Briggs Cunningham and Cadillac at Le Mans in 1950

June is Le Mans month and I was recently at the Cadillac La Salle Day at the Larz Anderson Museum of Transportation in Brookline, Massachusetts.  These two events got me thinking about the 1950 Le Mans race when two Cadillacs competed in that major 24 hour event.

One of the Cadillacs was surprisingly unmodified, while the other could only be described as bazaar.  The two Cadillacs in the 1950 Le Mans race are shown below.  It is easy to figure out which is which.

Two Cadillacs at Le Mans in 1950

Briggs Cunningham was a wealthy sportsman and racer who wanted to compete in the Le Mans race.  In 1950 he decided compete in the race using Cadillac cars.  Cadillac was one of the fastest American made cars at that time.  In 1949 Cadillac had introduced a new overhead valve V8 engine that very much out-performed the side-valve engines that were commonplace in North America at that time.

1949 Cadillac Advertisement Touting the New V8 Engine

The Cadillac V8 engine had a displacement of 331 cubic inches and produced 160 horsepower.  Cunningham got two Cadillac Series 61 cars which had a wheelbase of 122 inches which was slightly smaller than the Series 62 Cadillac.  These special order cars cars were fitted with steering column mounted three speed manual transmissions (aka three on the tree) which had just been deleted from the normal Cadillac transmission line up as automatic transmissions became standard available transmission.

The 331 cubic inch Cadillac V8 Engine

The rules for Le Mans stated that no internal engine modifications could be performed. The chassis was to be stock but the bodies and the external parts of the engine could be modified. To maximize his probability of success, Cunningham decided to enter one of the Cadillacs with very minor alterations while the second vehicle would have a very much modified body.  Cunningham hired an aeronautical engineer to design the body modifications using designs that had been tested in a wind tunnel. The resulting design was wide, had a low center of gravity, aerodynamic, and much lighter due to an aluminum body. Most people thought that the design was strange and it was called “Le Monstre” by the French press.

“Le Monstre”

Another interesting feature of this car was that it had been fitted with a special five barrel carburetor arrangement.  The modified Cadillac “Le Monstre” was driven by Briggs Cunningham and Phil Walters to an 11th place finish overall.  The results were hampered by Cunningham going off the road and getting stuck in the sand for about 20 minutes.

“Le Monstre” Had a Simple Interior and Retained the Column Mounted Three Speed Transmission

To me, the another strange thing about “Le Monstre” is the car number.  I think that its race number was “2”, but it is a strange looking “2”.  Maybe it is a French “2”.

The Cunningham Cadillacs in the Le Mans Pits

The other Cadillac only had some minor revisions.  The stock two-barrel carburetor was replaced with two two-barrel carburetors.  Some improvements were made to improve the air flow to the drum brakes to make them run cooler.  Conceptcarz had the following images of the stock Cadillac that competed at Le Mans.

The Effectively Stock Cadillac in the 1950 Le Mans Race

The stock Cadillac was driven by Miles and Sam Collier to a 10th place finish, one position better than Cunningham and Walters in “Le Monstre”.

I find it amazing that an essentially stock passenger car could do so well in a challenging race like the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

This Cadillac Even Still Had the Radio Installed!

From the Cadillac’s interior it is difficult to identify this car as a race car.  They almost ran out of gas during one stint at Le Mans, but when you rely on the standard gas gauge that is a risk that you take.   I guess that the radio came in handy to pass the time during the long runs down the Mulsanne Straight.

After his adventure with the Cadillacs in 1950, Briggs Cunningham began to build his own race cars which were much better looking than “Le Monstre”, but that’s another story.

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5 Responses to Briggs Cunningham and Cadillac at Le Mans in 1950

  1. JvC says:

    Fantastic story and – for me – very helpful information. At present such a Caddy Le Mans 1951 model is for sale! Wouldn’t it be nice if you could easily transfer this into an accurate replica of the original, very comfortable and stylish, ‘race’ car. I transformed my Cobra 289-replica into a rallyCobra that drove in the Targa Florio on the wonderful island of Sicily. All i had to go on were pictures and some b/w-clips on YouTube! Thanks again, JvC.

  2. Pingback: History of the Brand: | Understanding Cadillac

  3. Norman says:

    “I find it amazing that an essentially stock passenger car could do so well in a challenging race like the 24 Hours of Le Mans.” It’s easy to forget that in its day – meaning in the day shown here – Cadillacs came with the statement “The Standard of the World”. This car is proof. It was a nearly bone-stock American luxury car which was also one of the highest performing sedans of its time. It also finished 10th at the LeMans 24 Hours. Think about it. Bankers drove this same car. So did gangsters (see the Mickey Cohen example). It was a great car in the truest sense of the word.
    And by the way, also seek out pictures of the Colliers driving it at LeMans in short sleeved shirts, probably with the radio playing…

  4. Drad says:

    Nice story, and much better than Aaron Robinson’s recent dismissal of Cunningham “getting thoroughly drubbed”. Finishing any race in the top 10 is admirable and not a drubbing, and especially if it’s the LeMans 24hrs.

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