When the UK joined the Gordon Bennett Cup, all the most popular colors were already taken, even yellow was unavailable since it was given to Belgium. The only option on the table was green and the color actually fit perfectly since the UK was one of the leaders of the industrial revolution in the late 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s and olive green was already a trademark for British trains and farm tractors.
The Brits proved they were not fooling around, the first year they came to the Cup, in 1902, Selwin Edge drove the green Napier 6.5 liter to victory. Actually, the British car was the only one to survive the race, all others broke down along the way.
According to the rules, the winner nation should host the next year’s race and that means for the first time the Gordon Bennett Cup would happen outside France.
The only problem was England had banished car races and the team had to choose somewhere else in the UK.
Ireland was the chosen location for the 1903 edition of the cup and the Irish people couldn’t be more proud of it. Some historians say this race still holds the record of the biggest sports event in Ireland when more than 150.000 attended to see cars crossing the finish line. Even though the home team was beaten by the Germans, the 1903 Cup was considered a spectacular success, and to honor the hosts the British team decided to paint the cars on a darker shade of green, similar to the national Irish Emerald Green.
As time passed by, the UK became a superpower in motorsports and the unofficial “Home of the Formula 1”. Most of the teams that disputed the 2019 F1 season have their headquarters in England. Since the 1960s, every year dozens of young drivers flock to the old island hoping to climb all the way to the top of the sports pyramid. Pretty ironic for a country that had banished car races in the early 1900s.
Some of the most iconic British automakers, wearing the “Moss Green” on their cars, contributed to build this heritage.
These automakers, at some point, went through some serious financial turmoil and were forced to sell the brands to foreign companies. Fortunately, the new owners are trying as much as possible to keep the legacy alive and very often we can have the satisfaction of watching them competing on the most prestigious races around the World. Here I will try to talk about the achievements of four iconic British automakers.
The super luxurious brand was born in 1919, in Cricklewood, North London and it has been racing ever since.
The company’s founder, Walter Owen Bentley, attended Le Mans’s inaugural race in 1923 and he was very skeptical about the idea of endurance competition: “I think the whole thing’s crazy,” he declared. “Nobody will finish. Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of strain for 24 hours.
Nevertheless, just a year later, Bentley had put together a fine race team that leads his car to the podium of the 1924 Le Mans edition. Bentley’s victory turned out to be an epic event considering that the automaker with 1 year in business had beaten the most traditional brands in the most traditional auto race.
The team would win Le Mans again in 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930. The 1930 edition will always be remembered by the brutal battle against the 7 litter “Kompressor” Mercedes-Benz.
Jumping to modern times, in 1998 the Volkswagen Group acquired Bentley and it didn’t take long for them to push the brand back to the race tracks.
In 2003, Bentley was once again at Le Mans, with a 1-2 victory. The cars were painted in Moss Green and wearing the same numbers (7 and 8) as the original winners of 1924.
The new car was powered by a twin-turbo Audi V8 engine, producing 600 HP.
Jaguar is another fairly young British automaker, founded in 1922 in Whitley, Coventry, England and also has a solid tradition in motorsport.
Le Mans was and still is the natural target for any brand which wants to “win on Sunday and sell on Monday”. Race still is one of the most important in the world and consequently a fantastic showroom for the automakers. Jaguar won there for the first time in 1951 with the legendary XK-120C (“C” stands for competition), the car was equipped with a 3.4-liter twin-cam, straight 6 engine producing between 160 and 180 bhp and a more aerodynamic body than the regular production XK-120. In the early 1950s, the competitors were swiftly changing their car at Le Mans, from the modified touring models to a more purpose-built sports car.
Jaguar won Le Mans again in 1953 with a lighter version of the 1951 car and the team also broke the 100mph average speed barrier at the track. To make 1953 even more memorable, all four factory Jaguars finished the race.
The replacement for the XK-120c was nothing less than legendary, the “D Type” was Jaguar’s first car to use a monocoque body, it was lighter and more aerodynamic and obviously faster than the XK, even if it was powered by the same inline 6 engine.
The D Type won Le Mans in 1955, 1956 and 1957. It is well known the car was a superb piece of engineering but some facts outside the Jaguar’s reach may have contributed to those victories.
Le mans 1955
This year everything was all set to an epic battle between Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar but this race will be forever remembered by the most horrific crash in the History of motorsport. On lap 35 Mike Hawthorn pulled his Type D to the right and started to brake in order to get into the pit area, right behind him was the Austin-Healey driven by Lance Macklin who swerved avoiding the collision with Hawthorn’s Jaguar but this maneuver put the Austin on the path of the Mercedes-Benz driven by the Frenchman Levegh. With no time to react, Levegh rear-ended Macklin’s car at 200Km/h catapulting the Mercedes towards the crowd. The car flew over the fence and disintegrated when it hit the ground, throwing large pieces of debris into the packed spectator area killing 84 people plus the driver and injuring 180. The race’s director decided to keep it going despite the carnage. Later on, Mercedes-Benz’s team manager Alfred Neubauer decided to withdrawal the remaining cars from the race as a sign of respect for the victims, even if the team was leading the race at that point.
Mercedes-Benz’s chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut went to the Jaguar pits to ask the team to also call their cars in, Jaguar team manager, Lofty England, declined. With Mercedes out and all the Ferraris broke down, Jaguar easily won the race.
The Le Mans organization tried to explain the reason they decide to keep the race going on: They said if the event was finished, thousands of fans leaving the race track would have clogged the streets, making it impossible for the emergency vehicles to move around.
The tragedy also prompted Mercedes-Benz to completely retire from motorsport until 1989.
With the Germans out of the competition, Jaguar scored two more victories in Le Mans with the D Type, in 1956 and 1957.
Jaguar wouldn’t strike another series of victories again until 1987 when the Brazilian driver Raul Boesel won the Sports Car World Championship driving the V-12 powered XJR 8. That year Jaguar lost Le Mans to Porsche but they won 8 out of 10 races of the season, easily securing the constructor title as well.
Jaguar also won Le Mans in 1988 and 1990. This performance was a gigantic achievement considering the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. During this time Jaguar had to rely on money from sponsors and the cars could no longer wear green.
The Formula 1 years
In 1990 Ford Motor Comp. bought Jaguar and the company went through a major reorganization. In the late 1990s as part of its global marketing operations to promote the British brand, Ford decided to appeal to Jaguar’s rich racing heritage.
In 1999 the Jackie Stewart’s Formula 1 team, “Stewart Grand Prix” was bought and rebranded “Jaguar”. The name and the green color were back on a stunning livery but that was pretty much it, the car was powered by the Ford Cosworth V8 engine and there was not a bit of Jaguar engineering there.
After 4 disappointing seasons (2000 – 2004) Ford pulled the plug and the program was shut down.
E – Formula.
In 2008 Jaguar was sold to Tata Motors and once again the new owners are using racing as a way to promote sales. Since 2016 the brand has been consistently competing in the E – Formula and the green color is (kind of) back, in a pale, turquoise shade.
In the next part of this series, I will talk about two more British brands, Aston Martin and Lotus.