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Classic Car: Chrysler Le Mans Racers

Upstart Chrysler's proving ground Add to ...

Chenard & Walcker, Bentley, Lagonda, Lorraine-Dietrich, Delahaye, Bugatti, Aston-Martin and Alfa Romeo are among the most recognized of the European marques whose legends are inextricably linked to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but American makes were also a presence in the event's early days and none more so than a then-brand-new Chrysler Corp.

It's not every car company that can claim the first model to carry its corporate nameplate was tuned up, had numbers slapped on its doors and ran - successfully if unluckily - in the demanding Le Mans endurance race. But that was the case in 1925, the year W.P. Chrysler formally founded the company.

The Chrysler Six, the first model to bear his name, had actually appeared a year earlier while Walter P. was still heading up the Maxwell/Chalmers car company.

It was an advanced design powered by a 68-hp, 202-cubic-inch (3.3-litre) flathead-six and equipped with then-novel four-wheel hydraulic brakes. It was an immediate sales success and proved reliable and fast enough to win a couple of important racing events, which caught the attention of a couple of French racers.

Frenchmen Henri Stoffel and Lucien Desvaux had competed in the inaugural Le Mans race in 1923, Desvaux claiming a class win and Stoffel retiring, but the latter returned the next year to win his class and finish second overall to a Bentley.

1925 remembered

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They teamed up for the 1925 event in their Chrysler and ran hard enough they'd have likely finished 17th if they hadn't ditched it avoiding another racer, losing enough time so that they were two laps short of the distance required for an official finish.

Another Chrysler Six, a special-bodied racer won at Britain's Brooklands track later in the year averaging almost 160 km/h in the hands of a London Chrysler dealer. Three Willys-Overland racers were the only American cars entered for the 1926 Le Mans. One crashed in practice and the other two were unclassified at the finish.

But the Americans, or their cars at least, were back for the 1928 event, with four Chryslers on the entry list and a home-grown rival, the Stutz Blackhawk.

The Chrysler's weren't factory entries but the ride of choice for a multinational team that consisted of a persistent Stoffel and co-driver and fellow Frenchman Andre Rossignol, the Romanian Cantacuzino brothers, France's Cyril de Vere and racing legend Louis Chiron from Monaco and Goffredo Zehender of Italy and Jerome Ledure of France.

The Chrysler Six Series 72 had evolved into a more serious contender and were raced in two-door roadster form, weighing in at 1,363 kg and powered by a 249-cubic-inch (4.1-litre) flathead-six that made 85 hp at 3,200 rpm, but may have been modified to produce more and likely made the cars capable of 100 mph (160 km/h) speeds on Le Mans' tree-lined Mulsanne straight. Pretty scary considering the suspension featured solid axles front and rear, and its wire wheels were shod with 30 x 6.0 tires. At least it had hydraulic brakes. All four cars were finished in a pale cream with black fenders. The example pictured here is a replica displayed in the W.P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Their American rival, the Stutz Blackhawk, was a more serious piece of work with a 4.9-litre, overhead cam, four-valve-per-cylinder, inline-eight rated at 125 hp. But the real threat came from a trio of 4.5-litre Bentleys, the marque that had won in 1924 and 1927 and would go on to win in 1928, 1929 and 1930.

Thirty-three cars were lined up for the traditional Le Mans start - in which drivers sprint across the track to their cars - at 4 p.m. on a June afternoon. The Stutz got away first but was soon passed by "Bentleys Boys" as this fast-living and even faster driving group of Brit playboy racers were known, who held first through third with the Stutz holding a fighting fourth. Various dramas played out in the long hours ahead, then with about half an hour to go, the Stutz lost top gear, and the frame of the leading Bentley collapsed, its back was broken and along with it a rad hose, causing overheating.

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But at the end it was the Bentley that (barely) took the flag, followed by the Stutz and some way behind the third and fourth place Chryslers with further down the field the other two.

In 1929, the Le Mans field included six American racers, a trio of Stutzs, a pair of Chryslers and a Dupont, and the Chrysler's were classified third and fourth. Chrysler's missed the 1930 race, but a single entry reappeared in 1931 and finished third overall, winning its class.

Not a bad performances but they would mark Chrysler's last involvement in the race until Briggs Cunningham employed its Hemi V-8 in his Le Mans campaigns of the early '50s and the company's more recent efforts with class-winning Vipers and prototypes.

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