Ferrari 375 MM, Jaguar D-type, Cunningham C4-R. Photos by Andrew Taylor, courtesy Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum.
It was to be a battle for the ages, according to period publications, pitting power (in the form of the Ferrari 375 Plus) against aerodynamics (as embraced by the wind tunnel-tested Jaguar D-type). Weather played a role in the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans as well, and the race’s conclusion was the closest finish recorded since 1933. It’s impossible to revisit the Circuit de la Sarthe in June 1954, but on June 10, 2017, the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, will host a demo day featuring cars that raced, or could have raced, 63 years ago at Le Mans.
Ferrari 375 MM in action during a Simeone Demo Day.
To counter the threat of Jaguar’s new D-type, Ferrari took its proven sports racer, the 375 MM, and turned it into the more powerful 375 Plus. Starting with the Aurelio Lampredi-designed 4.5-liter V-12, rated at 340 horsepower, Scuderia Ferrari bored the engine to a displacement of 4.9-liters, increasing output to nearly 350 hp. Its spyder bodywork, designed by Pininfarina, featured a prominent hump in the trunk to accommodate the 190-liter fuel tank and spare wheel, and though absent from the cars at Le Mans, the 375 Plus models would later sport an aerodynamic driver’s headrest, similar to that used on the Jaguar D-type.
The museum’s D-type enjoys a bit of exercise.
Jaguar’s D-type evolved from its race-winning C-type, which placed first, second and fourth at the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans. Initially, the D-type borrowed the same 3.4-liter inline six-cylinder used by its predecessor, rated at roughly 250 horsepower, but that’s really where the similarities ended. The D-type employed aircraft construction techniques, using the aluminum body as a stressed member in conjunction with the tubular steel frame. The car’s exterior had been shaped in a wind tunnel, and the D-types run at Le Mans in 1954 sported a prominent dorsal fin meant to increase stability at high speed. They used four-wheel disc brakes from Dunlop as well, considered revolutionary at the time. Though down 1.5-liter in displacement and roughly 100 horsepower in output, the Jaguars posted a slightly faster top speed and more nimble handling, though they couldn’t match the Ferraris for acceleration.
Dr. Simeone drives the Cunningham C4-R.
Jaguar and Ferrari were thought to be the only teams in contention for an outright victory, but American automotive entrepreneur Briggs Cunningham had other ideas. Since 1951, he’d run cars of his own making in the storied endurance race, finishing as high as third (with the ungainly C5R “shark,” the nickname earned by its prominent grille) in the 1953 race. For 1954, Cunningham returned with a pair of C4R’s, each powered by a 5.5-liter Chrysler V-8, making them the sole entries in the 8.0-liter class. He’d tried to obtain Dunlop disc brakes for his cars as well, but Jaguar protested and the deal was ultimately terminated. To test Ferrari’s Lampredi V-12 for use in a future model, Cunningham also entered a Ferrari 375 MM, fitted with specially designed water-cooled brakes.
The 1954 race began under threatening skies, and the trio of Ferrari 375 Plus models entered by Scuderia Ferrari quickly assumed first, second and third place. The heavy rains began on lap six, giving the advantage to Jaguar’s D-types, and on lap 22 it was Stirling Moss, in a Jaguar, who charged to the front. The two manufacturers would trade the lead for much of the race, but the Jaguar team was plagued by an engine misfire later traced to dirt in its fuel supply, which may well have prevented a domineering performance by the British team.
In the afternoon of the second day, with less than two hours remaining in the race, Scuderia Ferrari driver Maurice Trintignant, nearly two laps ahead of the second-place Jaguar, pitted for a routine stop and driver change. The legendary José Froilán González climbed behind the wheel, but the Ferrari would not refire. By the time mechanics got the 375 Plus back on the circuit, the Jaguar driven by Duncan Hamilton (teamed with Tony Rolt) had made up the multi-lap deficit and was just over three minutes behind the Ferrari. To Jaguar’s advantage, the rains resumed, and Hamilton closed within 90 seconds of González.
Had the deluge continued, Hamilton’s Jaguar may well have reeled in the Ferrari, but with roughly 30 minutes remaining the skies cleared and the track dried. González pushed his 375 Plus harder, extending the lead to nearly three minutes at the checkered flag. Hamilton was next, followed by the Cunningham C4R driven by Bill Spear and Sherwood Johnston, which earned a class win in addition to the podium finish.
As for the Ferrari 375 MM entered by the Cunningham team, it retired after 120 laps, the victim of a broken rocker arm and a failed axle bearing. Following the conclusion of the race, Cunningham and mechanic Alfred Momo met with Enzo Ferrari to discuss the engine component failure, but as usual Il Commendatore would not hear of any flaws with his automobiles. Rebuffed, Cunningham never again purchased a product from Ferrari.
Part of the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum’s collection includes the Cunningham C4R raced by Spear and Johnston at Le Mans in 1954. On June 10, this will be demonstrated (weather permitting) in the museum’s back lot alongside the Simeone’s 375MM (raced just once, by its original Italian owner at Castelfusano and once owned by actor William Holden) and its Jaguar D-type, delivered to first owner Jack Ensley (president of Jaguar Midwest Distributors) in 1956 and raced in both the U.S. and England. While only one of the cars participating ran in the 1954 race, all three models were represented at Le Mans that year, giving Simeone visitors a rare opportunity for time travel.
For additional information, or to purchase Demo Day tickets, visit SimeoneMuseum.org.