We salute ten cars which performed heroically in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the greatest race of them all
Few cars had the stamina for such a lengthy campaign as Porsche’s 956 and its 962 descendent. Six victories at Le Mans represent just the tip of a particularly large iceberg. Conceived for the new-for-1982 Group C regulations, it outlived the formula for which it was created and few cars are more evocative of the era. That the model was campaigned by the likes of Stefan Bellof, Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Hurley Haywood and assorted Andrettis only adds to its lustre.
AutoFact: Its final win in 1994 was 12 years after the first.
The ‘C’ part on the nomenclature tellingly stood for ‘Competition’. Jaguar’s first out-and-out racer, this glorious sportscar nonetheless was derived from the contemporary XK120 production model. Its twin-cam straight-six was tuned to produced around 200bhp, and clothed in an aerodynamic(ish) outline. And the C-type won in France at its first attempt, with Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead triumphing in 1951. Two years later, the model scored again, this time with Duncan Hamilton and former Colditz prisoner Tony Rolt going the distance. This was also the first time the race had been won at an average speed of more than 100mph – 105.8mph to be precise.
AutoFact: The C-type was the first car with disc brakes to win at Le Mans.
It wasn’t meant to be a racer. In 1994 it took a reluctant Gordon Murray to be cajoled into assisting McLaren customers who wanted to race in the ’95 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Though only expected to be challengers for class honours, the sheer reliability of the Woking wonders saw the fancied sports-prototypes vanquished by the chequered flag with the Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing entry taking the spoils. It marked the only occasion when the principal sponsor of the winning car was a vasectomy clinic.
AutoFact: F1s finished 1-3-4-5 at Le Mans in 1995.
Backtrack to the early ’60s and it appeared likely that Ford would acquire a sizable stake in Ferrari. Ultimately, the Detroit giant was snubbed at the altar and this union never happened. Outraged, Henry Ford II and his right-hand man Lee Iaccoca ushered in the Total Performance programme. Ferrari was going to pay. Key to the scheme was a Le Mans challenger, Lola’s Eric Broadley effectively taking a year’s sabbatical to pen the GT40. After a hesitant start, this beautiful brute triumphed in 1966. It was just the opening salvo as Fords won the 24 Hours every year until the end of the decade.
AutoFact: Some GT40s came with a bubble over the cockpit so that Dan Gurney could fit his lofty frame behind the wheel.
This bestial flat 12-powered sports-prototype gave Porsche its first win at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1970. Altogether more remarkable was that it had been developed from scratch in just ten months – and some 25 were made to appease homologation requirements. It was even offered as a production model at the Geneva Motor Show! Though prone to flexing, and spookily unstable at high speed early on, the 917 swiftly became a favourite of drivers with inter-team rivalries between works-blessed squads making for sparkling battles. And that’s before you factor in its starring role in the Steve McQueen film Le Mans.
AutoFact: Count Rossi of Martini fame had a road-going 917.
Mazda’s victory in the 1991 running of the 24 Hours was a major coup for the Japanese marque. Not only had it beaten Nissan and Toyota to become the Japanese firm to win outright, it was also the first manufacturer of any nationality to triumph with a non-piston engine. The rotary-powered 787B driven by Volker Viedler, Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert displayed surprising pace and even more unlikely reliability to lead home the Jaguar squad. And then rotaries were promptly banned, the silencing of these sonic cleavers allowing those attempting to get some shuteye near the Mulsanne Straight a little respite.
AutoFact: Herbert collapsed from exhaustion after the race so never made it to the podium.
The R8 first won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2000 before claiming four further victories. That the fallow years in its seven attempts fell to the closely-related Bentley Speed 8 and its R10TDI descendent tells you everything: there wasn’t much competition. And on the rare occasion that any plucky rival got within sniffing distance, Audi still won. Short of requiring the German marque to field cars with artillery wheels, there wasn’t much organisers could do to hobble the R8’s remarkable speed and reliability. Dominant, and then some.
AutoFact: R8s first appeared in historic racing in 2005 when the model was still racing in ‘modern’ series.
Dismissed by Ettore Bugatti as being ‘The world’s fastest lorries’, pre-war Bentleys nonetheless kicked the Milan-born motor mogul where it hurt. The Cricklewood marque took four consecutive victories in the 24 Hours from 1927-1930, the ‘Blower Bentley’ being the most famous of the firm’s output prior to its acquisition by Rolls-Royce in 1931. Unfortunately, ‘famous’ is no synonym for ‘successful’, the supercharged model proving quick but only as long as it lasted. Instead, it was the 61/2-litre model that got the job done. There wouldn’t be another win for the marque until 2003, and that was with the decidedly Germanic Speed 8.
AutoFact: ‘Blower’ Bentleys consumed four litres of fuel per minute at flat chat.
Lotus founder Colin Chapman always was one for breaking moulds and pushing envelopes and rarely more so than with this brave GT. Powered by a 1.2-litre four-banger, and of glassfibre monocoque construction, this decidedly left-field tiddler claimed its maiden class victory at Le Mans in 1959. Five more category wins would follow, all of them consecutively. Additionally, the Elite claimed the Index of Thermal Efficiency twice against favoured French rivals. Such was the model’s dominance that when Chapman rocked up at scrutineering for the 1962 race armed with the new 23 model, the organisers found umpteen new and inventive ways of disallowing it.
AutoFact: After the 1962 debacle, Chapman never fielded a works car at Le Mans again.
Aston Martin RHAM/1
More than 100 Astons have attempted to win the 24 Hours yet the triumph tally remains static at just one outright victory which was racked up in 1959. The marque’s continued participation in the 24 Hours has been due largely to the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs, even if their labours haven’t always been rewarded. Robin Hamilton got further than most, the Derby man taking a 1969 DBS and modifying it beyond recognition into RHAM/1. The car crossed the line 17th in the 1977 running and ‘The Muncher’ returned two years later packing twin turbos. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been time to fit an intercooler.
AutoFact: RHAM/1 was later used to break the caravan-towing Land Speed Record.
Pictures courtesy of LAT and Rota Archive