Jaguar’s D-Type was one of the landmark race cars of the 1950s. Not only was it beautiful, but it fulfilled Jaguar founder William Lyon’s desire to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. D-Types won there in 1955, 1956 and 1957. That’s only three of the D-Type’s victories; many others came in the hands of private race teams.
In 1956, Jaguar suspended its factory racing efforts while 25 D-Types were still in inventory. Famed American racer Briggs Cunningham convinced Jaguar to add another 25 D-Types, the total of 50 meeting the Sports Car Club of America’s rules to qualify for production sports car racing in the U.S.
The factory changed the model number of the cars from XKD to XKSS, the initials apparently standing for Super Sport. Externally, Jaguar added bumpers to protect the aluminum bodywork, a luggage rack for touring, turn signals, larger taillights and a full-width windshield. The distinctive D-Type headrest and fin were removed. For creature comfort, side windows and a folding top were devised, while the center divider between driver and passenger was removed and the rider got a proper door.
Basically unchanged were the technical specifications. XKSS customers received the same 250-bhp dry-sump 3.4-liter straight-6 engine that would move the Jaguar to 60 mph in just 5.2 seconds on the way to its 149-mph top speed. Also retained for the XKSS were the rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes used in the competition D-Type.
Jaguar unveiled the car at the New York Auto Show and orders were taken, customers anxious to get their street-legal D-Types. Work began converting the 25 remaining D-Types to XKSS specification, but then disaster struck. A fire at the Brown’s Lane factory in February 1957 destroyed not just nine of the cars, but all the necessary jigs and tooling needed to build them.
The 16 remaining XKSS were delivered and remain icons among Jaguar aficionados; the group was even honored at the 2010 Pebble Beach Concours. Most famous of their owners was Steve McQueen, who bought his XKSS in 1958 and twice almost lost his license driving the Jaguar. He sold the car…but so missed the XKSS that he bought it back.
In fact, there are 18 XKSSs. Two of original D-Types were returned to Jaguar in 1958 to be converted to XKSS specs. One of those, XKD533, is the car in the Ralph Lauren collection. Being shown in Paris is something of a homecoming for XKD533, as it was first delivered in France in 1956.