A Trip Through Time At The Le Mans Museum

The Musée Automobile De La Sarthe at the Le Mans circuit in France is the perfect way to familiarise yourself with over a century of automobiles linked to the famous race, containing both important road cars from across the decades and a slew of racers from the 79 editions of the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Opened in 1961 and originally located in a very basic warehouse located inside the track, a dedicated building was constructed in 1991 right next to the entrance to the circuit. Its handy location means that it’s high on the priority list for fans over the weekend of the 24 Hours, and always packed with visitors.

The interior was completely renovated in 2009 to provide a more modern presentation of the ACO’s large collection of cars, memorabilia, photos and films. Split into six sections, the museum takes you on a ride through the legend that is the 24 Hours, encapsulating the teams, drivers, their cars and, of course, the track itself.

A number of the famous concrete kilometre markers that used to be located around the old Circuit Permanent De La Sarthe are now in the museum, looking nice and weathered. Not available in the gift shop, unfortunately.

The exhibition starts with a tribute to Les Heros, the legendary drivers whose names are synonymous with the 24 Hours: the Bentley Boys, Benoist, Nuvolari and so on in the old era…

…Pescarolo, Bell, Kristensen in the modern period. Important manufacturers are also honoured, the men behind the marque bearing their name, such as Bentley, Ferrari and Bugatti.

The info panels are complemented by display cases containing important racing artefacts: engines, Ferrari North American Racing Team stickers, Jean Rondeau’s helmet, the steering wheel from Olivier Gendebien’s winning Ferrari…

The central rotunda contains a large diorama of the track surrounded by maquettes of the evolution in the Le Mans pits. The wooden stockade of the 20s give way to the simple single-storey buildings of the ’50s and then the gleaming white concrete of the ’70s. Even back then photographers were often lying down on the job…

Amongst break-out areas containing paintings, film footage and photographic records from classic Le Mans are a number of utility vehicles from the race, including this 1964 Citroën HY Marchal Carosserie Le Bastard. Le Bastard were a French coach-builder based in Rouen specialising in rebodied vans who operated up until the late 1970s, though likely not in English-speaking territories… The HY needs a couple more lights in my opinion. And horns.

The museum then takes a step back to ‘The Genesis’: a selection of cars from the birth of the automobile. Le Mans is proud of its long association with the automobile: local Inventor and coach builder Henri Vallée was a resident of Le Mans and started off working for Amédée Bollée, a specialist firm manufacturing steam cars which was based in the town. This is Vallée’s Vis À Vis form 1897, one of the oldest cars in the collection.

‘The Rise’ follows directly on, with cars which are much more recognisably modern that represent the progress and rapid technological advanced made in automotive technology. There’s a fantastic period during the 1930s where brash, outrageously-styled, long-nosed coupés were gliding around the cities of the world. There’s a huge step back from this to the austerity of the post-war years.

Nowadays front wheel drive is ubiquitous, but it was only really popular with Citroën in the middle part of the last century as far as mass-market adoption was concerned. The 1951 Traction Avant 15 – one of the later examples of a model name first used in 1934 – would whisk you to 130kph with its three-litre inline six-cylinder engine. Over three-quarters of a million examples were built of this popular car; apparently they were ‘first adopted by gangsters and later by politicians’. The difference being?…

The display then takes a diversion States-side: a Chevrolet Corvair four-door from 1960 and 1956 Ford Thunderbird. The panel for the Chevy read: ‘The Corvair is best-known for its terrible road-holding and featured prominently in Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe At Any Speed. The opening chapter was called: The Sporty Corvair – The One-Car Accident’. Hardly a ringing endorsement! Next to it was a rather better received 1956 Ford Thunderbird, with its five-litre V8 and two-speed Fordomatic (from a time when adding ‘-omatic’ made anything sound great) ‘box. The Thunderbird cost the equivalent of 71 months of the average French salary back in 1956.

This is surely the natural parking position for the rocket-era Citroën DS, the most futuristic of ’60s cars. This 1961 Fusée featured state-of-the-art technology for the time (disk brakes; hydro-pneumatic, self-levelling suspension; power steering; semi-automatic transmission) and a 100mph top speed. 20 years later and one and half million models later, the final DS hovered off the production line.And took off into space apparently.

The Musée had plenty of concepts and rarities, like this Ferrari Dino Prototype 206GT Pininfarina which was shown off at the 1965 Paris Motorshow by the Turin design house.

Turbines are no stranger to the 24 Hours: a Rover BRM mounting such a unit competed at Le Mans between 1963-65. This 1952 Socema Grégoire prototype used the gas turbine engine from an aeroplane under its streamlined aluminium body.

Braking was the major problem – the turbine gave no inherent deceleration effect when off the throttle, so an electromagnetic TELMA brake system was added to the transmission. Further problems proved that the concept was just too complex for the technology of the time, and just this single car was built.

Down on the lower floor are two lines of cars that had competed in the actual 24 Hours itself over the years, including a number of racers that had carried their crews to victory. Interspersed are cabinets containing more racing memorabilia, like this set of racing goggles and helmet – a reminder of a far more nonchalant approach to safety.

A couple of the roped-off bays were empty, as some of the cars do still get to thrash round a track from time to time: the museum’s Matra MS670 was run out, along with a trio of its sisters, during the run-up to this year’s race. But there were still dozens of racers to soak up.

One of the earliest cars on show is the Chenard & Walcker Tank Z1 Special from 1925. It used a one-litre four-cylinder engine that could reach a top speed of 152kph down the long straights of the old Le Mans. The aptly-named Tank finished 10th in 1925, winning the Index Of Performance for its class after completing 1,882.2km during the 24 hours.

Bentley owned Le Mans in the 1920s: five victories went to the British marque, with four on the trot between 1926 and 1930.

This Ferrari 166MM Barquette Touring was one of the first Ferraris to take part in the 24 Hours and is identical to the winner of the 1949 race. With its howling 140hp 2-litre V12, the winning 166MM completed 3,178.27km at the hands of Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon – the latter the father of the peer for the area where I live! It is true that you learn a new thing every day.

The Lotus XI was designed by Colin Chapman and sculpted by Frank Costin. The fastest variant, the Le Mans, mounted what would appear to be a puny 1,100cc four-cylinder Coventry Climax engine – but in classic Lotus style this was a car that weighed just 410kg, so had quite a punch for such a diminutive racer and could prove quite a threat to the bigger engined opposition. XIs competed at Le Mans three years running from 1956 – this one finished seventh overall and won its class (750-1,000cc).

Next up were several examples of the work of Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet (the DB in DB Panhard, with Panhard supplying the engines) that raced at Le Mans: they specialised in ultra-lightweight, streamlined fibreglass bodied, small-engined cars which emphasised nimble handling over outright grunt. Despite their tiny air-cooled, two-cylinder, 850cc engines, DBs achieved class victories at Le Mans, Sebring and the Mille Miglia.

Heading up this section was the beautiful Porsche 904/4 GTS from 1964. Its 160hp flat-four gave the 904 an impressive top speed of 253kph; five 904/4s competed at the ’64 running of the 24 Hours and all five finished. The highest placed car finished seventh overall, winning the GT 2.0 class, after completing 4,344km at an average speed of 181kph. French pilots Robert Buchet and Guy Ligier drove #34: Ligier would become famous for his own cars later in the Le Mans story.

Ford were represented with this 1967 4.7-litre V8 Ford GT40 from their second victorious year at Le Mans. The fuel efficient GT40 raced for six consecutive years that yielded four straight victories between 1966 and ’69, with 4,998km completed in 1967.

Whilst Ford were concentrating on annoying Ferrari, Peugeot were concentrating on aero. It’s a shame they didn’t concentrate on the engine as well. The 1967 CD Peugeot SP66 used a 1,149cc four-cylinder that revved far too highly: both team cars were out with broken engines by lap 35. The CD part of the name was Charles Deutsch of DB Panhard renown: the body was the result of his research into ground effect, a decade before F1 and Chapparal.

The livery of the 1971 Porsche 917 LH long-tail is truly iconic. With a freeform design that would seem to bely the relentless efficiency of the Porsche marque, this is one of many very ’70s designs that could be seen on 917s. #21 (the Vic Elford/Gérard Larrousse car) was in a trio of 917 LHs that retired that year: the winner was the #22 917K driven by Dr Helmet Marko and Gijs Von Lennup; the distance record it set that year of 5,335km at an average speed of 222.3kph remained unbeaten for 39 years when Audi’s R15 TDi Plus managed 5,410.71km. However, it’s the speed of the LH that makes it so startling: the aero-efficient body allowed a top sped of 240mph.

The following era is where aerodynamics really start coming into their own: Group 6 racers were long-tailed, high speed racing missiles. The #4 Renault Alpine A442A finished fourth in 1978, behind the winning #1 Alpine and two Porsche 936s – this was the first victory for an Alpine-branded car since their first entry in 1963.

The A442 mounted a two-litre V6 turbo, giving 490hp and a v-max of 349kph. With its leather seats, aluminium panels, exposed steel tubing of the roll cage and simple cockpit it’s a far cry from today’s technology-heavy cars.

In 1980 the grid at Le Mans was full to bursting with privateer Porsche 935 Turbos, the final flourish of the awesome power of Group 5. These 935s had twin-turbocharged V6s blowing at 2.7 bar punching out 650hp and a top speed of 360kph! The top IMSA class 935 finished in fifth behind four prototypes: this was the year that the French Rondeau team famously came out on top, with marque founder Jean Rondeau sharing driving duties with Jean-Pierre Jassaud.

Rondeau’s day in the sun was short-lived: by 1987 the Rondeau M482, still constructed at the company’s Le Mans factory, might have looked like it meant business, but in fact it was a disaster: the car did make it to the finish, but only as the final classified car and 95 laps down on the winning Porsche 962C. It was the final car from the popular local firm, powered as usual by a Ford engine, and used a twin-keel rear that aimed to optimise ground effect.

The next batch of cars represents the pinnacle of the Group C era, when the cars at Le Mans were barely disguised F1 cars. The 3.5-litre V10 in the Peugeot 905 from 1990 developed 620hp, giving a top speed of 365kph. The car’s info panel read that the car was developed and won the 24 Hours ‘At a time when international motor racing organisations threatened the very existence of the Le Mans legend’ – a tacit reference to the time when Bernie Ecclestone was looking to shut down anything that threatened his new F1 hegemony.

But this was truly a glory era – following an amazing preceding decade. Porsche, Saubers and Jaguars were now added to by Peugeots, Toyotas – and Mazdas. The Mazda 787B famously won the 24 Hours in 1991: this was a rolling model of the 1991 race-winning car that completed 4,9222.81km. It was the first victory of a rotary engine (the 787B’s four-rotor, 4.7-litre Wankel engine pushed out 600hp for a top of 350kph) and is still the only car from Japan to have won Le Mans.

The antecedent of this year’s TS030 Hybrid, this is the 94CV from 1994. The LMP1-class younger sister to the C1 TS010, the 94CV had a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V8 with 600hp and a 330kph top speed. #1 finished second in the hands of Jeff Krosnoff, Eddie Irvine and Mauro Martini – after being in the hunt for victory a gearbox fault cost the team victory with just 90 minutes to go.

Here we have one of the final descendants of the mythical 962 line: a 1994 Dauer Porsche 962C. Vast turbo-charging produced an eye-watering 390kph top speed on the run to Mulsanne. It would be the 10th and final appearance of the 962 at Le Mans.

This being Porsche and this being Le Mans, Porsche were hardly done. After a couple of years of monitoring the new GT-class cars, and having had to watch TWR take a Jaguar-derived Porsche to an unexpected victory in ’97, it was time for the company to be back at the top. In 1996 the ‘production car-based’ Porsche 911 GT1 debuted, and after a couple of years of mutation the GT1-98 was born.

The brand-new GT1-98 was designed to take on the equally absolutely-not-production-car-based Toyota GT-One and Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR. It had a flat-six as a proper Porsche should have, and the 911 greenhouse and headlight clusters gave a nod to its supposed providence, but this was a high-tech planet smasher. With its twin turbocharger the GT1-98 dished out 600hp and top speed of 360kph.

In 1998, the GT1-98 took first and second in the 24 Hours, giving Porsche its 16th win at La Sarthe, with Laurent Aiello, Allan McNish and Stéphane Ortelli sharing driving duties. Certain names begin to pop up with more and more frequency in this modern-era group of cars: particularly McNish and David Brabham.

A ‘real’ GT car was something like the Chrysler Viper: not that this was any kid you could push about on the track. The 1997 Viper had an eight-litre V10 with 680hp and a 200mph top speed, which gave the LMPs and GT1s something to think about on the straights. The Viper would go on to dominate GT-class racing until the advent of Corvette in 2001 – and now it’s back.

Fellow American marque Cadillac made a short-lived foray into the LMP ranks in the early part of the new century, dropping out just as the car was coming good. These compact Northstar LMP900s sounded as great as they looked with their twin-turbo four-litre V8s – that was good for 590hp and 340kph. For all the Freedom Fries jibes, the American teams are always incredibly popular at Le Mans. The Stars ‘n’ Stripes are a familiar and welcome sight at the track.

In 2003, the Bentley Boys were back with the gorgeous Speed 8 – 71 years after their last outing. The Bentley LMP gave Tom Kristensen his fourth straight Le Mans victory, and Dindo Capello and Guy Smith their first.

Sandwiched between the eras of the all-conquering R8 and new super-LMP1 R18, the slightly ungainly-looking R10 TDi sometimes seems a bit ignored, but it won three years in a row from 2006.

The win was the first victory for a diesel at Le Mans, and proved Audi’s adherence to their Vorsprung Durch Technik mantra. This is the winning car from 2008, driven by McNish, Capello and Kristensen.

Following a 13-year gap that, like Toyota, had involved some expensive and unsuccessful paddling in the Formula 1 pool, Peugeot returned to Le Mans with the 908 in 2007 and won in ’09 with the twin-turbo, 5.5-litre high-pressure diesel V12 Peugeot 908 HDI FAP. This is the winning car of Brabham, Marc Gené and Alex Wurz.

In the temporary exhibitions area of the museum there was also a tribute to seven-times Le Mans 24 Hours winners Jaguar: five wins in the ’50s were added to by the two wins during the Group C era. Each of the cars on display had a link back to Le Mans either directly or by association; in 1993 a trio of XJ220s were entered in the GT class by TWR: the #50 car (which had Brabham, David Coulthard and John Nielsen on the driving strength) would have won were it not for a disqualification a month after the race in an argument with the ACO over catalytic convertors.

This 1964 E-Type Lightweight Recreation is on loan from a private collection: it was the final evolution and perhaps most aggressive of the racing E-types produced. Entered at Le Manes, this inline six-cylinder, aluminium bodied Coupé retired in the 19th hour with engine problems.

The Jaguar XJR9 replica has been moved from its usual place out with the other Group C cars to be in with its stable mates: this is a model of the 1988 winner. The 7-litre V12 Jag was piloted by Andy Wallace, Jan Lammers and Johnny Dumfries and took Jaguar back to the winner’s circle at Le Mans after a break of 31 years. In the background is a D-Type from 1958 (retired in the third hour after an accident and then rebuilt as a long-nose D with a fin and wide-angle 3.8-litre engine) and a 1958 Lister Sport Jaguar.

And for all the Jaguars that couldn’t been there… a display case full of models.

As with all the great car collections, the ACO’s Musée Des 24 Hours has a core collection with a revolving selection of additions from both its own private garage and temporary loans from outside sources, meaning that each time you visit there’s something new to appreciate. Finished? No. We’ve only just arrived…

Jonathan Moore

Speedhunters at the Le Mans 24 Hours


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