LE MANS 24 HOURS 1949 - '57

Author: ArchitectPage

PREDICTING the results of a long distance sports car race such as Le Mans is worse than betting on the horses, because even the cars don't know who is going to win, beforehand. Nevertheless, on past performance, the Jaguar is certainly the favorite, with five victories in the past nine years, the last with a first, second, third, fourth and sixth place overall.

In theory the Lister-Jaguars might be able to beat the privately owned D-types. The Listers are lighter, and though probably not quite so fast on the Mulsanne straight as the smoother looking D, they should be able to turn in a quicker lap time. Much will depend here on the pre-race preparations for mechanical fitness, and on teamwork tactics during the race.

It is no secret that the Jaguar people themselves know that the "invincible" D-type will eventually be surpassed by its competition-and that they are quietly working on a new model. However, the "E-type" will not appear this year, and most likely not in 1959. 

With 10 cars accepted for the 1958 event, Ferrari will be a real threat. The V-12 engine now develops 320 brake horsepower and while its durability has often been somewhat questionable, the marque's wins at Buenos Aires, and Sebring this year cannot be overlooked. For the Le Mans circuit the Ferrari weaknesses have always been in the departments of excess weight, marginal braking power and, insufficient attention to air-drag losses. If, as expected, two or three of their cars appear with the new 3-liter, 4-cam, V-6 engine there is no reason to expect an upset from a new and unraced powerplant despite its sturdy GP ancestry.

Ferrari also suffers from t~e characteristic temperament of its own people-confused pit management in times of c~isis, drivers who sometimes disregard. pit signalsf' e~c. Nevertheless, the experience and know-how of the Italians should not be discounted and a Ferrari is the most likely car to break the chain of Jaguar victories.   

David Brown's efforts to win the 24-hour classic with his Aston Martin have been marked by singularly concentrated effort and equally bad luck. The new "square" 6-cylinder racing engine is now in its second year of development has already proven itself to be extremely reliable and, with its all-aluminum construction, is probably the lightest 3-liter engine in the race. Chassis details now seem, to have finalized, and former simultaneous developments in opposite directions should be paying off in the form of even better handling qualities.

One should also not overlook the fact that the Aston Martin team is without a doubt equipped with the best management and the best group of drivers which can possibly be assembled today. They need, and will have, a little more horsepower. That, and a fair shake from Lady Luck, could easily give them their first overall win at Le Mans.

Summed up, the overall winner will undoubtedly be one of the above three, though the 2.2-liter Lotus will certainly be extremely fast. On index the tremendous improvement in the 750-cc cars indicates that this category should overwhelm all others. Osca and Lotus will battle the formula for this wins. The former enjoys the extra bhp of a dohc engines but the Lotus is lighter and equally fast despite its sohc engine. Lotus preparation, pit work and team, management should give the British firm a slight edge.

Ten years of frustration came to an end, as, before a huge and most enthusiastic crowd, the 49 brightly coloured cars, most of them saloons, went away punctually at 4 o'clock on Saturday."

Thus spoke The Autocar for July 1, 1949, just 10 years ago. The words were appropriate and the occasion fitting, for after ten years of frustration the Circuit Permanent de La Sarthe hummed again with the roar of engines, the patter of tradesmen, the shuffling of huge crowds and the inexpressible fascination of fast cars, headlights ablaze, tearing through the night.

In 1949 the sport was still in a mess caused by long years of interruption and an economic starvation afterwards. In that year a South American later he would be identified as an Argentine-called Juan Manuel Fangio had arrived in Europe and had started winning races. In June, 1949, fans and journalists were beginning to realize this quiet, stocky man of the pampas was no flash in the pan. Alfa Romeo, tired of winning races against no opposition, had withdrawn for the year and the Grandes Epreuves were being fought out between Ferrari, Maserati and Talbot-Lago.

In sports car racing the panorama was even more confused than in the Grand Prix division but the marque of the hour was Ferrari, with the startling 166 V-12 which had already won the Paris 12-hour race and set class E records. But Ferrari produced another 2-liter: a wide, streamlined roadster known as the Barchetta (with body by Touring) which is still today setting the trend of styling for sports/racing two-seaters. And so we come to Le Mans. There had been rumors about a race in 1948, but the keen and enthusiastic men of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest were unable to overcome the crippling financial hurdles in their way and it was not to be, until 1949.

What cars there were! The 2-liter Ferrari, driven by Chinetti and Lord Selsdon, was flanked by 1939-type 3.6 Delahayes and 3-liter Delages, some Talbot-Lagos, the brand new, sleek 2-liter, 4-cylinder Aston Martin which never went into production and the very first DB-1 2-liter coupes. There were little Simcas, even a Riley Lynx, a 1936 Speed model Aston Martin, and one of the recently announced little Renault sedans.

M. Pineau, French Minister of Transport, raised his flag . . . it dropped. . . and the patter of feet died for a moment. Then a greater, more thrilling sound reverberated over the grandstands as the roar of two score engines burst into life.

And the first away was Chaboud's beautiful light blue Delahaye, while four cars remained on the grid, the last of all to leave being a Healey. Five minutes, 30 seconds later, a little dot appeared from. the direction of White House Corner and Chaboud screamed past followed by Rosier (Talbot) , Vallee (Talbot) , Meyrat (Delahaye) and Leslie Johnson driving an Aston coupe fitted experimentally with the W. O. Bentley 6-cylinder, 2.5-liter Lagonda engine. And the battle was on.

Chaboud was averaging nearly 95 miles per hour, but then he was hemmed in by a slower car, skidded and pranged, put continued with a bent fender. Vallee ran into trouble and at one hour the order was Chaboud, Flahault (Delahaye), Ferret (2-liter Ferrari) and Rosier (Talbot) with Luigi Chinetti fifth after a stop to work on the car. Now Chinetti began working his way up and at 8 P.M., four hours gone, he was third and Chaboud was still leading by over a lap. But half an hour later the carburetors on the big Delahaye burst into flames and the car came into its pit, carried on, but soon retired. Chinetti forged into the lead and Ferrari turned the other Barchetta upside down but emerged unhurt. At midnight it was Chinetti/Lord Selsdon, Vallee/Mairesee (Talbot), Veuillet/Mouche (Delage) . . . the 2-liter Aston coupes going well but the Lagonda-engined job had retired.

Vallee retired and Veuillet went into second and out again and Chinetti led by a lap, but the average had dropped to 86 mph, slower than in 1939. As cars began to tire, there was changing of positions and at mid-way Chinetti led from Louveau (3-liter Delage) , Gerard (3-liter Delage) and the Frazer-Nash of Culpan and Aldington. The tempo was slower now, Chinetti had 3 laps in hand arid Louveau was driving like mad in an attempt to catch the Itali"an. Then Chinetti stopped for fuel and a few laps later was in the pits with a worried look on his face. Was the V-12 breaking up? Tired spectators and race personnel began perking up and taking fresh interest in the scene. At mid-day Chinetti, who had driven almost the full 24 hours, noticed his clutch slipping while Aldington, whose Frazer-Nash was now third, thought he was running out of fuel and reduced speed because he had 4 laps to do before the permitted refill.

The leading Ferrari was now a sick car and Louveau was driving like fury. He gained first one lap, then another, and the crowd was going wild. Aldington was looking anxiously for the Gerard Delage, but this car was failing and stopped at its pit for a long time. Tension climbed steadily as the minutes ticked by, Chinetti toured slowly past the pits and Louveau slid bends, wrenched the Delage around the hairpin and screamed past slower cars like an avenging fury.

With 20 minutes to go Louveau was only nine miles behind but it was not to be. Chinetti motored over the line with a heart-felt sigh of relief and the gallant Louveau came roaring past only a few minutes later, to receive everybody's applause. The Frazer-Nash came in third, Gerard was fourth, Grignard/Brunet (Delahaye) fifth and Hay/Wisdom's Bentley coupe finished a silent and well behaved sixth.

The 1950 edition was highlighted by two Cadillacs entered by Briggs Cunningham. One was a more or less normal sedan with a 3-speed transmission and the other a weird, square-cornered two-seater which the French Press immediately called "Le Monstre." However monstrous these two vehicles may have seemed to the European crowds, they finished 10th and 11th, although the sedan (Cunningham/Walters) finished a lap ahead of the other car which was handled by the late Collier brothers. Two diesels turned up, the faithful Delettrez and a 4.5-liter blown 2-stroke M.A.P., plus two new 2 3-liter Ferrari Berlinettas, an Allard Cadillac, the Hay Bentley, three XK-120 Jaguars, three 2.5 liter Astons, a brace of quasi-Grand Prix Talbots, and so on.

From the start Sommer's 2.3 Ferrari began running away with the race, followed by Sydney Allard's Allard, but this Anglo-American. car was soon passed by the two-seater Talbot driven by Louis Rosier and his son Sommer had a quick pit stop and Rosier went into the lead, but Sommer was soon past again and lapping at nearly 100 mph. As night fell, however, Sommer went out with generator trouble and Rosier swept into the lead At midnight Rosier led Chineui's 2.3 Ferrari and Meyrat's Talbot. Leslie Johnson was fourth with one of those sensational XK-120 Jaguars which were only just beginning to be delivered to customers. However, as the race wore on, the Jags began to suffer from failing brakes. The Allard lost 1st and 2nd gears and perhaps this was lucky, because what they lost in speed they certainly gained in reliability!

At dawn Rosier had to. stop to change a broken rocker arm and Meyrat went by into the lead, with Rosier second and Johnson third. By 10 in the morning Rosier, who during the previous evening had lapped at 102.84 mph, was back in the lead with Meyrat second and dropping behind. There were now no Ferraris left in the race, and the two Cadillacs swept silently round and round, although the sedan had top gear only. After a fine run, Johnson's Jaguar broke its clutch-but the performance of the XK-120 was to have far-reaching effects on the Le Mans scene. The race finished with Rosier and Meyrat holding first and second places and the "single-gear" Allard-Cadillac managing to pip Roll's Healey for third place with only a few laps to go. The Healey was one of the first Nash-engined cars, fitted with the overhead-valve Ambassador engine.

The Sandt/Coatalen Renault 4-CV sedan was first in the 1100-cc class because all the little Panhard-engined cars cracked up (the early Renault 4-CV sedans had 760 cc). We can take the story of the race from the keynote paragraph in The Motor's report for June 27, 1951: "Whether or not Britain can build a Grand Prix winner remains to be seen, but today a British car in its first race ran clean away with the Le Mans, 24-hour sports car Grand Prix d'Endurance and came home over 60 miles in the lead, although having slowed down for some hours. Driven in turn by

Peter Whitehead and Peter Walker, the new Jaguar XK-120 Competition model broke the record for the race, averaging 93.498 mph, and led for the last 16 hours with complete ease. The three American Cunningham sportscars, somewhat large with their V-8 Chrysler 5.4-liter engines and more cumbersome in appearance than one expected, all had trouble after giving a very impressive demonstration. One car crashed, the second had clutch trouble, and the third, which had been running second from 5 A.M. on Sunday morning until 11 o'clock, then had all kinds of bother and so went out of the picture to finish gallantly limping along at a walking pace. The new Jaguar XK-120-C, as it is known ('C' is for Competition) is a new version of the famous sports model. . . . Its debut could not have been more sensationally successful."

There is not much more to add. Two of the three C-types entered went out with oil-line failures and there was some worry lest the third should suffer the same fate and thus spoil a brilliant victory, but nothing happened and the car went steadily through to win.

At one hour Moss (Jaguar) was in the lead, and from then on a Coventry car was always in first place. Gonzalez/Marimon and Rosier/Fangio, both teams driving Talbots, made the chief opposition for a while but then packed up, and at midnight the Cunningham-Chrysler of Phil Walters and John Fitch was third. Briggs Cunningham had brought over a staggeringly complete equipe, and the European journalists delighted in giving statistics about the number of spare spark plugs and the amount of volunteer personnel at the pits. It was a serious effort to win first time out and, had not the C-types appeared, might just have come off.

The year 1952 was marked, in sports car racing, by an outstanding event; after an absence of 13 years, Mercedes-Benz was back in competition with the new "Super-Light" coupes powered by much-modified versions of the 6 cylinder type 300 engine. After finishing second in their first race, the Mille Miglia, the sleek silver coupes had shown an impressive turn of speed and reliability, none having yet retired through mechanical failure. Thus expectation was intense for 1952, because Jaguar was back with new, sleeker versions of the C-type, and Briggs Cunningham brought over two open 2-seaters and a brutal looking coupe, still with the pushrod Chrysler engine.

The race was sheer mechanical slaughter. Right after the start it was found that something was wrong with the new Jaguar bodies and air was not reaching the radiator. After three hours there was not one Jaguar left in the race, an unhappy state of affairs indeed; obviously there had been insufficient high-speed testing of the cars. (Ed note: Some reports said the cooling troubles were due solely to water pump cavitation, not aerodynamics.)

Walters (Cunningham) led off in the early stages, Moss (Jaguar) was second for a lap or so, and then Ascari's bright red 2.7-liter Ferrari went into second place, making a terrific racket until suddenly it stopped at its pit and left again with a clutch which obviously was not as good as it should have been. The new DB-3 Aston Martin in the hands of Reg Parnell retired with a broken rear axle. Then Manzon/Behra's shattering 2.3 Gordini began creeping into the picture and at four. hours the little blue car was first, followed by a Mercedes (Kling/Klenk), a Cunningham (Fitch/Rice) and a Ferrari 4.1 (Rosier/Trintignant). Duane Carter slid the Cunningham coupe into the sand and spent over an hour getting it out, then Kling/Klenk retired with a defective generator.

The British cars had been knocked out and the Ferraris, too, were falling by the handful, so the issue was between Germany and France. Levegh, driving a rebodied ex-GP Talbot, went into second place behind the Gordini which still led, but now the 300 SL's were third and fourth, ominously enough. Zora Duntov, driving an Allard, sud. denly found himself without any brakes, flashed through two closely parked cars, and opened his eyes to discover himself still on a highway-the Tours road.

At mid-way the gallant little Gordini had shot its bolt with engine trouble and weakening brakes, and Levegh/ Marchand led from the two Mercedes, which were impassively running to a rally-like time schedule and seeming to worry little about what was going on around them. The lone remaining Aston Martin (Macklin/Collins) became fourth. About then the two Allards retired, one with lower-end trouble and the other with transmission failure.

One of the Mercedes coupes began drawing close to the Talbot, but then stopped at its pit for fuel and meanwhile a good look was taken under the hood, a lot of arguing took place in German and only after six minutes did the silver coupe take off. But it didn't seem any slower than before.

Twenty hours (12 noon Sunday): Levegh/Marchand (Talbot), 235 laps; Lang/Riess (Mercedes-Benz) 231 laps ; Helfrich/Niedermayer (Mercedes-Benz) 229 laps; Macklin/Collins (Aston Martin) 221 laps; Johnson/Wisdom (Nash-Healey) 219 laps.

The last four hours were productive of much incident. An Osca had been leading the 1500-cc class with ease but broke its clutch and left the spoils to Porsche; then the leading Porsche was disqualified because its driver had not stopped the engine during his last refuel stop! After this a lone, sick Jowett Jupiter was left touring round in sole possession of the 1500-cc class.

Only two hours left and the Aston Martin was safely in fourth place; but then Macklin came into the pits, his rear axle pouring smoke. Some repairs were effected and Peter Collins got away to try to nurse the car to the finish but it was no good. The differential casing cracked and that was that. Meanwhile a solitary Cunningham rumbled round, driven by Bill Spear and Briggs himself.

Now it was all over but the shouting. Or was it? With about an hour to go, the Talbot which had been leading for so long was suddenly overdue. People started glancing at stop watches and expectant faces turned to look down the pit straight. A hubbub of chatter died down suddenly, when a car was seen coming along, and then a groan went up when it was seen that is was not the Talbot after all. One of the silver Mercedes swept by, already knocking a lap off its deficit, and with the speed of all bad news the word got around: Levegh had run a rod bearing with less than 20 laps to go! And so Mercedes won and Johnson/ Wisdom were third with the 4.1-liter Nash-Healey, with Briggs Cunningham's car fourth. 

And then came 1953. Mercedes had retired to Stuttgart and rumors were flying thick and fast about a revolutionary new Formula I car to emerge in the following year. The successive sports Ferraris had gone up to 4500 cc and it was with machines of this formidable engine displacement that Modena challenged the Jaguars, which were back with C-types, externally similar to the successful 1951 cars-the disastrous 1952 modifications had been scrapped. A 100-mph 24-hour average was predicted. Ascari's 4.5 liter Ferrari lapped at 112 mph during practice. Cunningham turnedhp with a huge Chrysler-engined car again.

The Bristol team, captained by Sammy Davis, went down with food poisoning just before the race, one of the futuristic Pegasos crashed and so we got to starting time.

Walters (Cunningham) got away first; but at the end of the first lap Sydney Allard was leading with his green JR, Villoresi ( 4.5 Ferrari) second and Moss (Jaguar) third.

On the third lap Moss moved out and into the lead. Then Tony Rolt began breathing down Villoresi's neck while the JR Allard retired. The strange looking Alfa Disco Volante coupe (Kling) now began moving up, and at 20 laps was fourth. Aston Martin began having'trouble and Moss stopped with a choked fuel line, while Rolt, obedient to pit signals, passed Villoresi with consummate ease! At four hours Rolt led Ascari/Villoresi and two of the Alfas.

And that was about the end of the race. There was simply no catching Rolt and Hamilton. In spite of the Grand Prix skill of Ascari and Villoresi and the undoubted speed of the 4.5 Ferrari, the Jaguar would not only outbrake the Italian car but could also out-accelerate it. although the coupe was slightly faster on the straight. The two Ferrari drivers made a gallant attempt but after hours and hours of this it was clear they weren't doing anything but wrecking the car. At every pit stop an angry wave of mucky grey discolored oil surged over the hood. The gears failed one by one and the clutch began to slip. And still the Jaguars and remorselessly on and on. After a while the Ferrari quit for good. Two Jaguars finished first and second, another fourth, and between them Briggs Cunningham's car, driven by Walters and Fitch, which had achieved its most brilliant performance to date, but, once again as in 1951, it had coincided with a staggering Jaguar performance. Rolt and Hamilton, the winners, averaged 106 mph! .

1953 can in a way, be described as ending an era in postwar Le Mans. After this came the era of the D-type. The races from 1954 onwards are too fresh in the minds of all of us to need extensive recapitulation. But a brief word on each race after 1954 will serve to refresh lagging. memones.

1954 was the day of the rain, when a D-type (Rolt/ Hamilton) and a 4.9 Ferrari (Gonzalez/Trintignant) had a Homeric battle all through the day and night and finally the Ferrari won by 2.5 miles at 105.09 mph, slightly slower than the year before due to the rain. Bill Spear and Sherwood Johnston were third and Briggs Cunningham and James Gordon Bennett fifth, in Cunninghams.

Few people will forget 1955 in a hurry. Shortly after the start, and as a result of colliding with an Austin-Healey, Levegh's Mercedes 300-SLR spun off the track and smashed into the. packed crowd, killing him and over 80 others. After this the Mercedes team withdrew when in the lead and Jaguar won again, with Hawthorn and Bueb, while Collins/Frere were second with a 3-liter Aston Martin.

The following year the race was run under some rather synthetic "panic" regulations which stipulated a top limit of 2.5 liters on "prototypes" and set stringent fuel consumption limits. Both Aston Martin and Jaguar were eligible to run their over 2.5-liter cars due to having built a sufficient quantity for- sales. On paper it looked like a gift on a platter to the"D-type Jags, but then a crash elimi­nated two and the remaining car, although it was very fast, suffered a hair-line crack in its injection system and was not in the running. But the private Ecurie Ecosse team pitched in and with their D-type managed to win the race against the might of Moss and Collins with their Aston Martin. This,- was a disappointment to Feltham, as they had a good chance of winning at last after so much bad luck. but., it was also a staggering performance by the Ecosse Jaguar.

And in 1957 the Ecurie Jag, its engine bored but to 3.8 liters, won again! This double achievement will almost certainly go down in the record books 'of motor racing history. Jaguars swept the board, even in the absence of the factory team. The only effective opposition came from a 3.7-liter Aston Martin which crashed when in second place, and in the end Jaguars were first, second, third, fourth and sixth. Fifth was a 3.8-liter Ferrari V.12. The Lotus (see photo) behaved memorably.

In a way the history of postwar Le Mans is the history of the XK engine, which will we believe, go down as one of tpe most famous sports/racing engines ever built. Absent in 1949, the type showed its teeth in 1950, won staggeringly in 1951, failed dismally in 1952 (due to body design), destroyed the opposition utterly in 1953, and in 1954 suffered its last defeat. But, it was a defeat which almost smacked of victory, for it finished 90 seconds behind a car with an engine half again as large. And from 1955 on there was no holding the XK engine even when official teams failed. So out of nine occasions, the XK powerplant failed to start once, retired twice, was second once and won five times.

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Sports Car Races

Targa Florio 1963

Sebring 1966

Stardust GP 1968

Le Mans 1930

Le Mans 1949

Le Mans 1950

Le Mans 1951

Le Mans 1952

Le Mans 1953

Le Mans 1954

Le Mans 1955

Le Mans 1956

Le Mans 1957

Le Mans 1958

Le Mans 1959

Le Mans 1960

Le Mans 1961

Le Mans 1962

Le Mans 1963

Le Mans 1964

Aston Martin finished second
1954 Bristol
C-type first '51
C-type first '53
Cunningham '50
Le Mans
D-type '55
3rd placed Cunningham
Bonnet '54
Ferrari engined Cunningham
Marzotto Ferrari
Jaguar with injectors
'52 Jaguar
1100 Lotus
'52 Mercedes
'55 Mercedes
'54 winners Trintignant & Gonzales
Ferrari Hill/Castellotti
Talbot '52
Cunningham Coupe '52