under the hood, you can't fool around with soft clutch springs. The prewar Alfa Romeos and Bugattis were that way too.
The all-synchromesh, four-speed, close-ratio gears (fourth: 3.54; third: 4.53; second 5.82) were a little stiff to shift, but very quick and positive. Puttering along for a while, to get used to the controls, I became conscious of the astonishing flexibility of the engine. Despite the lower octane British fuel and the 9 to 1 compression ratio, the D-Jaguar will pull away smoothly from 1,500 rpm (33 mph) in top gear with only a slight ping. In second gear you can get down as low as 1,200 rpm without bucking, although obviously the car wasn't designed for that kind of thing. Even more surprising, the engine was equipped with ordinary Champion NA8 spark plugs, identical with those fitted to the XK140 sports-touring power plant.
Now for a cautious limbering of those 10-league boots that have brought the D-Jag world-wide racing fame. At 5,000 rpm in second, upshift into third; and at 4,000 rpm in third, upshift into high. Almost instantly, the tach needle climbed back up and I was doing 121 mph with a mere touch of throttle. It was about as effortless as 50 mph in an ordinary car. Steering was feather-light but very quick (1 3/4 turns, lock to lock); the slightest jerk of the wheel can send you off at a tangent. You quickly learn to coax the machine along a given path, rather than steer it, and the faster you go the easier this process becomes.
Just over 120 mph was the absolute limit possible with any safety under prevailing conditions, although Test Driver Norman Dewis of Jaguar reached a computed 191 mph at 6,200 rpm with a 2.69 rear-axle ratio along the four-mile Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. But within these limitations, the D-Jag's acceleration was phenomenal. Snapping my chin upward, the test car cannon-balled from a standing start to 80 mph in 8.5 seconds and hit 100 mph in 12 seconds flat. The sensation engendered by that rate of progression was a unique experience, but the car remained under perfect control. At low speeds, the noisiest thing about the D-Jag besides its pleasing exhaust boom is the squeak of the disc-brake pads when the brakes are gently stabbed. At high speed there is quite a bit of mechanical noise from the engine, though its intrusion is a form of music dear to the enthusiast. No braking tests were made, but from 100 mph the disc brakes, when suddenly applied, stop you altogether too quickly for comfort, despite a deceptively soft brake pedal. It's as though some giant invisible hand were grabbing the car from underneath.
Having played around in this fashion for a while and enjoyed a rare thrill, it remained only for me to tweak the devil's tail. Accordingly, I headed for the middle of Coventry and purposely ambled through a dense throng of homebound traffic that included buses, cars and droves of cyclists. The engine snorted through the gears at between 1,500 and 2,500 rpm with extraordinary docility, neither misfiring nor overheating despite this unfair provocation.
I have said elsewhere that the only thing the D-Jag needs to become a Grand Prix car is one seat less, but that statement requires qualification. It is a far more docile, comfortable and flexible machine than any Grand Prix car, and certainly the most versatile of the so-called sports cars competing in road races today. On a bet, you could drive a D-Jag quite smoothly and easily through traffic to the local grocery store—which is more than can be said of any rival make in that field.
The chief difference between the works car tested (285 hp at 5,750 rpm) and the "production" D-Jag (250 hp at 6,000 rpm) is that the former features the new "35-40" cylinder head designed by Harry Westlake. In this, the inlet valve is inclined at 35° in the combustion chamber, and the exhaust at 40°, resulting in superior air flow and volumetric efficiency. The works car also has a 7 3/4-inch longer nose, a wrap-around windshield and a higher tail fin. The "production" job includes a 160-mph speedometer, and with an optional 3.31 rear axle, can use most of the dial. It certainly is no slouch. Both models have lightweight square-tube frames with alloy bodies bolted on them. Dimensions and equipment are almost identical. Both weigh 1,960 pounds with 36½ gallons of fuel, which gives even the "production" job a sizzling power-weight ratio of 7.84 pounds per hp.
Whether these cars (or any others of that ilk) belong in true sports car racing is a subject for discussion elsewhere. The D-Jag is a cockpitful of dynamite, however well controlled. But if you can satisfy the Jaguar company with your driving competence, the base price, F.O.B. Coventry, is ¬£2,580 ($7,224). There's no cheaper rich man's race car.