Motorsports

TRUE HISTORICAL CARS AT LAGUNA SECA

by Larry Roberts

August 21, 1998

I recently attended the historic races at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California. There were almost 400 contestants there ranging from Ford-based track racers that predated World War I, to the thundering 200 MPH Can Am cars of the late '60s.

All 400 of them are "historical," but to me a few of them made an impact in sports car racing in particular and the auto world in general. To my mind, these are the automotive benchmarks I came across:

AC COBRA (FORD) '62 - Although there had been British and European sports cars that carried American big-inch engines under their hoods, it was Carroll Shelby's hybrid Cobra that pushed the concept onto the U.S. market in a big way. Past Euro-Americans included Allard, Dual-Ghia, Nash-Healey, and others, but they were rare and, in most cases, too expensive for the average enthusiast. Carroll Shelby convinced the somewhat staid British A.C. company to ship strengthened A.C. Ace roadsters to his shop in California, where he and his crew installed Ford small-block V8 engines and four-speed manual transmissions. The result was a thinly-disguised, lightweight sports racer that could parenthetically be driven on the street. Ford itself bought the deal, marketed the Cobra, and seriously got into the sports car racing business. Ford used the Cobra as an image-builder.

CHEVROLET CORVETTE '54 - Although it wasn't in the same league with the Cobra, the first-series Corvette ('53 to '55) was Chevy's first timid step into the sports car world. Its original straight-six engine was weak, it's handling was sketchy, its two-speed automatic transmission was sloppy and its fiberglass body was of poor quality, but it was a true two-seat sports car. The brainstorm of Harley Earl, head of the G.M. Art & Color division, that first series Corvette was not a smashing success and aficionados didn't take it seriously. But it was all-American, built by the premiere U.S. auto maker and the progenitor of what was to become our only ongoing traditional sports car.

JAGUAR XK120 - Americans had been introduced to the two-seater concept with the tiny, underpowered and quirky MG TC, but in the Jaguar XK120, they found a readily available sports car that was faster and handled better than anything coming from Detroit. Its twin-cam, 160- horse engine had an enameled exhaust manifold, polished aluminum cam covers and twin S.U. carburetors. It was a beauty to behold and could push the sleek, envelope-shaped body to a top speed of 120 MPH. Hundreds of them were sold to celebrities (it's reported to have been a favorite of Clark Gable) and amateurs raced them at tracks all over the U.S. and the rest of the world. Driven by future world Grand Prix champion Phil Hill, in 1950 it won the first race ever held at the Pebble Beach road course, the nearby immediate ancestor of the Laguna Seca track.

MG TD '52 - If the sleek, relatively expensive Jaguar XK120 made Americans aware of the sports car genre, the traditionally styled MG TD was the car that took them into the ranks of sports car ownership from 1950 to 1953. Classically styled like its aforementioned immediate predecessor, the hard-riding but fragile MG TC, the new car had independent front suspension and a host of amenities that made it a car that could be bought inexpensively, driven to work during the week, then raced at SCCA airport circuits from coast to coast on the weekend.

PORSCHE 356 '49 - The latest Laguna Seca Historical Automobile race honored the Porsche marque in its 50th year of existence. It was appropriate that one contestant brought a '49 Porsche 356 coupe to the race, since that was the first year of actual Porsche production. It looked small and "tubby" among the plethora of purpose-built Porsche racers that flanked it, but looks can be deceiving. Even in its earliest days, this aerodynamic spin-off of the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle was a power to be reckoned with on race tracks everywhere.

There were many other benchmark vehicle at Laguna Seca but these five are the ones that affected my own perception of the auto world.

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