Start of the 1960 Le Mans 24 Hours picture

Le Mans Corvette 1960 – Car Profile

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.

1960 Chevrolet Corvette Le Mans invoice photo

Comments

  1. Sam Peppin says

    Kudos to Smith. Alternative title could be “Cars I Have regretted Selling. Although certainly not on a grand scale like the Corvette, my list of regrettable sales includes a ’64 Corvair Spyder whose demise was ensured by Ralph Nader who stopped the progress of US small cars in it’s tracks and who later allowed another American disaster named Bush, a ’65 Mini Cooper S, and a 1986 Porsche 930.
    I often wonder who’s loving them, now?

    • Bill Reese says

      Sam, You may(?) know a little bit about cars and perhaps just stick to them as your comment about Bush is way off the mark. I can think of 16 billion reasons not to like whats happening now to our country. Hope I can afford to keep the classics that I now have. Bill

  2. Scott Gray says

    Indeed, kudos to Smith. What a great read that brings up so many memories of cars missed. My most painful miss was the Aston Martin DB4 GT offered in the high teens somewhere around 1980.

  3. SteveL says

    Best “one that got away”story. Mine was 908 that a dentist would trade me for my 912. Mine was street legal.his was broken motor. I passed as I needed a ride to work more than a race car. Stupid life.

  4. says

    Steve:
    Great story! It’s always amazing how so many of our famous racers were somehow connected as they plied their trade. The Corvette was a common thread for many, including you as well. How cool is that?

    It must have been quite an experience working at R&T. I read R&T from cover to cover as a kid when you were working there. Great mag then.

    Speaking of R&T, I used to read and follow with interest the several articles about the Cyclops car, a whimsical beast, to say the least. Lo and behold, Cyclops II appeared at this year’s Amelia! Apparently its concept had bit others with the same bug. What a treat to ‘discover’ that again!

    Best to you,
    =rds

  5. says

    Steve: As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know the rest of the story”. A great read. All of us gear heads have the had it and lost it stories…….the car I miss most was the ex-Hulme Brabham BT-8 I bought out of a South Carolina junk yard for $ 2,900. C’est la vie.

  6. steve snyder says

    Having two friends distract the gendarmes then leaping over a wall and an earthen dike, I ended up in the Cunningham pits at around 10 am at LeMans in 1960. Took a series of color photos with my Leica M-2 of the Corvettes and then on down the line. It’s about time I get my act together and scan these onto a CD. Regards, Steve Snyder

  7. Briggs Cunningham says

    Mr. Smith,

    Nicely done. I’ve no doubt grandpa is smiling after reading this compelling story and seeing the images of his beauties fully restored. If you’re ever in the Philadelphia area, visit the Simeone Automotive Museum; they have the Cunningham C4R that won at Sebring, and it still runs like a “beast”. Best regards,

    BSC4

  8. Damon Crumb says

    Mr. Smith
    Congrats on your article, very interesting to me and I’m sure many others. I wonder if I might offer a correction, which if I’m wrong I will apologize now. I believe that the vehicle that Briggs Cunningham bought from Bill Frick was a “Fordillac” It was taken to LeMans as a support vehicle, I believe.
    Once again, many congrats.

    Damon

  9. says

    Dear Mr. Smith,

    Thank you for a wonderful story. And not to worry about the kids – the best part of it is that they’ll come around…

    Once again a great story and thanks to SCD for putting it forward.

    Looking forward to the next one,

    Vincent.

  10. Dave Randall says

    A nice article, thank you for the insight……. A couple of things 10 times $6,000 is only $60,000 I would very much like to buy a Lusso for that amount. Also, the Cunningham money did not come from the meat packing business…….
    Brigg’s Dad was an early investor in P&G.
    One of my favorite days was when I went to the Cunningham museum in Costa Mesa…. John Burgess and I started talking and in about 10 minutes I realized that about an hour and a half had gone by. That man new his cars.

  11. says

    Great, detailed account by Steve Smith of an amazing saga for Corvette’s first racing event at Le Mans. Steve and part of his story have a role in ‘THE QUEST’, which I wrote & produced and which Steve graciously mentioned in his article. This compelling story is summarized in the film, using archival footage, some of which has never seen before.

    A great recollection.

  12. says

    A few comments about my “$2,000″ D-Type: I was dropping off a Sadler Formula Junior at Donald Fong’s shop in Atlanta, Ga. when I noticed this D-Type with a damaged right front body being examined by a man taking notes. This insurance adjuster had written the car off as totaled and sold it to me on the spot for $400. It turns out that the “bent chassis” was only the bent front superstructure for the body supports. It wasn’t long before my body fabricator, Mike Saggars and I had a new body corner and repaired superstructure installed.

    Since it was illegal at the time to import a used automobile into Canada, I logged the car in as “under repair”. After a season of fun racing with the car , I had to get rid of it back into the USA. I figured $2,000 was a fair price for the car since our repair costs were only a few hundred dollars. While I can’t remember who bought the car, I was sold rather quickly.

    A current update: I bumped into Mike Saggars at Silverstone in 2008 after we had lost track of each other for more than 50 years. By a sheer stoke of fate we found out that our same D-Type was at this race. Mike and I visited the car and with it’s current owner – who knew our entire story about his car. And yes, it is currently a muli-million dollar car!

  13. says

    I’m old enough to say I enjoyed reading Steve’s work in both Road & Track and with Brock Yates in Car & Driver back “in the day”. This was such a great article that I posted it on Twitter. I, too have several “woulda, coulda, shoulda” scenarios. First was a 1966 Hertz Shelby GT 350H which I bought in 1969 for $2700 from a Mercury dealer. It was an awesome street car…I used to “eat Corvette’s for lunch”. I kept it for 3 years and sold it for a 1969 Porsche 911L which I then had upgraded with a RS engine swap. When last I saw, on a Barret-Jackson Auction TV show, the GT 350H’s were going for around $200,000……. Second was a 1959 Ferrari 250 GT Coupe which was the personal driver of the head mechanic at Beverly Hills Ferrari. It was in impeccable shape, Ferrari red with valve covers that were so clean you could almost shave off their reflection. The price in 1980 was $15,000. I kept it for 1 day and then panicked….I realized, as was mentioned in the story and a Comment above, that this car would be a very, very risky “daily driver”….especially if and when it came to the inevitable repair and replacement parts bills. So I brought it back to the dealer, got my money back and bought a (Grey Market) 1972 BMW 3.0 CSI coupe with Euro specs and wood dash for $15,000. Great touring car and a wife pleaser……. Ah, but what is that Ferrari worth now!

  14. says

    Steve-

    Awesome article, many thanks for taking the time to sit down and document it for everyone to enjoy. I was honored to fulfill my father’s dream of taking the #3 Cunningham Corvette back to Le Mans 50 years later with John Fitch at the wheel! Life certainly throws us all curve balls and I’m thankful I was able to enjoy the ride with Mr. Fitch – it’s a moment I’ll never forget. The ‘Quest’ certainly captured every moment, if anyone is interested in watching the film check out the website: http://questdocumentary.com. Michael Brown and his team did an amazing job at capturing our adventures and sharing the story of each car that raced at Le Mans in 1960. Again, Steve – thank you!

    Much respect,

    Lance Miller

  15. Steve Smith says

    Thank you, one and all, for your kind comments on this story.

    @ Paul in Florida: I’ve no idea where the #1 car was last seen in Florida. You might ask Kevin Mackay:
    http://corvetterepair.com/

    @ Ronald Sieber & Jeffry Martini: Point of order. The Bonds, John & Elaine (who owned Road & Track) wanted to hire to as the Editor of Competition Press after they bought it from my mentor, Denise McCluggage, but I insisted on finishing college, so they hired Jim Crow. When I graduated, they hired me anyway, and having just bought the execrable Car Life, they set me to work on that. I got to write stories for R&T (road tests of offal like the Humber Super Snipe and a flurry of race reports) but never got on the masthead. Somebody built a Cyclops (originally envisioned as a cartoon by the great Stan Mott) years ago that graced the offices of R&T in the Costa Mesa office where I worked.

    @ steve snyder: I’d *love* to see your pics of the 1960 Le Mans. If SCD doesn’t publish them, please email copies to me.

    @ Briggs Cunningham: Thanks; I was a great admirer of your grandfather and spent as much time in his pits as he (and Alfred Momo) would allow. He was extraordinarily generous in sharing his experiences (and artifacts) of Le Mans 1960 with me after I bought the #2 car..

    @ Damon Crumb & David Randall: I stand corrected.

  16. says

    Steve, that is a GREAT story!

    It especially resonates with me because I have recently enjoyed my own “boy meets, loses, and regains car” experience, with the first ’62 Ferrari 250 GTO, s/n 3223 GT. You can read the whole story by Alan Boe in the current issue of Cavallino, #188.

    I’m sure you pine a little, as I do, for the occasional opportunity to snuggle up to your old “lover” a little. But it’s a sweet yearning, because you have the great memories and the relatively pain-free intervening years which, had you kept the car, would surely have not been so easy!!!

    Thanks again for the super story, and for recalling all those great names in early American motorsport, when we were “boys”.

    Sincerely,
    Larry

  17. Steve Smith says

    Two other factoids, minor and major:

    1. It wasn’t dry ice the Cunningham mechanics packed in around the engine, it was plain old H2O-based ice, as may plainly be seen in this documentary:

    http://blogs.insideline.com/straightline/2010/05/corvettes-at-le-mans-gm-shows-off-rare-1960-documentary.html

    2. In this self-serving General Motors puff piece, Dick Thompson makes repeated references to the “excellent” brakes. WTF? The brakes started to fade dramatically after the rain stopped. Thompson repeatedly had to slow the car with the engine (months later, when I got the car, the tach’s tell-tale was still stuck way above what Cunningham had specified as the absolute red-line). The over-revving was what caused the engine to blow with a mighty “bang” just as Thompson’s co-driver, Fred Windridge, was passing the pits with about 4 hours to go. Still, nice to see the old “Detroit iron” banging around the Sarthe.

  18. Anonymous says

    Never say never. The #1 Car from the 1960 Cunningham team has been found! Long thought lost in the mists of time, Kevin Mackay has been searching for it for 19 years, diligently running VIN checks, chasing dead-end leads and staying in touch with his vast army of spotters. The car had last been registered in Florida in 1974, but when Mackay went down there for a look-see, there wasn’t a trace.

    What happened was, the guy who owned it all these years was as much a pack rat as a fastidious collector. When he died a few years ago, his son inherited not one but two 35,000 sq. ft. warehouses, jammed with enough automobilia fill Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu. So, it wasn’t exactly a “barn find.”

    After a year of digging, the son unearthed the remains of the #1 car, modified almost beyond recognition. Someone had added enough fiberglass to make it look like a Devin-bodied car, but underneath all the Bondo bling, there was the original, mostly intact, even down to the original body (which had been singed at Le Mans).

    Curious, he called Larry Berman, the automotive historian who runs the eponymous Cunningham website. Berman in turn directed the guy (whose name won’t be revealed until the car is presented to the Corvette cognoscenti at the “Corvettes at Castile” event later this month) to Kevin Mackay, who did such a magnificent job restoring the #3 Corvette for Chip Miller and his son Lance.

    I called Kevin earlier today, who was looking at the #1 car as we spoke. He vouches for its authenticity (as he did with the #3 car when it was “autopsied” after Chip Miller bought it years ago). Kevin will be at the gathering of the Corvette faithful at the Carlisle, PA, fairgrounds this coming August 24-26, along with the (as yet) unrestored #1 Corvette. I hope to be there, too. Y’all come on down!

  19. katie Skelton says

    My brother was Mike Pillsbury, the restorer of #2. To say the least, the restoration was his love, his passion, his life. His family and friends were very privileged to watch a man who got to live his dream. He could name any part of any Corvette not only by sight, but also by feel. I am so glad he got to see his dream realized. It brought a twinkle to his impish eyes! There is a picture of him posing with his #2 on the cover of The Corvette Restorer Magazine Volume #24, Spring 1996. Kudos to you brother! Love, Katie

    • Steve Smith says

      @ Katie,

      I worked with your brother for the better part of a decade helping him restore the #2 car. I was amazed at his diligence, knowledge and enthusiasm. I was astonished that he even found me, so many years after I had owned the car (he had the gumption to coax my whereabouts out of Road and Track, where I’d placed an ad for the car 20 years before).

      I unearthed a lot of new information about the car after Mike pestered me to get in touch with my old friend Briggs Cunningham, but on his own he amassed more than I ever could have collected. He was always eager to talk to anybody who had ever had anything to do with the car, and also managed to accumulate an astonishing pile of relevant bits and pieces.

      Now that the #1 car has been re-discovered and the Cunningham team is once again complete, I think every fan of the effort at Le Mans in 1960 owes Mike a debt of gratitude for having been the first to track down one of the original cars and restore it to its former glory.

      –Steve Smith

      • Anonymous says

        Yes, I wish he was alive to have seen all 4 Corvettes. He was always on the road, searching for that “rare” Corvette or Corvette part. It was his passion. Very few people actually get to live their dreams like he did. Katie Pillsbury Skelton

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