The Original Cadillac Motorsports Heroes By Don Sherman
Cadillac recently ended a fifty-year racing hiatus with the on-track debut of its Northstar LMP endurance racer. Fifty years ago, in June of 1950, Briggs Cunningham and Phil Walters co-drove a custom-bodied Cadillac to an honourable eleventh-place finish in the 24 Hours LeMans, one of the world's toughest and most prestigious motorsports events. This is the story of their lives and competitive times before and after that long-ago LeMans.
Briggs Swift Cunningham II was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1907 to a family that had earned a fortune in shipping, meat packing and banking enterprises. After his father's passing in 1912, trust funds paid for the finest private schools and tutors. In college, Cunningham enjoyed engineering studies but stumbled over the maths. In 1929, he dropped out of Yale, married his sweetheart and began pursuing two passions – fast cars and international-class racing yachts.
Cunningham’s career as a driver and team owner began in earnest in 1948, when he purchased the first Ferrari imported to America. After scoring second place finishes in the first and second Watkins Glen (New York) Grand Prix events in 1948 and 1949, he began dreaming of conquering LeMans with a team of American cars and drivers. Luigi Chinetti, winner of the 1949 twenty-four-hour epic and the man who sold him his Ferrari, urged Cunningham to enter the 1950 race.
Cunningham's initial plan was to use a Cadillac-powered Ford, but French officials scotched that idea. When Cadillac's chief engineer Ed Cole volunteered support for a two-car team of race-prepared Cadillacs, Cunningham chose that option, not in hope of an overall victory, but to gain experience that might prove useful for constructing his own cars in the future.
Cunningham's co-driver, Phil Walters, was born in 1916 in New York City and raised in a suburb of Long Island. He began fiddling with hot cars as a teenager and soon developed an insatiable appetite for street-racing. Using the assumed name of ‘Ted Tappett’, Phil talked his way into a ‘midget’ ride and won first time out. His record was remarkable - eleven wins and eleven seconds out of forty-five starts in his first season, followed by twenty-six consecutive victories the next year.
Drafted in 1942, Walters flew gliders and C47 transports in the Second World War before being shot down during the invasion of Holland. Ironically, the German surgeon who saved his life by removing a lung and a kidney had watched Walters win a Philadelphia midget race five years before. When he returned home after hostilities had ceased, Phil weighed 130 pounds - not counting the Air Medal, Purple Heart and seven Bronze Stars pinned to his chest.
Before the war, Phil Walters was known for manhandling his machine in the turns. After the war, lacking the energy reserves to support such a technique, he drove as smoothly as possible. Much to his surprise, the newer style was significantly faster. In 1949, he and his partner Bill Frick created Fordillac (Cadillac-powered Ford) hybrids to tow their racers from track to track. Ultimately, over 200 were built and sold, including one to Briggs Cunningham. Another was purchased by Howard Weinman, the Grumman Aircraft design engineer who collaborated on the construction of the Cadillac LeMans racer's special bodywork.
Walters and Cunningham met at the 1949 Watkins Glen race. Until Briggs mentioned his dream of racing an American entry at LeMans, Phil had never heard of the place. Cunningham soon thereafter commissioned Frick-Tappet Motors to prepare two Cadillacs for the French race and tapped Walters to share driving responsibilities.
Modifications for the special-bodied Cadillac included a three-speed manual transmission, a five-carburettor intake manifold, commercial-chassis brakes, a radio for car-to-pit communication, extra instruments and a 2.90:1 axle ratio. Unfortunately, the transmission's unsynchronised first gear could not be used to accelerate out of the tight turns so lap times in the lighter and more streamlined Cadillac were initially slower than the stock-bodied series 61 coupe driven by team-mates Sam and Miles Collier. As a stopgap, a stock 3.77:1 axle was installed to improve acceleration.
On the second lap of the race, Cunningham miss-judged a corner and spent half an hour digging his car out of a sandbank. That dropped ‘Le Monstre’ - as it was derisively nicknamed - down in the standings, ultimately finishing eleventh, just behind the Collier brothers' stock-bodied Cadillac.
Walters and Cunningham were nonetheless encouraged by the results and work began to fulfil the original dream - an all-American racing car capable of winning the French classic, campaigned by an all-American team.
The first prototype rolled out of Cunningham's West Palm Beach, Florida, shop late in 1950. When General Motors refused to supply engines, Cunningham tapped his Yale classmate and son of Chrysler president, K.T. Keller, to help arrange alternative power. At LeMans in 1953, Walters and John Fitch drove a thundering Cunningham C-SR to a third-place finish while Briggs co-drove a C4-R to seventh. The team's C-4RK finished tenth. The next year, Cunningham entries finished third and fifth.
The turning point for both Cunningham and Walters came in 1955. Walters signed a contract to drive for Ferrari in major sports car and Formula One events following LeMans. Barely two hours into the twenty-four-hour race, the sight of a flaming Mercedes hurtling through the air and into a crowd of spectators radically altered Phil's plans. Eighty-three fans were killed instantly and another sixteen died later, in racing's worst ever accident. "I decided at that point," remembers Walters, "if that’s what can happen in this business, I think it's time to get out. So I retired right there on the spot." Walters took up a more sedate profession - selling Volkswagens on Long Island. Today he lives in Florida.
After spending five years and a fortune trying to win LeMans with an American-built car, Briggs Cunningham concluded that heavy American engines and fragile domestic transmissions could not compete successfully against the best European efforts. He sold his Florida factory in order to handle distribution and racing activities for first, Jaguar and then Maserati. That began ten years of success and glory for Cunningham and the drivers that prospered under his team's stewardship. Aces Walt Hansgen, John Fitch, Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Augie Pabst, Dick Thompson, Bruce McLaren, Roger Penske and others drove the blue-over-white Cunningham cars which were usually the best prepared and supported machines on the track.
Three Corvettes wore Cunningham colours at the 1960 LeMans race, though only one survived to finish first in the GT class and eighth overall. The following year, Maseratis carried Cunningham drivers to fourth- and eighth-place finishes. Behind the wheel of a Jaguar E-Type, Briggs and co-driver Roy Salvadori finished fourth at LeMans in 1962. After a heavy crash in '63, another E-Type shared by Cunningham and Bob Grossman came in ninth. Recognising his exemplary sportsmanship, the city of LeMans, France, named Cunningham an honorary citizen. In 1967, only two years after he finally peeled off his driving gloves and hung up his helmet, his dream was realised: a Ford Mark IV driven by Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt won LeMans. Suffering poor health, Cunningham now lives in Nevada.
This June, when the green flag signals the start of the 69th LeMans 24 Hours race, a Cunningham will once again lead the way. To honour one of the most influential sportsmen in American racing history, Cadillac named the modified Seville chosen to pace this year’s race an ‘STS Cunningham Edition’.