10. Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’
Few would call the Group 5 silhouette racers of the late-1970s beautiful but they were dramatic. And the long-tailed 935 was perhaps the most outrageous of all.
The 935 was already the pacesetter in the category when ‘Moby Dick’, described by some as a ‘rule-bender’, arrived at Silverstone and promptly won the six-hour event by seven laps in the hands of Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass.
Le Mans, where it was driven by Rolf Stommelen and Manfred Schurti, was the bigger test. The 3.2-litre turbocharged engine produced more than 750bhp, helping the 935/78 to match the fastest Group 6 prototypes down the Mulsanne Straight, topping 220mph.
After qualifying third – fastest Group 5 car by more than 15s – the 935/78 mixed it in the early stages with the Alpine-Renaults and Porsche 936s, but had neither the fuel economy or the reliability to figure at the front. It eventually finished eighth, beaten by three ‘normal’ 935s, having been hobbled by a broken piston seal.
Thereafter, some Porsche privateers produced their own versions. John Fitzpatrick and David Hobbs finished fifth at Le Mans in 1982, while the Momo-liveried IMSA example was perhaps even better looking than the original Martini machine.
Although rare, some distinctive coupes raced at Le Mans prior to the Second Word War. Several could have crept onto this list, but the top pick has to be this one-off Alfa Romeo, partly because of its impressive looks and also because it should have won the 1938 24 Hours.
Completed just before the event, the Touring-bodied 2.9-litre supercharged car made a big impact. “It caused quite a stir among the sportscar fraternity, since a closed car was almost unheard of,” wrote Alfa Romeo expert Simon Moore in his book The Immortal 2.9.
Against a phalanx of Talbots and Delahayes, Raymond Sommer and Clemente Biondetti battled for the lead from the start. Such was the pace that the Italian machine, which touched 150mph on the Mulsanne Straight, was left with a big lead when the fastest French cars failed.
It was around 100 miles ahead when the right-front tyre blew with less than four hours to go. Sommer got the Alfa back to the pits, but a broken valve soon stopped the big coupe. Biondetti was eventually forced to give up on his efforts to push the Alfa home.
It was therefore one of the great Le Mans losers, but that long bonnet, Alfa red and futuristic shape means it has rightly become a legend in the race’s folklore.
8. Mazda 787B
Patrick Dempsey drivers the Mazda 787B for the 20th anniversary of Mazda’s win
There were so many spectacular Group C cars that you could create a similar list just for the machines that raced at Le Mans for over a decade from 1982. The Mazda 787B wasn’t the best but it has to be one of the coolest.
The combination of the unforgettable green-and-orange livery, uncluttered lines, screaming rotary engine and shock victory make it an irresistible choice. And that’s despite being up against two other sportscar greats: the Mercedes C11 and the Jaguar XJR-12 (was it even better in purple ‘Silk Cut’ than the traditional white and purple?).
Two key things allowed the 787B driven by Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler to take a shock victory, the first for a Japanese manufacturer in the 24 Hours.
The first was a 50kg weight break prior to the race. That made the Nigel Stroud-designed Mazda 170kg lighter than its main rivals, helping it outpace the XJR-12s.
The second was the unexpected unreliability of the C11s that dominated the race. When the Jean-Louis Schlesser/Mass/Alain Ferte Mercedes failed with just over three hours to go, the Mazda – its own reliability enhanced thanks to ORECA’s assistance with the rotary engine development – was left with an unassailable lead.
The 787B never again got close to winning, but it remains a fan favourite wherever it appears.
#9 Ford GT40: Pedro Rodriguez, Lucien Bianchi
Do you prefer the GT40 or its development, the Mirage M1, with smoother cockpit? Or even the MkII and MkIV versions that won Le Mans before the Mk1? We kept flicking between different pictures trying to make a decision…
In the end we had to go for the obvious choice. There is just something right about the JW Automotive-run and Gulf-liveried version that won the 24 Hours in 1968 and ’69. Seeing as the same car – chassis 1075 – won both races (and several others besides), it could be argued this is the greatest example of one of sportscar racing’s finest racers.
It took a long time for the original Ford GT to come right and it was only the banning of the bigger-engined monsters for 1968 that gave the Mk1 its chance to shine. But with the crack JWA squad running developed versions, which included Gurney-Weslake heads on the 4.9-litre V8s, shine it did.
Le Mans victory, courtesy of Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi, allowed Ford to snatch world championship honours from under Porsche’s noses in 1968.
Ickx’s heroics in the ageing GT40 in the 1969 24 Hours, beating the Porsche 908 of Hans Herrmann by 100 yards, sealed the Gulf car’s place in history.
#1 Toyota Motorsport Toyota GT-One: Keiichi Tsuchiya, Toshio Suzuki, Ukyo Katayama
The GT1 era of the late-1990s was a high point for Le Mans. The definition of ‘GT’ was stretched to new limits and the sophisticated factory designs were more like Group C cars than machines you could buy for the road.
Of all those cars, including the Porsche 911 GT1-98 that won the 24 Hours, it’s the Toyota GT-One that still captures the imagination. Partly that’s because the rapid Andre de Cortanze-designed car somehow failed to win at Le Mans but it’s also thanks to its aggressive and memorable appearance.
After qualifying second, the Martin Brundle/Eric Helary/Emmanuel Collard Toyota took command early on in 1998, but several delays – including gearbox problems and two accidents – eventually put it out.
The GT-One of Thierry Boutsen/Ralf Kelleners/Geoff Lees then moved to the front and was still in the battle for victory when more transmission woes struck with less than two hours to go.
The V8 Toyotas qualified 1-2 in 1999 but slow pitstops and the impressive competitiveness of the BMW V12 LMR created a fine contest.
Both of the fastest GT-Ones retired due to accidents and the all-Japanese car of Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki finished a close second after a late clash with a privateer BMW caused a puncture.
That was the fastest GT1 car’s last Le Mans appearance and Toyota would have to wait nearly 20 years before finally breaking its curse in the 24 Hours.
#43 Jaguar D Type: Tony Pickering, Roger Earl, Gavin Pickering
One of the most famous Le Mans cars, the D-type was designed with the Mulsanne Straight very much in mind. The result of the efforts of William Heynes and Malcolm Sayer, the slippery Big Cat was a revelation when it appeared at the 1954 Le Mans, where it finished a close second.
The streamlined body, disc brakes and semi-monocoque con
struction made it a sportscar milestone. “It was incredibly advanced for the time,” agrees historic racer and Jaguar expert Gary Pearson.
The following year’s long-nosed and finned version was the most attractive and duly delivered victory, albeit amid the worst disaster in motorsport history, which claimed more than 80 lives. It was the first of three D-type victories in the French classic.
Initially the D-type had the 3.4-itre version of Jaguar’s famous straight-six XK engine, but that grew to 3.8 before being cut down – unsuccessfully – to three litres for new rules in 1958.
Outside of France, the car’s record was less spectacular, but it did what it was meant to do. Its 1957 1-2-3-4-6 Le Mans result underlined Jaguar’s endurance-racing abilities and its DNA can be clearly seen in the E-type, still regarded by many as the most beautiful of all road cars.
#5 1988 Porsche 962: Peter Harburg
The sheer number of Porsche 956s and 962s that raced – and the ludicrous number of successes they racked up in the 1980s – can make it easy to get blasé about the archetypal Group C racer. But it was special and still looks superb, nearly 30 years since its front-line career came to an end.
Long-tailed cars often look better than their short-tailed brethren and, before chicanes arrived on the Mulsanne Straight, that was what was needed at Le Mans. And 956s or 962s won the 24 Hours for six straight years from 1982.
The turbocharged flat-six 962 wore so many iconic liveries that it’s hard to choose just one. The blue-and-white Rothmans colours that adorned the factory cars for so many of its successes is the most famous. But we’ve gone for the red-and-yellow Shell colours of the three-car works effort from 1988.
That year Porsche’s dominance was finally broken by the ‘Silk Cut’ Jaguars, which could very easily have made it onto this list as well. Hans Stuck, Klaus Ludwig and Derek Bell finished on the same lap as the winner, while the Andretti car came home sixth.
Helmut Marko, Porsche 917k
There were several versions of Porsche’s incredible 917 in the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hours. Arguably the coolest were the mean-looking long tails that set the early pace, while the most dramatic (and ugly!) was the 917/20 ‘Pink Pig’.
But it’s the variant that finished 1-2 in the race that gets our vote: the short-tailed 917K with vertical tail fins. The car represents the move from the rounded curves of the 1960s to the squarer, harder edges of the 1970s.
Winners Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep – driving chassis 053, the only 917 racer with a lighter magnesium chassis – set a distance record that would remain unsurpassed for nearly three decades, beating the similar car of Richard Attwood and Herbert Muller by two laps.
It also helps that each car wore one of motorsport’s most iconic liveries. The victors were Martini sponsored, while the runner-ups had the famous blue and orange of Gulf Oil.
#5 David Brown Racing, Aston Martin DBR1/300: Carroll Shelby, Roy Salvadori
The 1955 DB3S was a fine-looking sportscar and the Project cars of the 1960s were special, but it’s perhaps the most iconic Aston Martin racer of all that gets the nod here.
The DBR1/300 scored a 1-2 in the 1959 Le Mans, but it’s the previous year’s version we’ve gone for. The more successful car had raised rear bodywork, a plastic cover over the passenger seat and rear wheel spats. For once, the changes for the Mulsanne didn’t enhance the car’s appearance.
So we’ve gone for the ‘standard’ Ted Cutting design, which has to be one of the most beautiful racing cars of all time. The multi-tubular spaceframe chassis helped make the DBR1 one of the best-handling racers of its era too, offsetting the power disadvantage of its straight-six, three-litre engine compared to rival Ferrari.
The car’s Achilles’ heel was its gearbox, but that was beefed up for 1959 and the curvy DBR1 – with the help of Stirling Moss – was good enough to win the Nurburgring 1000Km and Goodwood Tourist Trophy, as well as Le Mans, to secure the world sportscar championship for Aston Martin.
Ludocivo Scarfiotti, Mike Parkes, Ferrari 330 P4 Coup
Several Ferraris could have made this list. The 1962 250 GTO is one of the most sought-after cars and the 1973 312 PB was in our 10 until the final cut. Ferrari dominated Le Mans in the first half of the 1960s, but its most exquisite sports-racer came after it had been toppled by Ford’s big-bucks onslaught.
The 330 P4 was beautiful inside and out. Its four-litre V12 was a masterpiece by Franco Rocchi, featuring a three-valve cylinder head, while the curvaceous body improved the theme started by the P3.
The car also demonstrates how a few millimetres or degrees can make a huge difference to aesthetics. There have been replicas that look truly terrible.
The P4 provided worthy opposition to the seven-litre Fords and led a famous 1-2-3 at the 1967 Daytona 24 Hours.
Despite being around 20mph down on the Ford MkIV on the Mulsanne Straight, the P4 then fought valiantly at Le Mans, outlasting most of the American cars and coming home second and third. It was also the best-looking car in a race full of machines that could have made this list.
The P4 clinched the over-2000cc class in the International Championship for Sports-Prototypes at the Brands Hatch finale, guest driver Jackie Stewart later describing it as one of the best-balanced cars he ever drove at the Kent venue.
The P4 didn’t win Le Mans, but in every other way it ticks the boxes for what a racing sportscar should be: fast, successful… and fantastic to look at.