The Le Mans 24 Hours is one of motorsport’s most exciting events and an annual pilgrimage for petrolheads. The main action takes place on the Circuit de la Sarthe, but there’s plenty to see in the surrounding towns and villages. We went car-spotting in nearby Arnage on the evening before the race, discovering a truly multinational mix of metal.
We start with something quintessentially French: a Citroen DS. The ‘Goddess’ (Déesse in French) was decades ahead of its time when launched in 1955 and still looks futuristic today. Its chief innovation was hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension, which offered agile handling (famously helping Charles de Gaulle flee an assassination attempt) and a pillowy-soft ride. Hydraulics also control the gearbox, clutch, brakes and power steering.
Quintessentially French, you say? How about a Citroen 2CV in retro Le Mans livery? The Deux Chevaux was never much of a racer – early cars produced 9hp and topped out at 40mph –but it helped mobilise France after World War Two. By the time production ended in 1990, more than 3.8 million had been made.
Representing modern France is the achingly desirable Alpine A110. This critically-acclaimed compact coupe has a mid-mounted 252hp engine, driving the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Spotted here in traditional Alpine Blue, its styling is inspired by the original A110 of 1961. Still want that Porsche Cayman?
Representing Germany in Arnage is this fabulous Mercedes-Benz SL. The elegant lines of the ‘Pagoda’ (W113) SL – combined with its reputation for reliability and typically Teutonic build quality – make it a perennial favourite with the classic car cognoscenti. Famous owners have included John Lennon, Sofia Loren, Kate Moss and David Dimbleby.
Equally timeless, although rather more modern, here’s a ‘993’ Porsche 911 Carrera. This version of the Neunelfer was the last with an air-cooled engine and offers a wonderfully analogue driving experience. Produced from 1994-1998, it’s widely regarded as the best of the breed.
Ferrari 512 TR
Only at Le Mans would you spot a Ferrari 512 TR casually wedged between bollards. Representing Italy in this high-octane street scene, the 1991-1994 TR is effectively a facelifted Testarossa. Its 434hp flat-12 gulps air through those signature side strakes, propelling the Ferrari to 62mph in 4.8 seconds and 198mph.
Alfa Romeo 4C
It might only have four cylinders and 240hp, but the Alfa Romeo 4C looks as exotic as any Ferrari. It also boasts a supercar-style carbon fibre chassis that weighs a mere 65kg. The two-seat 4C has been criticised for its twitchy, unpredicatable handling, although aftermarket modifications are available to mitigate this.
Prancing horses were everywhere in Arnage. This F430 wears the bonnet stripes of the hardcore 430 Scuderia, plus what appear to be 360 Challenge Stradale alloys. The 2004-2009 F430 was the first Ferrari with an F1-style ‘manettino’ controller on the steering wheel, which allows the driver to adjust drivetrain, chassis and stability control settings.
Time for the best of British, starting – appropriately enough – with a Mk2 Jag. This fast and capable saloon had a choice of straight-six engines, with the flagship 3.8 boasting a lusty 220hp. Launched in 1959, it was frequently spotted patrolling Britain’s first motorways. The Mk2 was replaced by the XJ6 in 1968.
The Caterham 7 is a very different type of British classic. The back-to-basics roadster has evolved since 1973 and was originally based on the Lotus 7. This French-registered car wears green and yellow Lotus colours, although much of its aluminium bodywork is unpainted.
Lastly, there’s the American contingent. This Ford Thunderbird looked effortlessly cool stopped outside a cafe in Arnage, its plentiful chrome gleaming in the evening sun. A rare example of the first-generation T-Bird (built from 1955-1957), it packs a 5.1-litre V8 and two-speed automatic ‘box.
The loudest cars on-track at Le Mans in 2018 are the two Corvette C7.Rs, but we’ll wager this roadgoing C5 ‘Vette – fully accessorised in Corvette Racing livery – still sounds pretty savage. The C5’s ‘LS1’ 5.7-litre V8 packs a 350hp punch, meaning 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds and 175mph flat-out.
Well, motorsport fans certainly have great taste in cars. We finish with a classic Ford Mustang, a vehicle that epitomises the American dream. First launched in 1962, the iconic Mustang is now into its sixth generation. Like the Le Mans 24 Hours, it’s become part of popular culture, and a source of ongoing inspiration.