Le Mans Classic: Three Days Of Love, Cars & Music

Images: Peter Auto, JPLEGRAND photography

Whilst interviewing Andrea Zagato, the third generation of the coachbuilding firm of Zagato, for FIVA, I asked him his first impression of Le Mans Classic, which he was seeing for the first time. “It’s incredible,” Andrea said, “a veritable celebration of the automobile, a Woodstock of the world of historic vehicles!”

Before the start of the race, some 70-odd Cricklewood Bentleys took to the 13.6km circuit of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. These cars were all on display in the Paddock Benjafield in The Village.

Although I have been visiting and been a part of the Le Mans Classic since its inception in 2002, with the one from the weekend on 1st–2nd July its 11th edition, it took an Andrea Zagato to define the uniqueness of this retrospective of a race (or races) that remains the greatest motor race in the world. And in the process, Le Mans Classic could very well be the greatest historic vehicle happening in the world.

After the Bentleys impressed—and a few minutes before the first grid was flagged off—the Little Big Mans race had a bunch of children in reduced scale cars competing at the smaller Bugatti circuit

Not only do you get to see the cars that made motor racing history for the best part of a century, but you also get the opportunity to see some of the rarest and the most unusual of historic vehicles ever to have been made by both the better-known carmakers as well as several of the short-lived specialists, such as Ginetta, Marcos, TVR, Ghia, Moretti, and innumerable others.

For the flag off, none other than Rafael Nadal himself did the honours. Here seen with Aude Gourcuff, the marketing and partner relations manager at event organisers' Peter Auto

This year though was even more special—it was timed to coincide (with a gap of three weeks) with the centenary race of the ‘real’ 24 Hours of Le Mans race (reported by yours truly in the article Long Live The 24 Hours Of Le Mans (derivaz-ives.com). In the process it attracted as many as 235,000 spectators (as compared to a record 200,850 in 2022)!

Finally the flag off of the first grid at 5pm on Saturday evening with the classical start style of drivers running across to get into the car and start off

Patrick Peter and his team, who have been organising Le Mans Classic since forever, prefer to restrict the number of cars racing on the legendary 13.6km circuit to a little over 400, but for this year, the numbers went up to over 800 cars (with 900-odd drivers) battling it out in six different grids, three times through the 24 hours over Saturday and Sunday.

With as many as 24 races on the programme, ending with the mighty Endurance Racing Legend support race as the closing programme, the 2023 edition of Le Mans Classic was indeed a sensational event.

Le Mans Classic attracts stars such as the CEO of Stellantis, Carlos Tavares, who is a very keen racer of historic vehicles. You can see him here at full blast in a Chevron B21 from 1972, a car that he had first seen in 1972 when a teen in his home country, Portugal. We hope to feature this car and its very special history soon

And it is not just the racing Alfa Romeos, Alpines, Aston Martins, Bentleys, Bugattis, Ferraris, Ford GT40s, Jaguars, Lotus, Maseratis, Renaults and a lonesome Saab or Skoda that you get to see on the track, but the 9,200 historic vehicles in the infield arranged as per the clubs that they belong to. And that’s not all—in the many parkings around the circuit, you will surely come across innumerable AC Cobra replicas, Caterham 7s, Porsche 911s, even the odd Reliant Scimitar.

And if the action on the track is not exciting enough, or you are confused by the thousands of Porsches 911s of various generations—between the G-Series and the 964, the 993 versus the 996—then you have the option of checking out the boutiques and the stands of some 150-odd exhibitors selling model cars, posters, automobilia to services and brand-new cars.

Resting between races, we spied rising young star Shirley van der Lof, racing with her father Alex van der Lof, in a beautiful Delahaye 135 S, from 1936. Shirley is the grand daughter of the late Dutch F1 racer Dries van der Lof

You even had the option of getting a FIVA ID Card made at FIVA’s stand set amidst 23 cars from 1923—these were cars or their equivalent that had participated at the very first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923.

Three of the cars amongst the 23 that were on display as a celebration of the very first edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923. On the left is a Delage, at the right is an Amilcar, and at the centre is a Chenard et Walcker, similar to the one that won the inaugural 24 Hours race

Organised by FIVA’s French authorised national federation FFVE, a fascinating line-up of cars were on display. It would be interesting to note that of the 11 marques present in the first race, just two—Ford and Bentley—are the only ones that survive.

Next to this display at the area known as The Village, as many as 75 Bentleys from the Cricklewood era were also on display: 3 Litres, 4 ½ Litres, Speed Six, Blower Bentleys, the works.

Several other famous lady drivers were competing, such as Gaby von Oppenheim in her stunning Alpine A210, from 1966. Gaby also teamed up with Quirina Louwman to race in a Lotus Elite in a different class

Of course, all these distractions were just a side dish to the main course, the one on the track. And the ultimate magic of Le Mans is in the action during the night. And it was during the night that the Jaguar Type C (number #15) of Nigel Webb and Chris Ward did very well in grid 2, but could not repeat the same performance Sunday morning.

One of the most fascinating machines roaring around the circuit was Le Monstre—the strange beast developed by Briggs Cunningham from a Cadillac Series 61 for the 1950 edition of Le Mans

In fact, the 1954 Jaguar D-Type (number #16) of Niklas and Lukas Halusa was the quickest during its final outing at Le Mans Classic 2023.

The second round of grid 3 was also dominated by a 1957 Jaguar D-Type (number #49) driven by veteran Le Mans man, Andy Wallace, who had won the 1988 edition in a… Jaguar!

If the racing gets too noisy for you then you have the 9,200-odd historic vehicles in the infield to ogle at. Here are some of the thousands of Porsches to be seen at Le Mans Classic.

The afternoon’s other winner of the 24 Hours race, and who stood out, was Emanuele Pirro, who, along with Hans Hugenholtz has won at Le Mans Classic five times. This year he was racing a Lister Jaguar Costin from 1959 (number #65).

The domination of the Ford GT40s in grid 4 was confirmed by the win of Diogo Ferraro in his GT40 from 1965 (number #74).

A similar scenario within grid 5, had the three Lola T70 Mk.3Bs swapping leads. The first race was won by #18 Lola driven by Steve Brooks, whilst the other two were a cakewalk for David and Olivier Hart’s Lola #63.

Lolas also dominated grid 6, which included cars from 1972 to 1981. Maxime Guenat’s #50 Lola T286 from 1976, finished first in the first race. But in the early morning of Sunday, the TOJ SC304 1976 #17 of Yves Scemama had its revenge.

But it is in the night when it is at its most magical

For the third race, Yves Scemama seemed to have been heading for another victory, but a mechanical problem had him out. It was Maxime Guenat, in Lola #50, who eventually took the trophy.

The Group C Racing was no less exciting. Despite the deployment of a security car, the 1990 Porsche 962 C #7 of Ivan Vercoutere and Ralf Kelleners won the second round. The German is a Le Mans veteran, making a mark in 1986 and 1987. The Porsche was followed by the 1990 Mercedes-Benz C11 #31 driven by Kriton Lendoudis, who crossed the line a few tenths ahead of the 1992 Lola T92/10 #4 of David and Olivier Hart. The crowd loved the dicing.

Or just go back to the trackside and check out the cars battling it out hour after hour

In the afternoon, the Endurance Racing Legends series was the last to hit the track. Right from the flag off, Emmanuel Collard, a 24 times veteran of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, took the lead in his 2006 Pescarolo C60 #23, eventually winning his second victory in as many rounds, ahead of François Perrodo in a 1991 Toyota GT-One #1. The duo David and Olivier Hart, in a 2005V Courage C60 #34,
was third.

Where else will you get to see this very rare Skoda Sport from 1949, campaigned by Czech drivers Stanislav Kafka and Michal Velebny?

But then Le Mans Classic isn’t only about racing—it’s also about the many activities in The Village, including various exhibitions, the unveiling of new models of cars, as well as music, the rhythm and blues kind, provided by new phenomena Koco & the Sweet Pops.

The next edition is on 26th-30th June in 2025. Plan for it from now.

Le Mans Classic is a true festival, the Woodstock of historic vehicles, what with love, cars, and music of the finest vintage. Chapeau Patrick Peter and the team at Peter Auto!

Every historic vehicle fan must see it. The next edition will be on 26th-30th June 2025. Start planning!

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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