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A peek inside the LeMans Cadillacs

A peek inside the LeMans Cadillacs

Old Cars catches up with the Briggs Cunningham’s race-ready Series 61 Cadillacs.

Cunningham’s 1950 Cadillac

In 1950, a small group of Americans crossed the Atlantic Ocean intent on conquering Europe’s snootiest automotive competition: the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (les vingt-quatre heures du Mans). They were properly prepared, as their arsenal included two examples of America’s best— a pair of big, brawny new Cadillacs.

One of those new Cadillacs was a race-prepped Series 61 coupe, the other a Series 61 specially fitted for the race with a custom roadster body.

The arrival of the 1950 Cadillacs in France for the Le Mans race was a homecoming of sorts. The cars’ very brand name was derived from the Frenchman who first settled Detroit, home of Cadillac Motor Car Co. This time, however, the American car company was going to attempt to conquer a little corner of France.

After it was raced at Le Mans, Cunningham’s 1950 Cadillac was put to “daily driver” use, which included towing his other race cars. Today, the only clues to its race car provenance are its paint job and the gauges on its steering column.

The French did not necessarily take this invasion well. The cars received more than their fair share of scrutiny by Le Mans race officials, who spent a significant amount of time ensuring the Cadillacs — especially the roadster race car — qualified for the race. The French press was likewise inhospitable.

Upon watching the large Cadillacs during practice as they listed on the track around diminutive Jaguars, Allards, Talbot-Lagos and other small European roadsters, the French press coined cheeky nicknames for the Cadillacs. They named the coupe Petit Pataud (French for “clumsy puppy”), and being especially abhorred by the custom roadster body, named it Le Monstre (“the monster”).

The crew importing the Cadillacs included men who were no strangers to speed and the quest to be the best at achieving it. Briggs Swift Cunningham, an affluent sportsman with a history of competing on land and water, created and funded the American team. He was joined by brothers Miles and Sam Collier, longtime friends who were likewise affluent motorsports enthusiasts. (The Colliers were founders of the Automobile Racing Club of America, which later became the Sports Car Club of America and, with Cunningham, had a hand in the establishment of Watkins Glen raceway.)

Modifications to race at Le Mans included hood straps, which were required to race in France, and Marchal headlamps and foglamps to see through the fog that notoriously covered the track. Briggs Cunningham’s coupe retains the French Marchal foglamps, but the headlamps were eventually replaced with standard sealed-beam lamps.

The men clearly knew the sport of racing from behind the wheel. But they needed someone who knew automobiles under the hood. That man was Bill Frick of Frick-Tappet Motors.

Frick was familiar with the power of the 160-hp, overhead-valve Cadillac V-8 engine that debuted for 1949, and he was planting them into new Fords formerly powered by now-antiquated flathead V-8s to create “Fordillacs.” Cunningham bought one of the first Fordillacs and regularly drove it, even racing it at Daytona Beach. The other half of Frick-Tappet Motors was Phil Walters, who used the pseudonym “Ted Tappet” when racing. Walters, aka “Tappet,” would be Cunningham’s co-driver at Le Mans.

Brothers Miles and Sam Collier in France with the 1950 Cadillac Series 61 coupe they drove at Le Mans after Bill Frick’s preparations.

Cunningham had originally hoped to run one of Frick’s Fordillacs at his first Le Mans race, which would give him Cadillac power in a lighter-weight Ford body. Upon learning that such a hybrid would not be accepted for entry at Le Mans, Cadillac chief engineer Ed Cole (who later became General Motors president) allegedly suggested Cunningham race the lightest Cadillacs in General Motors’ fleet, the Series 61 coupe. Cunningham would enter two Cadillacs in the up-to-8-liter class. To assist Cunningham, Cole designed a five-carburetor manifold that topped the 331-cid V-8 engine in the roadster that Cunningham was to enter at Le Mans. The Cadillac V-8 in the Series 61 coupe was fitted with a dual two-barrel-carburetor setup designed by GM engineer Frank Burrell. Le Mans’ governing body, Automobile Club de l’Ouest, forbid internal engine modifications, but did permit external changes, so these multi-carburetor setups were acceptable.

A quartet of Holley carburetors encircle the central Carter carburetor on the unique manifold fitted to the 331-cid V-8 of the “Le Monstre” roadster. Unfortunately, the coupe has lost its unique dual two-barrel carburetor setup since the race.

On the Cadillac roadster’s five-carburetor setup, a Carter carburetor was mounted in the center with a mechanical linkage permitting part throttle. At full throttle, the four Holley carburetors encircling it opened, but even at idle, the engine has a monstrous bellow.

For Frick’s familiarity with the new Cadillac engine, Cunningham commissioned him to prepare the two Cadillacs for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Frick also traveled to France to meet with team owner and roadster driver Briggs Cunningham (and roadster copilot and Frick-Tappet co-owner Phil Walters) and coupe drivers Sam and Miles Collier. In France, Frick would remain busy finishing race preparations and in the pits during the race itself. These men were joined by team chief Alec Ulmann, pre-eposeur d’essence (team “gas man”) Bill Spear and additional team members Hemp Oliver and John Oliveau. The latter served as a mechanic on the coupe and, as a Le Mans native, helped show the men the ropes in the town.

Behind the 331-cid Cadillac V-8, each car was equipped with the rarely specified, column-shifted Cadillac three-speed manual transmission. The manual transmission was lighter than a Hydra-Matic, which further maximized the performance of the Series 61, already the lightest Cadillac thanks, in part, to its 122-inch wheelbase that was 4 inches shorter than that of a Series 62.

Each Cadillac Series 61 was delivered with heavier-duty brakes and steel wheels from Cadillac’s commercial chassis models. Beyond the basic chassis, the two Series 61 Cadillacs were very different beasts, owing to their different bodies.

‘Le Monstre’ streamlined roadster

Automobile Club de l’Ouest permitted changes to a Le Mans entrant’s coachwork, so long as the chassis and engine internals were production units. One of the Cadillacs retained its stock Series 61 coupe body while the other chassis was dressed with the wind-tunnel-proven aluminum roadster body custom-built by Grumman Aircraft employees working after their regular shifts.

Not built for a beauty pageant, the “Le Monstre” was fitted with a wind-tunnel-tested aluminum body by Grumman Aircraft. Although sleeker, this streamlined roadster was only 115 pounds lighter than the coupe it raced alongside. This car crashed early in the race, costing it time, but the streamlined body presumably helped it make up most of the lost time and the roadster eventually caught up to the coupe, placing just behind it at the finish line.

Howard Weinman, a Grumman Aircraft designer, designed the unique open-top roadster body after the shape of an airplane wing, and a model of his design was tested in a wind tunnel at Grumman. The finished body was 3 inches narrower than a standard 1950 Cadillac and had removable panels affixed by aircraft-type Dzus fasteners to allow quick access to chassis components. The panels themselves were fastened to a framework of small-diameter chrome-moly tubing. Le Mans required a shatter-proof glass windshield and race officials were convinced the streamliner’s curved windshield was actually plastic, recounted Sam Collier in an October 1950 Road and Track article reporting on his experience in the race.

A hood scoop fed air to the five carburetors, and a head fairing was built into the body and incorporated a roll bar for the driver. The result was a streamlined 3,705-pound roadster that was lighter than the Series 61 coupe upon which it was based, but only by about 115 pounds.

Briggs Cunningham embraced calling the roadster “Le Monstre,” the French press’ derogatory name for the streamliner, and had the name painted on the car. Also note the hood scoop for feeding air to the five carburetors. Each removable aluminum panel on the streamlined roadster was attached with aircraft-type Dzus fasteners, which allowed fast access to the chassis in the event a repair was necessary.

Like the coupe, the body of the roadster was painted the American international racing colors of blue on a white body. Cunningham embraced the nicknames “Le Monstre” and “Petit Pataud” and capped off the paint jobs by painting the names on the respective Cadillacs’ hoods. However, Cunningham’s team referred to the roadster as “the streamliner” when differentiating it from the Cadillac coupe raced at Le Mans.

Under its aluminum skin that so offended the French press, “Le Monstre” was made race-ready with an oil filter mounted in the wheelwell and ducting to cool the Cadillac commercial brakes with harder-than-standard brake linings. Taller rear differential gears were tested in “Le Monstre,” but it was found the roadster lost speed coming out of turns and so the standard gears were reinstalled.

Collier acknowledged the “clumsy” handling during practice and as reported by the French press. In his Road and Track article, he wrote the Cadillacs were found to be “a little jumpy in the back end.” To address this handling issue, French shock absorbers were installed at the rear before the race. The Le Mans course’s notorious fog also inspired them to fit French Marchal headlamps and fog lamps for better visibility to each car when the standard Cadillac lighting was found inadequate during practice runs.

The standard Cadillac steering wheel was ditched in the “Le Monstre” roadster, and it was fitted with a plethora of gauges.

Inside the unique cockpit, “Le Monstre” was fit with two bucket-type seats (one each for the driver and the copilot), a Sun tachometer and a bevy of additional gauges from Stewart-Warner, plus the stock speedometer. Thermocouples monitored the brake, transmission and rear axle temperatures. Each car was originally fitted with a ship-to-shore two-way radio in order for the drivers to communicate with the pit crew, but these were abandoned at race time.

‘Petit Pataud’ coupe

The Series 61 coupe raced by brother Sam and Miles Collier was far less radical-looking than the “Le Monstre” streamlined roadster raced by Cunningham and Walters, but it wasn’t straight off the showroom floor. Sam Collier said it had air scoops welded on the brake drums to aid cooling, and an extra 35-gallon fuel tank. Like the streamlined roadster, it had to be fitted with hood straps and manual windshield wipers to be eligible to race. It was while testing the Collier-driven Cadillac coupe at Le Mans that visibility was found inadequate with the original-equipment Guide headlamps, and the rear of the car to be “jumpy,” so it, too, received French rear shock absorbers and Marchal lamps before race day.

The lines of “Le Monstre” don’t get any better at the Kammback-style rear end that abruptly ends. Note the side-exiting exhaust and the built-in fairing behind the driver’s seat. When this car starts, its rumble shakes eardrums and turns heads.

Collier reported that Frick & Tappet had installed the coupe’s dual two-barrel intake manifold and carburetors and fine-tuned the engine in his Rockville Centre, Long Island shop in New York before the cars were shipped by boat to France. Once on the continent, Frick continued to tweak the cars. Further adjustments became obvious when the French fuel was found to be of poor quality, perhaps of 70 octane, guessed Collier. He said they had to accelerate “gingerly” because of severe detonation, and had to be gentle coming out of turns as four pistons had broke in a Cadillac V-8 during practice due to detonation. Despite these limits, Miles Collier recorded a best lap time of 5 minutes, 42 seconds, while driving the Series 61 coupe. Overall, the Cadillac used one quart of oil per pit stop and averaged 6 miles per gallon. Its fastest speed was 117 mph on the Mulsanne Straight of the Le Mans course, and the car recorded an average speed of 81.5 mph.

The Finish Line

Although not as sleek as the Grumman-bodied streamliner, the Series 61 coupe crossed the finish line first. It wasn’t the streamlined car’s body that was necessarily to blame— a nasty slide into a sand bank two laps into the race left Cunningham scooping sand to free the car, which cost him approximately one-half hour and damaged the area around the left-hand headlamp.

The damage to Le Monstre’s bodywork was the second such incident. Before the race, Walters had been driving the daughter of the secretary of Automobile Club de l’Ouest and crashed the car while avoiding a wagon. An aluminum-welding expert had to be flown in to make the repairs before the race.

Briggs Cunningham and his copilot Phil Walters seated in “Le Monstre” before the race. Notice the car’s two-tone paint job following a body repair; it was repainted after this photo was taken and before the race. Also note how the Cadillac race car dwarfs the car next to it

The Collier brothers-driven Series 61 coupe had its own on-track setback. At the start of the Le Mans race, drivers must run to their cars, jump in, fire them up and dart into the race fold. Locked doors on the coupe left the Colliers scurrying for keys. Later, in the race, a stray dog crossed the track in front of the coupe, causing it to stop.

In the end, Le Monstre’s slickness caused it to gain ground in the race and on the coupe, but the coupe still finished one place ahead. When the Cadillacs crossed the finish line, the coupe had finished a very respectable 10th overall in the extremely competitive race, with Le Monstre right behind in 11th place. Although neither had won the race, the French are said to have stopped laughing at the lumbering American cars and begun respecting them.

“Le Monstre” crosses the finish line, placing 11th overall despite transmission troubles that left it with only third gear by the end. The car sustained damage to the driver’s side headlamp area during the race, which has since been repaired.

After the Race

Upon the conclusion of the 1950 Le Mans race, the Cadillacs were shipped back to the United States. By this time, Cunningham had the makings of a stunning car collection, and the Le Mans Cadillacs joined Duesenbergs and other prewar exotics. Cunningham used his first Le Mans race to expand his racing experience and develop his own car. He bought Frick-Tappet Motors and created the Cunningham two-seat roadster, which was initially Cadillac-powered. He would return to Le Mans nine more times.

The Le Mans Cadillacs weren’t both left to gather dust in Cunningham’s garage. While the streamlined roadster was obviously a purpose-built machine with little other use, the coupe was employed by Cunningham to tow other race cars, and tens of thousands of miles were eventually accumulated on its odometer. Each Le Mans Cadillac remained in Cunningham’s California-based collection until he sold it in its entirety to Miles Cunningham, Jr. on Dec. 31, 1986. Collier, whose father had raced the Series 61 Cadillac coupe with his uncle, became the next custodian and retains both Le Mans Cadillacs in the Revs Institute in Naples, Fla. In recent years, the Le Mans Cadillacs have been traveling the show circuit, largely untouched since they were raced (the damage to the streamlined roadster was repaired soon after the race, and the coupe has since been fitted with a single four-barrel carburetor).

In 2022, the Cadillacs appeared at the Cadillac & LaSalle Club Museum and Research Center’s Cadillac Fall Festival alongside other notable Cadillac race cars. More recently, these historic race cars were on hand in February when Cadillac debuted its three new electrified V-LMDh race cars ahead of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The Le Mans Cadillacs’ presence at these notable events and the crowds that they attract show that while their racing days are over, they remain important artifacts of Cadillac and racing history.

Special thanks to Paul Kierstein and Scott George of the Revs Institute and Lars Kneller of the Cadillac & LaSalle Club for making the cars and information about them available.

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