These are the cars that have captivated hearts and minds in the famous 24-hour race.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is not just the peak of endurance racing, but also the world's oldest active sports-car competition. It has taken place at the Circuit de la Sarthe in France every year since 1923, and has been part of the FIA World Endurance Championship since its inception in 2012 .
The track features a mix of closed public roads and dedicated sections of racing track to create a demanding circuit before you even consider that cars have to run for a full 24 hours without failure to be competitive.
The race was created almost a century ago to present a completely different challenge from Formula One. Instead of building cars for out and out speed, manufacturers and teams were forced to build sports cars that were reliable as well.
The race has spawned countless innovation since it started as manufacturers have sought an edge on the competition. Fuel-efficiency is one of the biggest areas that has had a knock-on effect into road cars, and it’s one that’s still being pushed today with hybrid race cars, like today's Toyota TS050 Hybrid that's just the latest in a long string of dominant endurance racers.
It took just one season to dial in the Group C Jaguar XJR-6 and take one victory in the Sports Car Championship and then claim enough points to come within one point of taking both the drivers and manufacturers championship. The XJR-6 was designed by Tony Southgate, acting as a consultant to Tom Walkinshaw Racing, and featured Jaguar V12 engine developing 680 bhp at 6500 rpm in race conditions, although it could be stretched to 715 horsepower. It won at Le Mans twice before all three cars were retired in 1986.
When Enzo Ferrari decided not to sell his company to Ford at the last minute, he inspired the greatest "Screw you, pal!” in racing history. Henry Ford II issued the order to go beat Ferrari at Le Mans to his racing division, who tapped the British racing company to start development. The MK I didn’t fare so well but gave Carroll Shelby’s organization the platform it needed to go and dominate Le Mans in 1966 with a 1-2-3 finish. The success led the GT40 to come back and win the race 3 more times.
In the hands of the factory team, the R10 TDI was unbeaten as well as the first alternative-fuel machine to take the win at Le Mans. The diesel engine is a 5.5-liter V12 with two parallel turbochargers and reported to make 700 horsepower in qualifying while weighing just 441 lbs. It superseded the Audi R8 race car which had won five times at Le Mans, but Audi was dominating so hard with the R10 that regulators changed the rules to give the other cars a fighting chance.
The Porsche 911 is simply the most successful model to race at Le Mans of all time. Since 1966, the 911 has left its mark in the 24-hour race with around 350 starts and over 30 class wins. And that’s without counting the GT1 and 935 versions. The most iconic though is the 911 Carrera RSR in the silver Martini livery.
When it comes to racing folklore, there’s not a lot to compare with the Le Mans local that who won the race in a car bearing his own name. Jean Rondeau was a successful racing driver that joined in the effort to build a race car to replace the Group Six factory teams that ditched the class in 1975. The Rondeau M378 was introduced in 1978 but it took a lot of work and several sponsors to get to a shock the world with a first and third-place finish in 1980 with the M379B. The main shock came because the Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 engine the team was using had been commonly written off as uncompetitive by those in the know.
While the R90 didn’t win Le Mans, it goes down in history as an absolute barnstormer of a car, particularly when a turbo broke and it was in the hands of the UK’s Mark Blundell, who clocked 238 mph on the Mulsanne straight, before reaching the new chicanes.
The 3.5-liter twin-turbo usually made 700-800 horsepower, putting it up there with the fastest cars in the world. However, with the wastegates failing, Blundell found himself driving what was effectively a 1000+ horsepower primed grenade on wheels. Blundell and his number 24 gapped the rest of the field by 6 seconds and laid down a qualifying lap of 3 minutes and 27 seconds. He wasn’t even on qualifying tires at the time and was only able to react to the car as he didn’t know that was going to happen.
One of, if not the, prettiest cars ever to run at Le Mans, the 250 GTO was homologated for Group 3 grand-touring car racing. It was one of the last front-engined cars to remain competitive at the top levels of racing and, although it never won at Le Mans, it’s the one that gets all the publicity – not least because of the eight-figure sums for which surviving examples have been known to trade hands.
As elegant as the early front-engined Ferraris may be, the mid-engined followups were more successful. The 275 P is the only Ferrari to have won at Le Mans twice. That’s 2 more times than the 250 GTO, and saying that the actual 275 P that took the win in 1963 and 1964 is the most important Ferrari in existence wouldn't be a stretch.
When historians talk about Bentley at Le Mans, it’s usually "Blower” Bentleys that get mentioned first, but the Speed Six was the car that did its job. It has 2 wins to its name, the first was by 70 miles in 1929, and then a year later it was part of a 1-2 finish.
When it debuted in 1987 in Kouros and AEG livery, the C9 looked like it was going to impose its will on the track, but in Silver Arrows livery, with AEG dropped down the rank to a minor sponsor, it looked downright dangerous. In 1989 the Sauber C9 took a 1-2-5 at Le Mans as part of its world title run. During qualifying, it achieved a pre-chicane 248 mph on the Mulsanne straight.
After winning the Nurburgring 1000Km 3 times, the Aston Martin DBR1 won at Le Mans in 1959 in the hands of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby. Italians will vehemently disagree, but the DBR1 is also in the running for the most beautiful car to run at La Sarthe.
While the comments will no doubt complain other Porsches didn’t make this list, the 936 is in danger of being forgotten despite its 3 Le Mans wins in 5 entries, and only 3 official cars were ever built by the factory works team. It debuted in 1976 by as a long-delayed successor to the 917 to race in Group 6 as a prototype. It also won the World Sportscar Championship.
The 512 could be in this list for the sound of its wailing 5-litre V12 alone. Despite winning at Sebring, Porsche’s 917 kept it off the top spot at Le Mans, but the 512's starring roll in Steve McQueen's Le Mans movie is the second reason it still makes the list.
The scream of the 787B’s rotary engine alone gets it on the list. Though it didn’t quite have the pace of its competitors, the 787 was incredibly reliable. It outlasted Mercedes and outpaced Jaguar to take victory in the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans. And did we mention it sounds amazing?
The D-Type is both one of the more wonderful and sadder of Le Mans stories, and its role in the 1955 disaster often blots out the amazing 1-2-3-4-6 finish in 1957. The D-Type was also a huge influence on the road-going icon that was the E-Type.
What started as an aerodynamically unstable machine that needed a special seat to help hold the driver's enormous stones went on to become one of Le Mans great icons. Its 4.5-liter air-cooled flat-12-cylinder turbocharged engine could be tuned to produce anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 horsepower, and still ranks as one of the fastest competitive race cars to be built. It was a Gulf Oil liveried 917K that was driven by McQueen’s character Michael Delaney in the movie.
The Porsche 956 has enough credit to its name and iconic status enough to justify its own series of books and movies. Powered by a turbo flat-6 making at least 650 horsepower and Porsche engineers, including designer Norbert Singer, at the height of their powers, the 956 changed everything. The key was the innovative underbody channels that created ground effect aerodynamics and a level of downforce only dreamed of until then. The car debuted in 1982, and in 1984 a 956B set a Nürburgring Nordschleife record that stood for 35 years, and until another Porsche could finally beat it.
At its first 24 Hours of Le Mans, Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell led the race from start to finish and were followed over the finish line by the second and third place 956 cars. That success led to Porsche building cars to sell to privateer teams to race independently. What we remember most though is the Rothmans Porsche factory team livery.