In the summer of 1950, a foursome of wealthy American sportsmen turned up for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a quixotic attempt to take on Europe’s most exotic marques and track-savvy racing equipages, with a pair of Cadillacs.
This past weekend, the team’s cars, still proudly known by their tongue-in-cheek noms de circuit, returned to France as part of an homage to U.S. efforts at Le Circuit de la Sarthe.
One of the Caddys was a “special” so bizarrely bodied, it was promptly dubbed “Le Monstre.” And the other, a stock Coupe de Ville whose ungainly appearance inspired a French auto-writer’s nickname “Petit Pataud,” perhaps inspired by thoughts of land yachts and clumsy puppies.
But although this unlikely duo didn’t win, they confounded the pundits’ predictions by finishing the race, and rather well at that, occupying 10th and 11th places (with a British-built Allard also powered by a Cadillac V-8 and co-driven by Sydney Allard himself coming in third).
And, in the process, “rubbered-in” the famous track a little for the Ford GT40s that would follow in their tire tracks and give America its first Le Mans wins a decade and a half later.
Forty made-in-America racing machines were among 400 that lined up on the grid for the Le Mans Classic, an event celebrating the history of the legendary round-the-clock endurance duel. All had either competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans or were directly linked to cars that had and raced for 24 hours as part of teams drawn from six classes.
Among them was Calgary’s Bob Francis and co-driver John Thompson, who shared the cockpit of a Caddy-engined 1951 Allard J2. The event also drew more than 8,000 classic cars.
Among the American racers were the Stutz Blackhawk that finished second in 1928, Carroll Shelby’s AC Cobras and Daytona Coupes, examples of the four-time winning Ford GT40, various Corvettes, a Cheetah G601 and a Howmet TX.
The Cadillacs, now part of the renowned Collier Collection in Florida, had returned after six decades but this time it was about nostalgia, not racing. The big V-8s that had hammered them around the track 62 years ago remained for the most part silent and the most serious threat to their paintwork was spilled champagne or a carelessly swung Gucci purse.
In 1950 though, they were in the thick of the on-track action.
The story of how they got there began with the introduction for 1949 of Cadillac’s new high-performance V-8 engine. This 5.4-litre overhead valve V-8 produced 160 hp and made Cadillac the fastest production cars in North America, pushing their speedo needles beyond the 100-mph (160-km/h) mark.
This didn’t go unnoticed by one Briggs Cunningham, scion of a wealthy Cincinnati family whose involvement with fast cars stretched back to a Hispano-Suiza aero-engined Dodge street-racer in the early 1920s. This was followed, in between bouts of yacht racing, by a string of other high-powered machinery, including one of Donald Healey’s just-introduced in 1949 Silverstone sports racers. Cunningham soon had its Riley engine yanked and replaced with one of Caddy’s new V-8s. Brit Sydney Allard had the same idea and stuck one in his new J2.
While all this was going on, Cunningham decided to mount an all-American assault on the 1950 Le Mans race with an American-made car and home-grown drivers.
Plan A involved acquiring a “Fordillac,” which not surprisingly was a Ford powered by a Cadillac V-8. The Automobile Club de L’Oest declined to allow this “hot-rod” to sully its pur sang field of racers, so Cunningham deployed Plan B and purchased a couple of Cadillac Series 61 Coupe de Villes.
One of these was stripped of its bodywork, which was replaced with a lightweight aluminum open body designed with the aid of a couple of Grumman Aircraft aerodynamicists and laid up over a tubular framework. Underneath, as required by the rules, was a stock chassis and engine, to which only minor mods could be made. These were limited to stiffer springs and aluminum “Alfin” brake drums and a five-carburetor setup.
The standard coupe was also fitted with stiffer springs and its engine topped off by a pair of two-barrel carbs. Additional race-prep included prying off the hubcaps and removing the back seat.
Cunningham and co-driver Phil Walters, who were to drive Le Monstre, and gentleman racers Miles and Sam Collier who would pilot the coupe arrived with this unlikely pair and a considerable entourage, and after some hard looks and, one imagines, Gallic shrugs passed scrutineering.
Walters then took someone’s secretary on a little pre-practice track tour and ran Le Monstre into a farm cart at speed. Cunningham discovered a top American body man was holidaying in England, chartered a plane and flew him and his wife to Le Mans where he hammered the battered car back into shape.
The race was less than two laps old when it all went wrong for Le Monstre, Cunningham stuffing it into a sandbank from which it took him 20 minutes to dig it out with a borrowed shovel. It later lost second gear, leaving only top, but gallantly struggled to its 11th-place finish one spot behind the coupe, which had a mostly trouble-free run and averaged more than 80 mph (130 km/h) for the 24 hours.
Cunningham, despite going on to build and race his own cars, never won Le Mans, but died in 2003 at the age of 96 as a revered figure in American motorsport.
Click here for our photo gallery: In pictures: The first Cadillacs at Le Mans