“Hmm.” That’s the noise I make as I contemplate how on earth a man of my not-inconsiderable width is going to fit himself into the passenger seat I’m shortly to occupy. I've sat in many passenger seats in my time, but this one... well, it's not exactly going to be straightforward to get into.
Reims, 1956: Hamilton and Bueb win
The reason? Said cubby is the passenger compartment of 393RW. Or, for those of you who aren’t blessed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic racing Jaguars, the penultimate long-nose D-Type.
Currently the pride and joy of Jaguar's heritage fleet, 393RW is the very car that was driven to victory by Duncan Hamilton and Ivor Bueb in the 1956 Reims 12-hour race. It’s also the car that Bueb and Mike Hawthorn raced in the 1956 Le Mans 24h, finishing sixth after a persistent fuel injection issue. And in the 1957 Sebring 12h, Hawthorn and Bueb again paired up to bring this D-Type home in third place. Quite some heritage, then.
Le Mans, 1956: Hawthorn at the wheel
And today, yours truly, a mug of a motoring journo is squeezing himself into the passenger seat. The process is hampered by the bulkhead, so close as to force my knees almost upright and apart, a vertical pad at the edge of the seat base supporting them there. A five-point harness then clamps me in place. But eventually I’m in, at which point my driver slips into the other seat: Andy Wallace, no less – four-time Le Mans winner, former production car speed record holder, and one of the UK’s most prolific sports car racers. This, then, is shaping up to be a pretty special day.
Our destination is a coffee stop somewhere in rural northern France, and we’re currently in Jabbeke, Belgium, Andy having just attempted to max out an F-Type on a two-mile stretch of closed road. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s raring to go. “Are you ready?” I’m asked. I’ve never been more so.
Cockpit's... ahem... a bit tight...
It becomes rapidly clear that shooting the breeze with my driver is going to be impossible. By the time we hit 40mph, the combination of noise and wind buffeting are already sufficient to prohibit comfortable conversation. I’m on navigation duty, and my directions come as a series of snatched shouts, hand signals, and occasional shoulder shrugs (sorry, Andy). But this is just the start: ahead lie two hours of motorways, including the A26, which many European travellers will know as ‘that monotonous bit you’ve got to get done before you can get anywhere else’. This is not, ostensibly, the car for the job. But nothing could matter less. Two hours to savour this experience is barely enough.
We hit the first stretch of motorway, and Andy opens the D-Type up properly for the first time. It’s 57 years old, this car, and yet there’s a faintly unbelievable sledgehammer wallop of torque. The acceleration is visceral and unrelenting; the noise apocalyptic – a buzz-saw exhaust note overlaid with the chesty moan of the early Lucas fuel injection system guzzling vast quantities of fuel and air, and rapid-fire Gatling gun pops on the over-run. Mr Wallace is making progress, and, rather than heard, each gearchange is felt through the chassis with the hefty thunk of big bits of metal meeting other big bits of metal. I’ve never been in anything like this before.
No speedo; just a set of Dymo labels!
That’s a fact that becomes clearer with each passing mile as I realise I’m slowly but surely being covered in a film of hydrocarbons. Each time Andy lifts off, visible clouds of fuel vapour spew from the D’s enormous bonnet vents. One of which I’m sitting just behind. Pretty soon, my nostrils are infused with the stuff, and all I can smell is a heady combination of petrol, oil and leather.
The view is just fabulous, too. The windscreen distorts things readily, making any car we're following look as though it’s been sat on. But the road ahead's framed by the rise and fall of the wheel arches and bonnet bulge; spectacularly beautiful, even from this vantage point. I'm dimly aware that my left knee is gradually going numb, pressed as it is against the coachwork and bashing repeatedly against it with every bump and shimmy, but it's nothing compared to the pure thrill of flying past anodyne modern hatchbacks in a bona fide Le Mans legend.
View is spectacular. And fumey.
And flying, indeed, we are. Andy's only measurement of speed is a set of ancient Dymo labels stuck to the rev counter to give a vague approximation; it later transpires that the 70mph he's been faithfully sticking to is closer to 90mph when registered on the speedo of the Discovery support car behind. Oops. And yet the D-Type is loping along at half-chat. This is, after all, a car capable of 170mph-plus top speeds, a statistic barely believable as I peer at the exposed wiring and rivets between my crooked knees.
Then, something happens that nobody's really thought of yet. A peage appears over the horizon. It rapidly dawns on me that it'll be my responsibility to grab the ticket. Ah. Andy pulls up as close as he dares and I strain everything to reach, pulling muscles I never knew I had and frantically clawing at the little white slip with my fingertips, but it's no use. I fumble at the harness buckle, eventually releasing it, and stretch over the top of the D-Type's window to claim my prize. Then we're away, Andy opening the D up with a bark they can probably hear in Avignon while I attempt to re-truss myself without elbowing him in the face.
Goodwood, 2008: As glorious as ever
Darkness has already started to fall, our schedule running way behind by now, and pretty soon I find myself in the faintly surreal situation of thundering across northern France in a D-Type by night. The lights are – as you'd expect – not great, and interior illumination is non-existent, save a weak glow across a small portion of the rev counter. Fortunately, the need for navigation has lapsed, as we're only 20 miles or so from our coffee stop, at which point I'll be shifting into the more comfortable surroundings of an F-Type. But what surprises me is the realisation that, given the chance, I'd gladly carry on to Reims – our final destination – in the D-Type. Every moment spent in it is a visceral, undiluted thrill, so far removed from anything the modern world can offer. And when I do finally extricate myself from my cubby, I'm left with a warm glow; not just the feeling of blood returning to extremities it had forgotten for the last couple of hours, but a new-found affection for this irrepressible old cat, all noise, teeth and muscle, that's allowed me the privilege of riding on its back for the tiniest fraction of its remarkable life.