Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

| 3 Jun 2022
Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

To many fans, there is no greater spectacle in motor racing than the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 2019, its appeal even crossed over into the mainstream with the global success of the film Le Mans ’66.

For those who can’t make it to the race itself, however, the Musée des 24 Heures, located trackside, is a fine substitute and a worthwhile diversion for anyone in the vicinity.

The museum was founded in 1961 by the Automobile Club l’Ouest and moved to its current location 30 years later.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

This Ford GT40 suffered a blown head gasket in the 1967 race

Its collection tells the history of motorsport across France, but with an obvious emphasis on the heralded 24-hour enduro.

Famous names featured in the often-changing exhibition include Jaguar, Ford, Ferrari, Bentley, Porsche and Matra.

The spacious museum isn’t just a monument to racing, however; it’s also a worthy classic car museum in its own right.

A non-racing display includes veteran cars with significant local history, while focusing on French automotive heritage and technology.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

Former racer turned tour guide Hervé Guyomard

A visit starts with a stroll through the Le Mans Hall of Fame, where such luminaries as Ettore Bugatti, the ‘Bentley Boys’ and six-time winner Jacky Ickx, who in 1969 famously walked to his car in protest at the dangerous sprint start, are honoured.

Ickx was making a point about lax safety protocols.

“Racing was very dangerous in those years,” says former racer Hervé Guyomard, who managed the circuit for four decades and is now a guide. “Many of my friends were killed.”

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

The 3 Litre Torpedo Vanden Plas cemented Bentley’s reputation at Le Mans

One of the oldest competition vehicles in the collection is the 1924 Bentley 3 Litre Torpedo Vanden Plas.

When WO Bentley heard about the then still fairly new race, one of the event’s attractions was that, unlike in England, racing was permitted at night.

Driving the 82bhp Red Label-engined 3 Litre, drivers John Duff and Frank Clement won the fixture, achieving great fame for the Bentley marque.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

This Tracta Gephi is in the process of being stripped down

During our visit, the in-house mechanics are taking apart a 1927 Tracta Gephi, with pieces strewn across the ground.

“For me, this is the most important car in the museum,” says Guyomard. “It was a pioneer in the principle of front-wheel drive, bringing an improvement in roadholding that has saved millions of lives.”

Elsewhere, the 1935 Simca 5 Gordini, with its Lilliputian size, looks as if it would feel right at home on the Brighton Pier bumper-car ride.

It’s the smallest car, with the smallest engine – a 568cc ‘four’ with 30bhp – in Le Mans history. Unsurprisingly, it won its class – if only because it was the only entrant.

In the post-war years, its creator Amédée Gordini would go on to make racing history with Renault.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

This quirky 1935 Simca 5 Gordini made do with just 30bhp

It’s hard to stand out among all the sleek racers, but one car manages just that.

The wild 1952 Socéma Grégoire is a one-off prototype featuring a gas-turbine aircraft engine mated to an aerodynamic, all-enveloping aluminium body.

The pretty coupé was said to be capable of 200kph (160mph), but was afflicted by insurmountable costs and braking issues.

Ford’s upending of Ferrari’s dominance in the mid-’60s has become the stuff of both real-life and, latterly, cinematic legend.

The 1967 Ford GT40 on view here stopped 10 hours short of joining the party when a blown head gasket forced it out of the 1967 race in the 14th hour.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

A 1929 Salmson VAL GSS Sport (left) and a 1925 Lorraine-Dietrich 83-6 Sport at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

Guyomard admires it with real affection. “The GT40 was the last car to have one pleasing shape, without wings and aerodynamics,” he notes. “It is very pleasant to drive.”

It’s also a powerful illustration of the successful British-American effort to beat Ferrari.

Spoiler alert: as Guyomard ruefully points out, the shape of competition cars was on the cusp of change.

One example of the newfangled automotive architecture is the 1973 Matra Simca MS670 V12.

The car represents the pinnacle of French motorsport success, having completed a three-year sweep by the marque at Le Mans.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

The Audi e-tron quattro R18 upped the ante at Le Mans

From a design standpoint, Audi began taking things to a new level.

Its 2002 race-winning R8 FSI and 2013-winning Audi e-tron quattro R18 diesel-electric hybrid look as if they were purloined from the set of a RoboCop film.

As the Simca 5 Gordini is testament, however, the multiple categories at the 24 Hours mean that the racers aren’t all about huge horsepower and maximum speeds.

The petite Renault 4CV, with its four-cylinder engine pushing it to just 66mph, took on Le Mans in 1950, retiring only after an accident in the 17th hour and having completed 92 laps.

It’s considered by many to be the archetype of a post-war austerity racer.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

This is a locally produced 1901 Amédée Bollée Fils Type D

The area around the city of Le Mans became a hotbed of transportation innovation.

The veteran section of the museum includes many vehicles produced by local manufacturers, including a 1901 Amédée Bollée Fils Type D Limousine and a 1897 Vis-à-Vis built by former Bollée employee Henri Vallée. The latter is one of only 15 produced.

Other veteran vehicles of historic significance include a 1900 Panhard et Levassor Type A2 Phaeton, powered by a two-cylinder Daimler Phoenix engine, and the French-built 1908 Krieger Electrique A155.

Many of these front-wheel-drive electric buses were pressed into action as ambulances during the First World War.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

This is an ultra-rare 1897 Vis-à-Vis tourer, built by Henri Vallée

Fans of scale models will enjoy one of the most impressive displays on view anywhere in the world, with hundreds of miniatures representing the entries for each race.

The top three in each case occupies pride of place on their own miniature podium.

You’ll also want to stroll the circuit of the famous race. As you pass under the iconic – and mammoth – Dunlop tyre embedded in the ground, you can almost hear the roar of past winners crossing the finish line.

Stop at the museum’s reception for a self-guided tour map.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum

The tiny 66mph Renault 4CV lasted for 92 laps of the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours

One of the joys of driving to the Musée des 24 Heures is motoring along some of the very same rural roadways that are used in the race.

For a moment, even the most sedate driver of a hire car can feel like Derek Bell careening around a curve in the waning hours of the epic.

For those who don’t want to spend hours ogling old racing cars, the city of Le Mans provides a pleasant diversion.

The Old Town boasts one of the finest examples of fortified Roman walls anywhere, along with historic sites related to the foundation of the Plantagenet dynasty. Drop them off first, then immerse yourself in the history of the greatest enduro of all.

Images: Larissa Milne

The knowledge

  • Name Musée des 24 Heures
  • Address 9 Place Luigi Chinetti, 72100 Le Mans, France
  • Where 130 miles south-west of Paris
  • How much? Adults €9.50, children (10-18) €7, under 10s free
  • Opening hours 1 October-30 April, 10am-6pm; 1 May-30 September, 10am-7pm
  • Tel 0033 2 43 72 72 24
  • Web


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