CADILLAC AT LE MANS: PART II
by Larry Roberts
October 03, 1997
There's no denying the fact that Cadillac is the darling of the geriatric set: the average Cad owner being around 65. And that's why it was such a shock to me that its latest Northstar versions are so darn fast: it's considered out of character.
But there was a time nearly 50 years ago when a pair of Model 61 Cadillacs raced at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans and while they didn't win, they brought the mostly French crowd to its feet by finishing 10th and 11th in a field of built-for-racing sports car.
Briggs Cunningham was a well-to-do sportsman who had been a member of the forerunner of the Sports Car Club of America before World War II and pioneer of road racing in this country in the late '40s. He and a group of friends elected to challenge the second post-war running of the Le Mans race with the only American production car that they felt capable of going the distance. The "star" of the team had its sedan body removed and replaced with an aerodynamic shell that was so ugly that it was dubbed "le Monstre" by the French.
Cunningham and his team arrived with very little time to logistically prepare for the event. In addition to the Cadillacs, there were several Anglo-American entries selected by the Le Mans entry committee. Tom Cole was entered in a Cadillac-powered Allard (co-driven by its creator Sidney Allard) and a British Healey powered by a six-cylinder Nash Ambassador engine. But with the huge size and patriotic white-with-blue strip paint work, the big Cadillacs were favorites with the French crowd.
The road to the starting grid was hazardous for the Cadillac team. On the Sunday before the start, Phil Walters, one of the team drivers, was "demonstrating" Le Monstre" on the circuit to an obliging female when he hit a farmer's cart at a fast clip. The track is ordinarily a county road and hadn't been closed to normal traffic. No one was hurt (not even the horse) but the body work of Le Monstre sustained heavy damaged - so much so that the scrutinizers wouldn't have allowed it to start.
In a near-panic, Cunningham tried to locate a particular aluminum fabricator in Virginia, only to be learn that he was just across the channel in England. The technician, Bob Blake, arrived two days before the race, worked two days straight and got Le Monstre Whipped together just in time for the technical inspection where it was approved for competition.
The Le Mans race still carried its "gentleman racer" image from its early days and Cunningham selected the Collier brothers, Miles and Sam, to drive the stock-bodied Cadillac coupe while Cunningham himself shared the Le Monstre with professional oval track driver Phil Walters. The rules for the race in those days were so loose that the Collier brothers drove the entire race in business suits (complete with ties) to point up the "somber"mien of their racer.
Cunningham stuffed Le Monstre into a sand bank in the early laps and lost first and second gears in the three speed transmission and was forced after midnight to finish the race with high-gear only. Because of these mishaps, the car only finished in 11th place.
But the stock-bodied Cadillac Model 61 coupe ran like a well- oiled Swiss watch and finished a creditable 10th, crossing the finish line with not so much as a scratch on it gigantic chromed bumpers or bumper guards. It rumored that the Collier brothers removed their jackets during the event.
We may never see a Cadillac Eldorado Touring Coupe on the grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, although it would no doubt give a good account of itself. But I think that current owners of Cadillacs should be aware of the fact that the shield-and-crest hood emblem once saw the checkered flag in the most difficult closed-circuit endurance race in the world.