Boy Meets Car, Loses Car, Finds Car
By Steve Smith | Photographs as credited
Every car guy has the automotive equivalent of the fisherman’s “the one that got away” story (“It was this big! Really!”). The car of a lifetime…loved and lost. Some car guys even have two such tales. Like my friend Brock Yates. He once had the opportunity to buy one of the world-famous D-Type Jaguars (similar to ones that won Le Mans; only a few dozen were ever built). The owner, Bill Sadler, wanted to sell it to raise the money to build his own sports-racing car. He offered it to Brock for a mere $2,000—about a third of its value then—but this was in the mid-1950s, early in Brock’s stellar career, before he was famous…much less rich…so he passed. The car is worth about $4 million today. Another time, Brock, now more affluent (this was in the early 1970s), bought a Ferrari Lusso, possibly the most beautiful Ferrari ever made, for $6,000. Brock was nervous about using such a treasure as a daily driver (a gas station attendant once accidentally broke the $400 gas cap), and sold it for $6,000 a year after he bought it. He hadn’t lost a dime and thought he’d cheated the hang-man, used-car-wise. A Lusso like Brock’s would fetch at least ten times that today.
Other car guys all seem to have owned (or could have owned) an incredible piece of machinery—for a song—that today sits in a museum or under the gavel of some gibberish-spewing auctioneer. My own story is about one of the first three Chevrolet Corvettes ever to compete in the famous 24-hour race at Le Mans, France, in 1960. (Actually, there were four Vettes lined up for the start of the race that year, but the fourth car is not germane here.) The trio of white Corvettes with broad blue racing stripes was entered by Briggs Swift Cunningham, a millionaire sportsman (he was heir to the Armour Star meat-packing fortune) who had spent a million dollars—back when a million dollars was a boat-load of money—trying to win Le Mans with an American car.
Briggs’ first attempt was in 1949, with a hot-rod built by Bill Frick (inventor of the Studillac; a Studebaker with a Cadillac engine). It was turned down flat by the organizers; an American hot-rod was considered too déclassé for the chi-chi event. The next year, a sympathetic General Motors offered Briggs two gigantic Cadillac Coupe DeVille luxury cars for the race. These were deemed acceptable by the organizers, so Briggs entered one in more or less stock trim (it even had air-conditioning), but stripped the 2-door body off the other and replaced it with a boxy roadster body as a nod toward improving its barn-door aerodynamics. The French dubbed it “Le Monstre.” It didn’t fare well. Briggs drove it into a sandbank and lost a lot of time digging it out. It finished 11th. The stock Coupe DeVille did better; finishing 10th, which was considered outstanding for a big, ungainly American touring car.
Briggs kept at it for the remainder of the decade. He even built a factory in West Palm Beach, Florida, to manufacture his own car, the Cunningham C-series (a few dozen were built; they’re worth a fortune—each—today). The best he ever managed were back-to-back third-place finishes (in ‘53 and ’54) with Chrysler-powered Cunninghams. Coincidentally, in mid-decade (1953), Chevrolet brought out America’s first modern sports car, the Corvette. The first examples weren’t very racy, with an anemic 6-cylinder engine (“Blue Flame Six” sounds like a kitchen appliance), a loosey-goosey automatic transmission (derided as a “glue-pot twirler” by the cognoscenti) and inadequate drum brakes. By the late 1950s, however, a Russian émigré, Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, had developed the Corvette into a decent road-racing competitor, with a powerful fuel-injected V8 engine, a 4-speed stick shift, and gigantic (although still marginal) drum brakes.
By then, Briggs had all but abandoned the idea of winning Le Mans. He had closed the factory in Florida, bought a Jaguar distributorship, and was racing almost everything but American iron: Jaguars, Maseratis, Listers, a Porsche, an OSCA, a Stanguellini…everything except Ferraris (some bad blood there)…and with almost every great American driver active at the time (Sherwood Johnston, Phil Walters, Walt Hansgen, Bill Spear, John Fitch and my mentor, Denise McCluggage, who first introduced me to Briggs). Then Chevrolet’s Zora Duntov talked Briggs into entering three Corvettes in the 1960 24-hour…and the die was cast. Once again, the dream was alive! Cunningham sent a minion over to Don Allen Chevrolet near Columbus Circle in Manhattan to buy three 1960 Corvettes for the “friendly” price of $3,910.08 each, with every racing or heavy-duty option offered by the factory, including a 283-cubic-inch, fuel-injected engine ($484.20 extra); sintered-metallic brake linings and faster steering ($333.60), a close-ratio 4-speed transmission ($188.30) and a limited-slip differential ($43.05). Stiffer suspension components and a 37-gallon gas tank (the largest permissible under the Le Mans rules) would be added later.