WHEN CADILLAC RACED LE MANS: PART I
by Larry Roberts
September 26, 1997
Last year we had occasion to try out one of the new Northstar Cadillacs - the Eldorado Touring Coupe - and it was an eye-opener. One of our crew in particular was impressed and stated that it was "...too bad Cadillac hasn't gone racing." What my colleague might well have added was the word "recently." There was a time when Cadillac not only went racing, but did it in the toughest closed-circuit endurance race in the world - the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Before World War II, the last American car to run at Le Mans was a Duesenberg entered in '35 and driven by Prince Nicolas of Rumania. In those days, the race was reserved for more-or-less production cars that could be driven on the street, and the drivers were often members of European royalty or the continental uppercrust. How times have changed!
During the war, the track was the site of a Luftwaffe air field and was heavily bombed by the Allies. Once it was over, the French government saw the resurrection of the Le Mans race as a boost to French morale and helped in its reconstruction. The first modern-era 24 Hours of Le Mans was held in '49 and has been an annual event ever since.
That year two wealthy Americans who had been '36 Le Mans also-rans in an MG felt that an all-American effort was necessary to uphold our European "prestige" and approached Briggs Cunningham, another bucks-up road racing enthusiast, with the idea of fielding an American entry. He agreed and the trio applied for two starting positions in the '50 event. Provisionally, the Cunningham team was accepted.
Cunningham realized that he couldn't produce all-new cars on such short notice and at first he was inclined to enter "Fordillacs," lightweight '49 Ford coupes that were fitted with the then all-new OHV 396-inch Cadillac engine. The cars had been modified by Bill Frick in his Long Island shop and driven in sports car events by Eastern AAA midget driver Phil Walters. They were very fast due to their light weight and the outstanding power produced by the modified Cadillac engine but unfortunately, the Le Mans entry committee considered them little more than morphadite hot-rods. As a second choice, Cunningham elected to enter two '50 Model 61 Cadillacs; one a stock-bodied coupe and the other a huge, rebodied aerodynamic two-seater that was instantly dubbed "Le Monstre" by French race-goes when it appeared in France.
Before you sniff at Cunningham's selection of Cadillac for the grueling 24-hour event, consider all the car's attributes. It used a very modern design and the engine was the pioneer in the American march to short-stroke, big-bore, overhead valve V8 engines. The Model 61 undercarriage was extremely strong and its three-speed manual transmission was close to bullet-proof. "Uncle" Tom McCahill, the forefather of today's road-testing auto journalists, proclaimed that the Cadillac Model 61 coupe was "... the best handling rig in America.." in Mechanix Illustrated, but admitted that it was no lightweight.
But heavy or not, the French deemed it acceptable for their event, and the two racers were duly accepted and assigned Numbers 2 and 3.
Even though the cars were more-or-less stock, their preparation was nonetheless a monumental task for an American team with few European contacts. Walters hopped-up both engines (Le Monstre sported five two-throat carburetors!) and modified their suspensions with stiffer shocks, springs and sway bars. Through some contacts Walters had in the airplane industry, Le Monstre was modeled in a wind tunnel at the Grumman aviation facility in the North East. The legendary Harley Earl, head of General Motors styling at the time, came through with all the necessary parts through Long Island Cadillac dealers plus technical support from GM Engineering. The entire project was accomplished and tested in a matter of months.
So ready or not, the Cunningham Cadillac entourage departed New York bound for The 24 Hours of Le Mans and automotive history.