WHEN LINCOLN RULED THE ROAD
by Larry Roberts
November 06, 1998
Last year we chronicled Briggs Cunningham and his 1950 assault on the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race with a pair of race- prepared Model 61 Cadillacs. At the time, we cheered the attempt and the high placing of the inappropriate and outclassed American luxury cars.
Now it's time to tell the tale of the modern-era racing endeavors of the "other" American luxury car, the Lincoln. But in this case, Lincoln was the winner and took the checkered flag three years in succession.
In the late '40s, the Mexican government wanted to promote tourism, and to laud its new trans-Mexican highway, it held road races from a point just north of Guatemala to Cuidad Juarez on the Texas border. The first contest was held in 1950 and the event was for strictly-stock five-passenger cars. Although there were Lincolns in the event (Johnny Mantz, an Indy 500 driver and AAA midget champion drove his own '49 Lincoln club coupe), they were also-rans. The winner of that event, the first Carrera Panamericana, was future Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman in an early-style '46 Mercury.
But in '52, a Lincoln-Mercury racing team was formed under the Bill Stroppe/Clay Smith banner. Among other things, Stroppe was an accomplished driver who campaigned a factory Kurtis 500 S on sports car tracks on the West Coast. Smith was a track-side mechanic whose cigar- chomping Woody Woodpecker logo was well-known to racers around the U.S.
Smith and Stroppe had contracted with the Lincoln-Mercury branch of the Ford Motor Company to develop a factory racing program in California and the West. For '52, the Lincoln Capri was an all-new design with a state-of-the-art overhead valve V8 engine and a modern suspension system that was an industry leader. The final approval for a Carrera Panamericana Lincoln venture came from Benson Ford himself.
Since the '52 running of the Carrera Panamericana was held late in the year, the next year's models were allowed so Stroppe and Smith ran '53 cars which had been upgraded with 20 more horsepower. Three cars were dismantled and "blueprinted" since the cars competiting were required to be strictly stock. But in true professional style, all the parts were carefully hand reassembled and as an example of the care given to details, the automatic transmission was "tuned" for high shift points and reliability. The engineers at Ford stayed within the letter of the strictly-stock rule by supplying "export" suspension parts and such "optional" engine parts that would enhance the cars even further.
The Stroppe/Smith team fielded three cars for that '52 event, piloted by Mantz, Walt Faulkner and Chuck Stevenson, two highly- accomplished Indy and AAA Championship dirt car drivers. Their experience on the harsh surfaces of American dirt tracks would prove invaluable on the less-than-perfect rough roads in Mexico.
So meticulous was the preparation of the cars and so skilled were the drivers that the three Lincolns took the first three places in the stock car class.
For the '53 race, the Stroppe/Smith organization entered five Capris and new drivers included Indy winner Bill "Mad Russian" Vukovich, 500 veteran Jack McGrath and the extremely versatile Mickey Thompson. Vukovich exited the race early, but Lincolns took the top four slots.
The following year, six factory Lincolns were entered along with an independent entry fielded by Southern California food magnate Ray Crawford. Fate struck down most of the cars but company luck held as Crawford won the stock car class for Lincoln with Faulkner a close second in the remaining factory entry.
But the Carrera Panamericana was doomed, being deemed too dangerous for spectators and drivers alike. But those of us who were around then will always remember when Lincoln took off its luxurious soft leather gloves, slipped on brass knuckles and won the 2100-mile Mexican street-brawl three times in a row.