When Cadillac built a Monster
Cadillac’s recent entry into prototype endurance racing no doubt raised a few eyebrows. While the company has produced legitimate tarmac-shredders with its V-series offerings, the full-race, prototype DPi-V.R might as well be a spaceship. Powered by a 600hp 6.2-liter V-8, it’s unlike anything that Cadillac has ever done before – right? As it happens, this new beast has a decades old bloodline, one we can trace back to an American racing entrepreneur and a car the Le Mans spectators called Le Monstre (The Monster).
Briggs Cunningham was born in 1907 with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His father founded the Citizen’s National Bank, and was a director of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Cunningham would also marry into money, wedding the granddaughter of a Standard Oil co-founder in 1930. They honeymooned in Europe, taking in such sights as the Monaco Grand Prix.
Cunningham was athletic and competitive, and he excelled in racing yachts and other well-heeled pursuits. Moving into sportscar racing simply made sense.
At the same time as Cunningham was experimenting with custom-built racers at Watkins Glen, a Milanese-born mechanic and racer named Luigi Chinetti was enjoying success in endurance racing. Co-driving an Alfa-Romeo, he won the very first Le Mans he entered, finishing atop the podium in 1932. He would become one of Le Mans most prolific drivers, competing in every single race between 1932 and 1953. During that stretch he immigrated to America in 1940, remained during the war, and eventually became the first Ferrari dealer.
Chinetti and Cunningham became friends – later, Chinetti would even sell the very first Ferrari in America to Cunningham – and the two bonded over their shared love of speed. No American team had ever competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans before, but Chinetti extended both an invitation and a challenge to his friend. If Cunningham could develop two racing entries, there would be two spots open; if his two cars managed to finish the 1950 race, they’d be invited back the next year.
Cunningham’s first attempt, in 1949, was almost a traditional American hot-rod. At the time, he was very familiar with the “Fordillac,” a custom that mechanic Bill Frick created. Frick made an entire career out of stuffing big, powerful OHV Cadillac engines into smaller Ford bodies, and his creation seemed ideal for racing. Unfortunately, the Le Mans scrutineers took one look and turned the Fordillacs down.
Thus Cunningham was stuck fielding a pair of mostly stock machines. He bought a pair of manual Cadillac Series 61 Coupes, and began preparing them to race. One he kept in nearly factory trim, adding twin carburetors, brake-cooling, and an extra fuel tank for better range. The other became Cunningham’s monster.
Recruiting an aeronautical engineer by the name of Howard Weinman, Cunningham set about creating a roadster version of the Cadillac coupe with radically altered bodywork. The result was tested in a wind tunnel used for evaluating slow-flying aircraft, and a tube-frame structure was added to improve crashworthiness.
The unnamed modified Cadillac looked like a cross between an early WWI tank and a hovercraft. The Le Mans scrutineers couldn’t believe the audacity; however, after hours of looking it over, it was confirmed that the Cadillac’s chassis was stock. The 331-cid V-8 had been tuned to run with five carburetors, but it was still operating within the rules.
The French crowd called the gruesome two-seater Le Monstre, and the name stuck. It roared around the corners and down the Mulsanne straight with robust V-8 thunder, hitting 130mph on the straights. Cunningham’s gamble worked: Le Monstre’s streamlining meant it could outrun the standard coupe at the top end.
However, not much time had been taken to test the cars extensively, and the team was relatively green. The resulting race contained more than a few farcical moments, kicking off with the traditional Le Mans sprint to the cars. Turns out the Coupe team had forgotten to leave their car unlocked. Then, on the second lap, Cunningham crashed Le Monstre into a sandbank, and had to spent twenty minutes digging it out by hand. The Coupe, which the French nicknamed Petit Pataud (Little Clumsy), rolled through the corners on its stock suspension, and then had to come to a complete halt while a stray dog crossed the racetrack.
However, soon both entries were hammering around Le Mans at very respectable speeds. Le Monstre clawed its way back from 35th to finish 11th, and the Coupe finished one place ahead. Both Cadillacs were far from the podium, but they both finished the race, an achievement in itself. The crowd cheered the team with hearty approval of the Americans’ can-do attitude. Le Monstre was ugly as all hell, but it had heart.