Six independent US manufacturers who who made their mark at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1/2
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Six independent US manufacturers who who made their mark at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1/2

As Glickenhaus Racing gears up for its first outing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we look back at six high-profile American trailblazers – all independent manufacturers and team owners – who have left an indelible mark on the history of the 24 Hours since 1949. This first instalment reviews the Le Mans achievements of Briggs Cunningham, Carroll Shelby and Jim Hall.

 

I am proud that our small US-based team, with help from our international partners and friends, will be a part of this, following in the footsteps of Jim Hall, Carrol Shelby and Briggs Cunningham,” says Jim Glickenhaus with a nod to his predecessors, who also include Roger Penske and Don Panoz.

These trailblazers are all connected by a remarkable destiny, one that saw them rise to the supreme 24 Hours of Le Mans challenge.

Briggs Cunningham, the post-war pioneer – The heir of an extremely wealthy American family (his father founded the Citizen’s National Bank), Briggs Cunningham (1907-2003) first developed a passion for motorsport while at the Monaco Grand Prix on his honeymoon in 1930! He took up racing almost immediately afterwards, and built his first cars in the 1940s. When the 24 Hours of Le Mans resumed in 1949, one of his main goals was to compete there. He entered two Cadillac coupés in the race in 1950. One of them was presented with its original bodywork, but the second stood out with an astonishing streamlined body. Designed by Howard Weyman, an aeronautical engineer at Grumman, it was dubbed the “Monster” and was driven by Cunningham himself, paired with Phil Walters. They finished eleventh. Just in front of them was the team’s other Cadillac, driven by Miles and Sam Collier. In the following years, Cunningham made it into the top 5 twice (fourth in 1952, fifth in 1954) with a Cunningham C4-R. Its sister car took third place in 1954, with William Spear and Sherwood Johnston at the helm. Before his final Le Mans start in 1963, Cunningham featured in the top 10 another three times, in 1961 (eighth with a Maserati), 1962 and ‘63 (fourth and ninth with a Jaguar). In addition, his team counted three straight wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring (1953, ‘54 and ‘55). Cunningham also excelled at sea, winning the America’s Cup in 1958 as skipper of the yacht Columbia.

PHOTO (TOP): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), 24 HOURS OF LE MANS, 12-13 JUNE 1954 – Placed high up the starting grid (at that time, the cars lined up according to engine capacity, with the largest at the front of the grid.), the Cunningham C4-R driven by Briggs Cunningham & John Gordon Bennett (#1) and Sherwood Johnston& William Spear (#2) finished the 22nd running of the 24 Hours fifth and sixth respectively. (Copyright – ACO ARCHIVES)

 

Carroll Shelby and the Cobra – After serving as a flight instructor and pilot during the Second World War then working as a poultry farmer, Carroll Shelby (1923-2012) rekindled his early passion for motor racing in 1952. He competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two years later in an Aston Martin, teamed with Belgian Paul Frère. After hanging up his racing suit for good, he started building cars in 1962. And thus Shelby American Inc. was founded, with the aim of taking on Ferrari. The winning combination of a British AC chassis and a Ford V8 engine made his AC Cobra one of the most emblematic sports cars of its time. The Cobra Daytona was its natural heir, designed specifically for the race track with a closed, streamlined body and using the same mechanical set-up. It took the class win ahead of the iconic Ferrari GTO at the 1964 24 Hours, with Bob Bondurant and Dan Gurney at the wheel. Ford then commissioned Shelby American to develop its GT40. Carroll Shelby hence added another two Le Mans wins to his list of achievements, this time as team principal. The GT40 Mk II pulled off a 1-2-3 in 1966 (with, in finishing order, Chris Amon & Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme & Ken Miles and Ronnie Bucknum & Dick Hutcherson). The following year, the winning Mk VI driven by AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney was the first car ever to break the 5,000-kilometre mark at the 24 Hours. Carroll Shelby’s legacy is immense, and his story has even been told in film. First, in 1968 with Steve McQueen and his Mustang Shelby in Bullitt, then again in 2019, when Matt Damon played Shelby in Le Mans 66, directed by James Mangold.

PHOTO ABOVE: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), 24 HOURS OF LE MANS.  The Cobra Daytona driven by Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant (#5, bonnet open), fourth at the 1964 24 Hours. Three years later, Gurney won the race at the wheel of the #1 Ford MkIV alongside AJ Foyt, right in the picture, wearing a helmet. Carroll Shelby can be seen standing on the pit wall. (Copyright – ACO ARCHIVES)

 

Jim Hall and Chaparral, the “Texan roadrunner” – Like his illustrious compeer, Jim Hall came from Texas. The oil billionaire was born in 1935 and founded Chaparral Cars in 1961. The company’s name was inspired by the bird that runs through the American desert, rarely taking to the air, and made famous in the “Roadrunner” cartoons. Like the bird on their logo, Chaparral cars soon rose to prominence for their speed and individuality, taking their first wins in the United States, including a triumph at the 1965 12 Hours of Sebring. Chaparral decided to compete in the 1966 FIA World Championship for Makes – and hence the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After a victory at the 1000 km of Nürburgring, the marque’s first appearance in La Sarthe ended with an early retirement for Phil Hill and Joachim Bonnier. The following year, however, the Chaparral 2F and its battery of innovations, was among the favourites. Other than its all-white livery – characteristic of Hall’s cars – and its plastic bodywork harbouring a 7-litre Chevrolet engine and an automatic gearbox, the 2F stood out from the crowd with its huge, adjustable rear wing. Seen for the first time the previous year on the 2E in the CanAm challenge, this wing could be levelled to increase top speed on the straights or pitched up to generate downforce while braking. Two cars were fielded, driven by Phil Hill & Mike Spence and Bruce Jennings &Bob Johnson. During qualifying, Hill and Spence joined in the battle between Ford and Ferrari, and ended up scoring the second-fastest time. Unfortunately, the two Chaparrals failed to make it to the chequered flag on this, Jim Hall’s final outing at Le Mans. However, his legacy endured with the introduction of rear wings on the subsequent generation of sports cars. However, for safety reasons, they were no longer adjustable. We could even say that Chaparral was four decades ahead of its time, prefiguring the present-day drag reduction system (DRS) introduced in Formula One in 2011 for use when overtaking.

PHOTO ABOVE: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), 1967 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. The Chaparral 2F driven by Phil Hill and Mike Spence, seen here at scrutineering. At the top of the struts holding up the wing, you can see the actuators that controlled its pitch. (Copyright – ACO ARCHIVES)