Six Of The Best... Superb-Sounding Sportscars

11th May 2016
Henry Hope-Frost

Last week we brought you an aural treat in the shape of five of the best-sounding rally cars, ranging from 2.1-litre, five-cylinder turbocharged Audi Quattros, to three-litre, V6 normally aspirated Metro 6R4s. The history of the World Rally Championship has come with a hugely varied soundtrack, during which fans have picked out plenty of favourites.

And the same is true of the World Sportscar Championship. For 40 years, between the early-1950s and the early 1990s, the long-distance discipline featured major manufacturers going hammer and tongs for hours and hours in a bid to promote their products by outdoing their rivals, whether it be in the Prototype or Grand Touring Class, i.e. slippery, purpose-built missiles or production-based sportscars.

Along the way, there have been some fabulous and memorable exhaust notes from the cross-section of four-cylinder, straight-six, V6, straight-eight, V8, flat-eight, V10, V12 and flat-12 powerplants bolted in the front, middle, or rear of the best endurance machines.

These, then, are our six favourite noisy endurance kings comprising varied engine architecture and, therefore, distinctively different noises. They’re cars that everyone who heard them during their respective pomp will never forget.

Jaguar D-type – 3.4/3.8 straight-six

Looking like something out of a sci-fi flick, with its long, slippery shape and, on later cars, huge rear fin behind the driver, Jaguar’s D-type replaced the two-time Le Mans-winning C-Type. The faster D used the same velvety-smooth and powerful 3.4-litre XK engine from the C, but was later increased to 3.8 litres to maintain competitiveness. The car narrowly lost out to Ferrari on its Le Mans debut in 1954, but made amends in ’55 when the factory car of Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb won the tragic French enduro. A privately run car from Ecurie Ecosse made it a D-type mid-50s hat-trick by winning in 1956 and ’57, courtesy of Ron Flockhart and Bueb the first year and Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson in the second. That 1957 Le Mans win would be Jaguar’s last at the top level until 1986, when the Group C-spec XJR-6 won at Silverstone.

Matra MS670 – 3-litre V12

Resplendent in French blue, with the distinctive lime-green-helmeted head of Henri Pescarolo howling down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in the mid-1970s, the V12-engined Matra prototype is, for many, the most visually and aurally evocative sports-racer of them all. The 3-litre V12 engine had first seen the light of day in Matra’s MS11 Grand Prix car of 1968 and also found Formula 1 favour with the MS120, 120C and 120D during the first three years of the 1970s. When the World Sportscar Championship rules changed for 1972, via the outlawing of the five-litre monsters and limiting capacity to three litres, Matra’s V12 unit found itself in the back of the MS670 prototype, which was essentially a grand prix car with full, covered-wheel bodywork. The car didn’t appear until Le Mans, round nine of the that year’s 11-round WSCC, but took a one-two, thanks to the efforts of Pescarolo and Graham Hill in one car, and François Cevert and Howden Ganley in another. Its successor, the MS670B, won five times in 1973, including at Le Mans, and the last incarnation of the French screamer, the MS670C, racked up wins in all but one of the 11 rounds, with a third Le Mans victory to boot. And all of that success came with a noise to die for.

Mercedes C11 – 5-litre V8 twin-turbo

One of the last – and most potent – of the Group C prototypes, the 1990 ‘Silver Arrow’ first appeared at the opening round at Suzuka. Problems in practice meant that the Peter Sauber-run squad reverted to the older C9 model and notched up a one-two, with Mauro Baldi/Jean-Louis Schlesser leading home Jochen Mass/Karl Wendlinger. With the rumbling twin-turbo V8-powered machine back on song for the next round at Monza, another one-two was ticked off. And thereafter the C11 only lost once in the remaining seven World Sportscar Championship rounds, with Baldi/Schlesser atop the podium four times and Jochen Mass winning twice, once with Wendlinger and once with a young German few had heard of at that point: Michael Schumacher. The C11’s replacement, the C291, was set to be introduced for 1991 but proved recalcitrant early on. It first appeared in a race in round three at Silverstone, taking second to Jaguar’s incredible XJR-14 and Peugeot’s 905B – Grand Prix cars with windscreens. The car eventually took one win, in the finale at Autopolis in Japan, and that was that for one of endurance racing’s most formidable and ground-shaking motors. For 1992, the last year of the WSCC, Mercedes had withdrawn and left the lower-capacity, multi-cylinder non-turbo screamers to it… 

Peugeot 905B – 3.5-litre V10

Conceived for the ‘atmospheric’ rules switch for the 1991 WSCC, Peugeot’s 905 actually raced against the outgoing Group C cars in the final two races of 1990, with Grand Prix aces Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Keke Rosberg retiring in Montreal and finishing a lowly 13th in Mexico City. It was an fairly inauspicious debut but the high-revving, non-turbo V10 howl of the new breed of machine would come into its own for ’91. The B-spec 905 won first time out at Suzuka, with Philippe Alliot and ex-Sauber ace Mauro Baldi, and engaged in a fierce scrap with Jaguar’s XJR-14. The final tally was three wins for the British-built machine and two – at Magny-Cours and Mexico City – for the French rocketship, thanks to Yannick Dalmas and Rosberg. It all came good for Peugeot in 1992, with the Pug winning five of the six races, including a Le Mans win for Dalmas and Brits Mark Blundell and Derek Warwick, and ex-F1 star Warwick becoming the last-ever World Sportscar Champion.

Porsche 917 – 4.5/4.9/5.0 flat-12

Unless you’re old enough to remember seeing it in the flesh, you can only imagine the assault on the senses of a Gulf Porsche 917 prototype at full chat around, say, the original, eight-mile sweeps of Spa-Francorchamps, Jo Siffert or Pedro Rodriguez on one of their banzai, 160mph laps. Porsche’s most iconic and revered sports-racer thrilled and terrified its drivers and those watching them at work for a short, but very sweet, period in the early 1970s – thanks to the way it looked, the way it sounded, and the way it went. Originally considered aerodynamically unstable, the car was unloved by its roster of drivers, but rear-end tweaks sorted the car and it became a big hit with plenty of big hits. Starting out with a 4.5-litre, engine, capacity was gradually increased, with the final examples, the Can-Am-spec 917/10 and 917/30 gaining fat turbos to push power beyond the 1,000bhp mark! The 917’s first win came at the Osterreichring (where a test had produced the aero-problem Eureka moment) at the end of 1969, with Kurt Ahrens and Siffert on the driving strength. For the following year, the 917 took seven wins from the 10 rounds, with the two of the other three falling to the 917’s more nimble cousin – the three-litre 908 – deliberately entered for the twisty Targa Florio and Nürburgring Nordschleife events. The year 1971 marked the 917’s swansong, thanks to rules outlawing the 5-litre cars. It won seven of the 11 races, including Le Mans, in which Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep set a distance record during the 24 hours that wouldn’t be broken for 39 years!

Porsche 935 – 2.85-litre flat-six turbo

Based on the venerable and recognisable 911 shape, as the rules for 1976 decreed, the 935 was Porsche Motorsport’s challenger for the Group 5 World Championship of Makes for production-based racers. The series ran alongside the World Championship for Sports Cars, which Porsche also attacked with its open-top 936 Group 6 prototype. And the German giant won both manufacturers’ titles, thanks to Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass in the Martini Racing-striped 935 and the same intrepid duo in the similarly-liveried 936. The 935 was like a 911 on steroids, with its permitted wide-track and wide-arch form. And from the rear came the familiar flat-six wail, boosted by the whooshing of the turbo. Few sights and sounds have resonated among sportscar-racing fans like a Martini Porsche 935 on full song.

  • Sportscar

  • Sauber

  • C11

  • Peugeot

  • 905

  • Porsche

  • 917

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