Mirror, mirror on the wall…

It’s that time of year when classic car magazines come up with lists of the most beautiful/desirable/important/valuable cars on the face of the earth, and a pound to a penny says that two cars will feature well up the order in every one: the Jaguar D-Type and Jaguar E-Type.

Both cars deserve their iconic status, of course. The former for its brilliant run of three consecutive wins at Le Mans and the latter for being one of the most enduring designs and fabulous investments known to man.  Seriously: gold has dropped 45% of its worth in the past four years and oil has plunged to a third of its price per barrel while an E-Type is worth as much as 300% more than it was over the same amount of time.

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Jaguar’s D-Type and E-Type often top the lists of desirable cars… but what of the car that inspired them?

So after due consideration, the S&G humbly puts forward the ultimate classic, the thing of such beauty and such finely-honed engineering that it inspired Jaguar’s celebrated designer, Malcolm Sayer, to reach such peaks of achievement. The car that beats all does not come in British Racing Green, however, and it hails from Milan rather than Coventry. It is the fabulous 1952 Alfa Romeo Disco Volante.

To give it its proper name, the Alfa Romeo C52 was in fact a concept car designed to put a spring in the step of Alfa Romeo at a time of great uncertainty and change. Even while its Alfettas had dominated Formula 1 racing, including winning both of the first two World Championship titles in 1950-51, the company had been struggling to maintain its prestige position in the marketplace.

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The Alfa Romeo C52 is wheeled out to amaze a generation

It was short of funds and had elected to start building more cars at a lower price such as the 1900 Berlina in order to survive the years of austerity that were dragging on after World War 2. This was all well and good, but Alfa Romeo was special, and it needed to remind itself of that as much as the outside world.

The staff at Alfa Corse, having tearfully packed away the Alfettas, got hold of a 1900 Berlina engine and chassis and thought of something to do with it that might act as a hero car for the new generation of Alfas.

The engine that resulted was ostensibly the same design, an inline four cylinder with double chain-driven overhead camshafts, but it was forged in aluminium rather than iron, with sleeves in its bored-out cylinders.  It was a high compression engine running on the methanol fuel mix of its all-conquering Grand Prix predecessors through a pair of twin choke sidedraught carburettors to produce 158 bhp.

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Beneath the skin, the Disco Volante looked similar to Alfa’s road products… but with particular refinements

The standard chassis proportions were retained but the tinware was thrown away in favour of a delicate, lightweight tubular spaceframe.  This confection was then sent to Carrozzeria Touring, where an extensive wind tunnel programme was launched to try and encourage the slipperiest shape for the little Alfa engine to push along.

The result was astounding.  It was formed of a series of convex curves, each flowing into one another to produce a bewitchingly sensuous and utterly unique shape. Those feminine curves positively dripped over the wheels, half enclosing them at the front, and soon the new car had earned an enduring nickname at the factory – Disco Volante: the Flying Saucer.

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The Disco Volante looked other-worldly in 1952

The C52 had a 0.25 drag coefficient – a figure few cars can claim to this day – and proved to be extremely stable even in crosswinds while it reached speeds of up to 140 mph. The three completed cars caused an absolute sensation when they first appeared but then the momentum began to flag somewhat.

In 1953, Alfa Corse followed up on the original work by modifying two of the three cars: one into a coupe and the other into a more traditional-looking sports racer known as the fianchi stretti  (Italian for “narrow hips”). None turned a wheel in anger, the remaining competition programme was given over to the more conventional 6C 3000 CM, with which Juan Manuel Fangio finished second on the Mille Miglia. Two more Disco Volante spyders were built in 1953 and fitted with the 6C’s 3,495 cc, cast iron block, double overhead camshaft straight-six engine, adding another 10 mph but still no competition career was forthcoming.

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The coupé version of the Disco Volante looks rather E-Typey

In the end, the Alfa Romeo C52 remains one of the great ‘might have beens’ of motor sport legend. Of the five cars built, the original 1.9-litre fianchi stretti, coupé and spyder all still exist, as does one of the 6C engine spyders. Their legacy, however, is much greater than the sum of their parts – it is to be found in the classic Jaguars that they inspired and the achievements won thanks to Carrozzeria Touring’s experimental curved coachwork.

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Disco Volante: we salute you, you gorgeous creature. 

Goodwood celebrates 60 years of the Jaguar D-Type

The 2014 Goodwood Revival on 12-14 September will have a treat in store for lovers of curvaceous cars from Coventry. To mark the 60th anniversary of the storied Jaguar D-Type, an unprecedented 30 surviving examples will be entered for the Lavant Cup race.

'Shortnose' D-Type as it appeared in 1954

‘Shortnose’ D-Type as it appeared in 1954

The D-Type’s importance is hard to overstate, not least because it utilised the first successful monocoque chassis design in motor sport history. An alloy ‘tub’ of elliptical shape and comparatively small cross-section provided an incredibly rigid yet lightweight structure. Sub-assemblies were then bolted to the front and rear – carrying the engine, steering assembly, and front suspension in front of the cockpit while the rear suspension and final drive were carried behind.

In many ways the D-Type was the road-going equivalent of the Hawker Hunter jet fighter and borrowed heavily from contemporary aeronautical design. The man behind the car was Malcolm Sayer, an aeronautical designer from the Bristol Aeroplane Company, had joined Jaguar in 1950 and brought with him the most advanced thinking available in the world. Sayer’s brilliance steered the Jaguar XK120 and its Le Mans-winning sister the C-Type, whose success cemented Jaguar’s reputation and paved the way for his 1954 masterpiece, the D-Type.

The Hawker Hunter jet also debuted in 1954 bearing many similarities to the D-Type

The Hawker Hunter jet also debuted in 1954 bearing many similarities to the D-Type

 

It is astonishing to think that Sayer’s work depended upon developing complex formulae for creating curves – exactly the same science that is replicated by today’s CAD software programmes. Back in the early ‘Fifties, however, the only tools that Sayer had to call upon were a slide rule and seven-figure log tables.

Sayer’s handiwork was tested in a wind tunnel. He was determined to minimise the frontal area of the car in order to decrease wind resistance and thereby increase speed on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. This in turn required Jaguar’s Chief Engineer William Haynes and former Bentley engineer Walter Hassan to develop dry sump lubrication in order to cant the 3.4-litre straight-6 XK engine at 8½ degrees from the vertical in order to meet Sayer’s demands – creating the D-Type’s signature offset bonnet bulge in the process.

The canted XK engine installed in a D-Type

The canted XK engine installed in a D-Type

In addition to the structural similarities between the D-Type and contemporary fighter aircraft, several ancillaries were carried over from aircraft such as Dunlop disc brakes and a Marston Aviation Division bag to carry the fuel instead of a traditional rigid tank.

The dark green cars caused a sensation at Le Mans in 1954 and should have taken victory in the 24 Hours at a canter, but for fuel feed problems resulting from their revolutionary design. Nevertheless the superiority of these high-tech creations was clear to see when they achieved more than 172 mph on the Mulsanne Straight compared with the 160 mph reached by the instantly outdated (but ultimately victorious) 4.9 litre Ferrari V12.

Acclaimed artist Tim Layzell's print of the D-Type's unveiling www.timlayell.com

Acclaimed artist Tim Layzell’s print of the D-Type’s unveiling www.timlayzell.com

Ongoing development of the D-Types cured these gremlins and, with revised ‘long nose’ styling from 1955 onwards to further increase high speed efficiency and stability, duly conquered the world. Jaguar won Le Mans in 1955, 1956 and 1957 against the combined might of Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin. More important still, it set the template for every successful thoroughbred racing car to this day, both sports-prototype and single-seater.

Today the D-Type remains a popular choice for drivers and fans at historic events. Total D-Type production is thought to have included 18 factory team cars, 53 customer cars, and 16 road going XKSS versions. The Goodwood celebration will certainly be well deserved and undoubtedly a highlight of another spectacular race card.