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Disc Jockeying at Le Mans

Lyons

There can be no doubt that Jaguar’s use of disc brakes at Le Mans in 1953 provided the cars from Coventry with a tangible performance advantage. The winning 3.4-litre C-type finished a full five laps ahead of the 5.5-litre Cunningham C-5R. This was the first time that disc brakes had been seen at the 24-hour endurance classic, and the competition took note. As a result, Dunlop, Jaguar’s brake disc supplier, came under pressure to furnish other teams with this now race-proven system. 

Naturally, William Lyons wasn’t too keen on that scenario and so wrote a letter, dated 4 February 1954, to George Edward ‘Ted’ Beharrell of the Dunlop Rubber Company. In it, Lyons, after first subtly suggesting that memories often dim with the passing of time, reminds Beharrell of their several discussions regarding ‘the supply by you of the disc brake to our competitors for this year’s Le Mans race, in particular to the most formidable one, the Cunningham, which, in view of its large capacity engine should, theoretically, win the event’.

Lyons then mentions the ‘complete understanding between us on the question of our right to have some say as to whether the brakes are supplied for sports car racing during the pre-production stage’, before agreeing in return that, ‘you [Dunlop] would not be requested by us to withhold the supply of brakes if, by so doing, the goodwill of your Company should be prejudiced’.

In the paragraph that follows, Lyons underlines the value of a Le Mans win to both Jaguar and the nation before suggesting that the importance attached to the ‘supply of brakes to Cunningham is very much exaggerated in relation to the great importance to us of preserving the advantage we enjoyed last year’. 

It’s quite clear that he views Cunningham as his fiercest on-track rival for the ’54 race, but also takes the opportunity to highlight the marque’s miniscule production car presence saying, ‘they are of no account in the American industry, the Cunningham being approximately the size of the Allard in this country.’

William ‘Bill’ Lyons concluded his letter thus: ‘I believe that if you could find a way to avoid supplying Cunningham, the effect on the prestige of your Company would be negligible, whereas if you do supply the brakes to them, you are undoubtedly loading the dice against a Jaguar win, a Dunlop tyre win, and a British win.’

It’s a heady, patriotic plea from a man who always fought for his beloved Jaguar. But would it be a successful one? Was it enough to sway the mind?

As history, and Beharrell’s subsequent reply, shows, Mr. Jaguar got his way.


Dear Bill,

I am just on the point of leaving on a visit to America and in the meantime I am trying to speak to you about your letter of the 5th February.

I am sure after our conversations, it is unnecessary for me to assure you that Dunlop wishes to give to you and the British Industry, the maximum possible support in connection with the Le Mans Race which is of particular importance to your company in view of your dollar export business.

In the course of time it has become increasingly difficult for us to avoid the interests of Overseas competitors, many of whom have long connections with the company, and it is for this reason that I have all along emphasised that we would recognize your cooperation in the development of the brake so long as it did not jeopardise our goodwill. We promised you that we would do everything we could to help your success at Le Mans and we have carried this to the extent of asking Cunningham to release us from supplying the brakes for his car for the Le Mans Race in view of our position in relation to the British Industry. Mr. Wright spoke to his General Manager on this point this morning and the cancellation of our commitment for Le Mans has been accepted over the telephone. Mr. Wright is confirming this by letter to Cunningham to-day.

If you are successful at Le Mans, and I hope you are, there will be an increased interest in our brake for production cars on which you will naturally wish to be first in the field. It is therefore apparent that our test work for production models should be completed as quickly as possible. I have asked Mr. Wright to pay particular attention to this point and no doubt your organisation will do the same.

I am looking forward to seeing you on my return and in the meantime send you my best wishes for your success.

With kindest regards.

Yours sincerely,

[signed] Ted 

beharrell to Sir William Lyons

As it happened, the D-type Jaguar of Hamilton and Rolt finished well clear of Cunningham’s two [older] C-4R cars, but despite a valiant effort failed to catch González and Trintignant in the Scuderia’s new 5.0-litre V12 Ferrari 375 Plus. The winning margin was a little under two minutes. It appears Lyons had his eyes on the wrong rival.

 by Wayne Batty

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Comments

David Moore - February 9, 2022

Interesting that Cunningham wanted Dunlop’s disc brakes for Le Mans as he could have obtained them from other makes in the USA. Early post-war US ‘Midget’ racers were using disc brakes from war-surplus aircraft spares, made by Airheart I believe.
The 1950 Cummins Diesel car in the Indy 500 had disc front brakes and the 1952 Cummins/Kurtis car had them all round, including the fronts being radially drilled. I know, I’ve driven the car.

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