The cars were turned over to Briggs’ longtime chief mechanic, Alfred Momo (who had flown in WW I with the poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio when they dropped peace leaflets over Rome) for race preparation. Briggs’ cars were always as well turned-out as Futurama show pieces: no detail was too small, no part left unexamined, nothing left to chance. Years of trying to win Le Mans had left Briggs with a healthy fear of electrical failure. So, as just one example of meticulous preparation, Momo replaced the factory fuel pump with not merely one heavy-duty mechanical pump, but two additional electrical pumps (operated by dashboard switches). The stock tachometer was superseded by a huge Jones-Motrola mechanical tach (with a telltale needle so Briggs could see if any of his drivers exceeded his strict engine rev limits). The dash was painted matte-black so nighttime reflections wouldn’t distract the driver. The puny gas-tank cap was replaced with a massive aircraft fuel-filler and relocated to a cove cut into the middle of the rear window. The unsupportive seats were replaced with snug-fitting bucket seats from a WW II-era DC-3 to prevent the driver from sliding around in the corners. The ignition coil and 12-volt battery were doubled, like pairs of animals on Noah’s Ark (and for the same reason: survival).
The one thing Momo didn’t work his magic on (he was said to be able to increase the power of any motor just by lifting the hood and passing his hands over it) was the engine. Momo had had vast experience not only making engines more powerful, but also longer-lasting, as endurance racing is more about reliability than speed. But Duntov had promised Briggs a truckload of engines race-prepared in GM’s fabled Tech Center, with next year’s fuel-injection system and cylinder heads (aluminum instead of cast-iron, to save precious weight). Momo didn’t take Duntov’s word for it, and disassembled one of the engines to see the modifications for himself. Everything looked good to him…except for one detail. The bearing that held the distributor shaft in place was a plain bushing bearing. Momo wanted to replace it with a more durable needle bearing. Duntov was insulted. “I haf tested on dynamometer twenty-fife hours,” he said in his thick Russian accent (he pronounced Corvette, “Cor-WAAT”). “Not fail.” The stock engines were removed and Duntov’s fully tweaked engines (although with the stock cast-iron cylinder heads) were installed.
Le Mans wasn’t until June, but Cunningham and Momo wanted some race experience beforehand, so they took two of the cars to Sebring in March for the 12-hour race there on the 26th. (The third car was actually present, in street trim—it hadn’t yet been race-prepared—driven by Sports Cars Illustrated’s Steve Wilder from New York and back again after the race). Fortune did not smile on the Cunningham team that day, but they learned a valuable lesson. The #1 car, driven by Briggs and John Fitch, broke a wheel in the Webster Turns, flipped over and was out after only 27 laps (the race was to last another 169 laps). The other car, #2, driven by Corvette specialists Dr. Dick Thompson (“The Flying Dentist”) and good ol’ boy Freddie Windridge, lasted until lap 41 before its engine expired. This engine was sent to Duntov for analysis. The #1 car’s accident had occurred because the jury-rigged wheel hubs hadn’t been strong enough. Momo replaced the front hubs and rear half-shafts with stronger units. The Indy-style Halibrand magnesium wheels were held on by knock-off spinners (instead of lug bolts), so the wheels and tires could be changed faster during pit stops, something else Briggs had learned about endurance racing.
The #2 car’s engine came back from General Motors…rebuilt, but still with a bushing distributor bearing, Momo noticed. Dubious, he and Briggs decided to test the car for 24 hours in a private session at Bridgehampton (a long, willowy race track on the Eastern end of Long Island that bore little resemblance to the circuit in France where the 24-hour race would actually be held). I was visiting a friend nearby when I heard the distinctive thump of an American V8 at racing speeds, so I came over to have a look. The Corvette team experienced various niggling problems, but by and large the test went off without a hitch, with Briggs, fellow car-dealer Bob Grossman and John Fitch sharing the driving.
The organizers of Le Mans held their own test day for all interested parties in April of every year, so what would become the #2 Corvette in the race (the last one bought—the only one that had not raced at Sebring—by now fully race-prepared) was sent over to the famous Sarthe circuit to see what kind of laptimes it could turn…and what problems might crop up. One engine failed (a bent pushrod, it was said), but by-and-large, as at Bridgehampton, things went well. The timing sheets show that Dick Thompson turned respectable laps in the 112-mph range (4 minutes, 28.3 seconds of the 8.36-mile course), with a top speed of 152 mph on the three-and-a-half-mile long Mulsanne straightaway. Things were finally looking good for big, heavy (2,975 lbs.) American iron. The car returned to these shores.
All three cars were sent back to France on the Queen Elizabeth (registered as John Fitch’s “luggage”) and driven from Le Havre to Le Mans under their own steam. They lined up by displacement for the 4 P.M. start on June 25th; the cars with the biggest engines at the front. The Cunningham Corvettes occupied the first three spots. The drivers lined up on the other side of the track, and when the chief steward signaled the start, they dashed across the track, leaped into their cars (hopefully fastening their seatbelts; the ones in Briggs’ cars were fighter-aircraft quality, four inches wide), spun the ignition keys and joined the fray. Duntov had originally been assigned to co-drive the #1 car with Briggs, but wiser heads prevailed (Zora was one of the worst drivers I have ever had the misfortune of being in a car with) and he was replaced by the young Bill Kimberly…who though not untalented proved to be unlucky. After a couple of hours, just after Briggs turned over the car to Kimberly, a light rain started to fall, and Kimberly skidded off the slippery track at a very fast turn called White House and rolled the car over. As it came to rest, flames leaped out from under the hood. With the car seriously on fire, the disappointed driver scrambled out, unhurt, and walked “the longest mile” back to the pits.
The #2 car, in the hands of the Corvette experts, Thompson and Windridge, had been assigned the role of rabbit; to go as fast as possible, so as to sucker its competitors into trying to keep up, the idea being that the competition would burn itself out in the effort, no matter what happened to the rabbit (which would be sacrificed, if necessary). The #3 car, driven by old hands Fitch and Grossman, would pace itself, so as to be there at the finish, 24 lo-o-o-ong hours later. (The #1 car was basically insurance…or was until its accident). This is classic endurance-racing strategy…and it might have worked, too (the #3 car was as high as fourth in the middle of the night, a third of the way through the race), if…if only….
The #2 car lasted until noon the next day, only four hours from the end. It had been much delayed by a chance encounter with a sandbank (and subsequent repairs to its right front fender), and was in twenty-something place, when the engine let go with a loud bang as Windridge thundered past the pits (the same car had lost an engine in practice). Thompson later admitted to using the engine to slow the car after its brakes had started to fade. All eyes were now on the remaining #3 Fitch/Grossman car. It was holding its own and anticipating a top-ten finish, when it started overheating. Although no one knew it at the time, Alfred Momo had been right: the bushing bearing supporting the distributor shaft was wearing out (as Momo predicted it would), allowing the distributor to advance the spark several degrees, causing the engine to lose power and overheat.
Without tearing the engine apart, nobody could analyze the problem (it was initially reported as a blown head gasket…and compounded when a mechanic recklessly unscrewed the red-hot radiator cap), so the best they could do was add more water to the radiator when it boiled off as steam. The problem was that the rules of the race said you could only add water (or oil; the #2 car may have run out of the latter) every 25 laps. But the #3 car would start to overheat after only a few laps. What to do? Legend has it that Briggs, who had both a deep distrust of French cuisine and a love of ice cream, had parked a refrigerated ice cream truck behind the pits (along with 27 tons of spare parts and equipment) full of his favorite flavors. That much is true. In the fairytale version, Momo is seized by a beautiful vision, and starts packing ice cream around the engine every ten laps or so, and the #3 car charges back into the race dripping chocolate, vanilla, and (Briggs’ favorite) strawberry.
The truth is somewhat more mundane, but no less ingenious. Momo packed the dry ice from the ice cream truck into the engine compartment (the rules said no fluids), which would then last until they could legally add water to the radiator. To combat overheating, they slowed the car way down, but it had to maintain a minimum average speed or be disqualified. Lap times stretched threefold, to almost 15 minutes per lap. Somehow, Fitch and Grossman kept the #3 car alive and still in eighth place to the finish, albeit 285 miles (33 laps) behind the winning Ferrari. Not a very glorious end.
So, after ten years of trying, Briggs was back where he started: a massive effort ending in a mediocre result. Disgusted with Chevrolet (he would never race a GM car again, although he stayed very much in racing for years thereafter; he died in 2003 in his nineties), Briggs gave the three race-weary Corvettes to his old friend Bill Frick (who had built the hot-rod Briggs had tried to enter in 1949) for disposal. The remains of the #1 car, minus its charred fiberglass body, were said to have ended up in Florida with a Devin fiberglass replacement body, its provenance lost in the sands of time. The disappointing Duntov-prepared engines went back to GM and the original engines (which had come with the cars) were reinstalled (although Frick didn’t bother to reunite the correct engines with their original chassis). The #2 car was sold to a guy who worked for the National Zinc Company in New Jersey. The number #3 car went through seven oblivious owners before winding up in the hands of one Chip Miller, a certified car nut and the impresario of a Corvette swap meet in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (although “swap meet” doesn’t do it justice; it covers hundreds of acres, features thousands of vendors and tens of thousands of visitors each year). The #2 car also wound up at this gathering of the Corvette faithful in Carlisle, but that’s later in this saga of paradise found, paradise lost and paradise regained.