Sixty years ago this week, Jaguar enthusiasts around the world were celebrating the Coventry marque’s second consecutive – and fourth overall – victory in the Le Mans 24-Hour race. The private Ecurie Ecosse-entered Jaguar D-Type of Ron Flockhart/Ninian Sanderson had just won the later-than-usual 1956 edition of the world’s most important sports car race.
JUL 27th 2016
Doug Nye: Jaguar and Ecurie Ecosse – sportscar kings
Despite the demise of the Jaguar works team’s latest ‘Longnose’ D-Types – Jack Fairman and Paul Frere having collided in the Esses on only the second lap while the sister car of Mike Hawthorn/Ivor Bueb suffered long delays before soldiering home a very tardy sixth, 20 whole laps behind the Scottish winners, the Ecosse victory was regarded as a splendid national triumph. But for which nation – that of the car itself or of the team campaigning it – proved arguable… For all I know, in certain nationalistic circles, it might be argued over still.
The Le Mans 24-Hour race itself was run late that year – on July 28-29, 1956 – instead of, as had become customary, nearer to the mid-summer solstice – the shortest night – at the end of June. This was due to the total rebuilding and revision of the Sarthe circuit’s pits and startline area following the terrible tragedy which had occurred just there in 1955, when Levegh’s works Mercedes-Benz had careened into the crowd in the worst-ever motor racing disaster. The incident had killed 82 – including 49-year-old Levegh himself – and injured over 100 more spectators and bystanders.
Within thirteen months then, the pit block had been totally demolished and replaced by new, increasing the width of both racing surface and (still totally open, unbarriered) pit lane. A robust new earth retaining bank had been erected in front of the spectator area which was itself separated from the rear face of that new bank by a sizeable gap, before the spectator fence itself. A simple memorial stone was also placed at the site of the Mercedes’ impact against the previous bank – against the top edge of which the flying car had crashed belly-first and snapped in half, its forward section, including the hefty front suspension, brakes and engine assembly, had been projected forward like a torpedo – scything its merciless way through the spectators jam-packed just there.
The organizing Automobile Club de l’Ouest officials took the difficult decision (albeit easier within the war-hardened, intensely practical social standards of the time) to continue with the race despite the magnitude of that incident. They argued, perfectly justifiably in my view, that to have stopped the race would have simply blocked the already over-stretched local road network with departing spectators, hindering the rescue and recovery services in their grim work.
And so it was that, after the Mercedes-Benz team had withdrawn its two surviving 300SLR works cars in the middle of the night – while running first and second – it was left to Mike Hawthorn/Ivor Bueb to score a somewhat muted (and to be truthful rather devalued) victory in their works Jaguar ‘Longnose’ D-Type.
Well, one year later – in 1956 – with the works Jaguar team’s luck having deserted them, it had proved to be David Murray’s Edinburgh-based Ecurie Ecosse team which stepped up to the mark with its year-old ‘Shortnose’ D-Type Jaguar driven by Flockhart/Sanderson. They beat into second place the works Aston Martin DB3S shared by Stirling Moss/Peter Collins, with Olivier/Gendebien/Maurice Trintignant third for Ferrari in the Maranello factory team’s 2.5-litre 4-cylinder 625LM model.
The issue of ‘Autosport’ magazine published in England, four days later, had its normally red-background front cover wearing instead British Racing Green, as it did occasionally to celebrate a great British victory.
In this case Editor Gregor Grant’s editorial was headed ‘Victory at Le Mans’ and began as follows “The magnificent Jaguar versus Aston Martin struggle at Le Mans must produce tributes from all who believe in the excellence of modern British-made high-performance and sports cars. However, this was no factory-prepared machine which gained the ‘Grand Prix d’Endurance’ but a normal production D-Type, tuned and maintained in a wee garage in Merchiston Mews, Edinburgh, by ‘Ecurie Ecosse’ – surely the most successful sports-racing team which has ever been formed…”
While Gregor could not contain his partisan Scots pride (and why not?) he also emphasised a third prong of that Le Mans weekend’s British success – with the following: “One must also congratulate Colin Chapman, whose car, driven by Reg Bicknell and Peter Jopp, won the 1,100cc class and, like the Cooper, proved the ability of these small-capacity British machines to last the distance…”
Of course, Aston Martin, Ecurie Ecosse and Lotus Engineering had long been consistent Goodwood entrants, the Scots campaigning Jaguar sports cars and a Cooper single-seater for many years before this historic Le Mans success. The following week’s issue of ‘Autosport’ then rubbed-in what might be regarded today as ‘the SNP message’ with a dark-blue-bannered front cover, and a boxed explanation on an early inside page reading “For this issue, our cover appears in blue, as a tribute to the privately-entered Jaguar of Ecurie Ecosse which won… Le Mans… Scotland is very proud of this famous victory, and David Murray’s team is to be accorded the honour of a civic reception by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, in the capital itself…” I vividly remember that dark blue front cover – it left a vivid impression upon me, as did the Ecosse colours of metallic dark blue with the lateral white nose stripe – or stripes – arranged upon the team cars in now famous lance-corporal, corporal and sergeant military style.
Since Mrs Nye is a Scot, our (fake, Proteus-based) C-Type Jaguar has proudly worn Ecosse colours ever since we built it, over twenty years ago… At least it has an aluminium body. If I was going to have a fake it had to be a good one…
But Ecurie Ecosse was of course a very familiar and popular Goodwood entrant over many years of Motor Circuit history. Not least in the Nine Hours race of 1953 when the team’s Jaguar C-Types co-driven by Jimmy Stewart/Bob Dickson and Jock Lawrence/Frank Curtis finished in formation, 4th and 5th overall. And then in the 1955 Nine Hours when Des Titterington/Ninian Sanderson’s team D-Type finished second overall, salvaging something for luckless Jaguar in yet another Aston Martin Goodwood triumph.
Of course Ecosse continued to support Goodwood events right up until Jackie Stewart – 1953 Nine-Hour driver Jimmy’s younger brother – drove their rather ugly (but still strikingly-liveried) EE Tojeiro-Ford V8 Coupe in the Whit-Monday meeting of 1964.
But for all fans of the Merchiston Mews team – and I am certainly one – that first win at Le Mans in 1956 was truly to be savoured. I did, as I listened to the radio bulletin announcing victory that Sunday afternoon, on our Ekco bakelite valve radio. Little did anyone suspect that the following year – with fresh ex-works ‘Longnose’ D-Type hardware, Ecurie Ecosse would up and do it again – this time with Edinburgh’s own Ron Flockhart co-driving the winning car with self-styled “honorary haggis-basher (from Cheltenham, och aye)…” Ivor Bueb. It was his second Le Mans win as well as Ecosse’s, and Jaguar’s fifth.
What heady days those were… Not for the last time – but almost for the first – we motor racing-mad young lads felt that British manufacturing and sporting prowess really could rule the world.
Images courtesy of The GP Library
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