First French Foray

Five decades ago, the Chevrolet Corvette made its debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

First French Foray 1
June 15, 2010

In the spring of 1960, the world was experiencing jittery times. In May, a Soviet missile brought down an American U2 spy plane over Russian territory, capturing its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Two months before, France tested its first atomic bomb in the Sahara Desert. The Cold War between capitalism and communism was raging. In international motor racing, a battle was brewing between the Old World and the New. American Briggs Swift Cunningham was preparing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, planning to take on Europe’s finest sports cars with a trio of blue-striped, Ermine White 1960 Corvettes. It would be the model’s first-ever appearance in the French classic.

Though the Corvette was an unknown entity at Le Mans, Cunningham was an established player at the circuit. The wealthy American had contested the race on five previous occasions, from 1951 through 1955, finishing as high as third overall in his own purpose-built specials powered by big Cadillac and Chrysler V8s. This was before the FIA imposed a 3.0-liter limit on engine capacity. Then, in 1960, the French sanctioning body introduced the 5.0-liter GT class, paving the way for Cunningham’s return to Le Mans.

From General Motors’ Corvette clay model embryo in 1952 to successive production-class SCCA championships in ’58 and ’59, Chevrolet’s two-seater had developed the mature muscle and manner that earned its fame as “America’s Sports Car.” This rapid evolution did not go unnoticed by the 53-year-old Cunningham, but he still realized that even the much-improved Corvette would need significant preparation. To perform it, Cunningham turned to the genius of three men: GM’s design and development engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, Corvette race program director Frank Burrell and race-shop tuning wizard Alfred Momo.

The cars started out as standard-production 1960 models fitted with the optional fuel-injected 283 cubic-inch V8, four-speed manual transmission and Positraction rear axle. Other options included the hardtop, temperature-controlled radiator fan, windshield washers and 5.5 × 15-inch wheels.

First French Foray 2

For their initial race prep, each Cunningham Corvette received a larger 40-gallon fuel tank and Bendix fuel pumps in place of the production items. To sharpen handling, Koni competition shocks and a front sway bar were fitted. Braking was improved by equipping the cars with larger drum brakes and brake-cooling ducts. The hood was louvered and fitted with a wind deflector for better engine cooling, while the hardtops were bolted to the bodies to keep them from blowing off. Side-exit exhaust pipes improved engine performance and provided the thunderous roar enthusiasts loved.

On the inside, the standard seats were replaced with aircraft “jump seats” to provide more support and reduce weight. A set of Stewart Warner gauges was placed in a specially fabricated dash plate. Additional switch gear was added, controlling such race items as the fog and running lights. An adjustable steering column was also added.

As part of his rigorous preparation for the French classic, Cunningham conducted a private 24-hour test run at Bridgehampton on Long Island. This bumpy circuit helped determine that the Corvettes’ stock steel wheels were not strong enough. As a result, Momo fitted the cars with Halibrand magnesium alloys. Not only were they stronger, the Halibrands were lighter, and their knock-off hubs allowed for quicker wheel changes. To shorten pit times even more, a wide-mouthed aircraft fuel filler were installed. For straightforward access, a cutout was fabricated into the rear window.

Duntov had urged that his specially engineered aluminum cylinder heads be used rather than heavier, standard cast-iron units. Momo disagreed, and the Bridgehampton test proved him right: The alloy heads did not last the distance. It seemed that the less exotic the engine, the longer it would last, so stock iron was deemed the way to go. Still, it’s estimated that the race-prepped motors were putting out 350 horsepower—60 more than stock.

First French Foray 3

In April, two months before the race, one of the Corvettes was flown across the Atlantic for a test session at Le Mans. Of the cars that took part in the 10-hour test, a Ferrari 250 TRI driven by Phil Hill was the fastest, setting a time of 4:01.4. Cunningham drove the Corvette himself, posting a 4:28.3 lap—good for sixth on the day. His Jaguar E2A was much faster, with Walt Hansgen posting a 4:09.1—third quickest. Cunningham wasn’t one to put all his eggs in one basket; the Jaguar had a better chance at an overall win, especially since Dan Gurney would be Hansgen’s co-driver in the race. With the Corvettes, he was aiming for a class victory.

Cunningham’s proclivity for being prepared included the selection of his team drivers. The six-man Corvette squad was drawn from the best talent in American road racing. John Fitch—ex-Mercedes-Benz pilot and consistent winner—was paired with Bob Grossman in the #3 car. SCCA championship winning dentist Richard Thompson shared the #2 car with Corvette and Lister racer Fred Windridge. The #1 Corvette would be driven by Cunningham himself and Bill Kimberly. In addition, there was a fourth Corvette, entered by Loyd Casner’s Camoradi USA team and driven by Lou Lilley and Fred Gamble.

Facing these Corvette men and machines from the States would be the best of England and Europe. Jim Clark and Roy Salvadori were assigned an Aston Martin DBR1. Ferrari, habitually the marque to beat at Le Mans, was well represented in 1960: The three factory-entered 250 Testa Rossas were manned by Willy Mairesse and Richie Ginther, Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, Paul Frère and Olivier Gendebien, with no fewer than seven privateer Ferraris in the 3.0-liter GT class. Maserati Birdcage pilots included Chuck Daigh and Masten Gregory, and Giorgio Scarlatti with Gino Munaron.

On June 8, the Cunningham Corvettes sailed out of New York harbor aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth bound for France. Records show that the #2 car was intriguingly termed “baggage of Mr. John Fitch” in a May 23rd letter from Cunningham to the Cunard Steamship Company of 45 Broadway, New York City. That one item of “baggage” weighed 3,000 pounds.

First French Foray 4

Once the ship was docked in Le Havre, France, the Corvettes were unloaded and driven—not hauled by a transporter—the 150 miles to Le Mans. It’s amazing to think of these white Corvettes slicing through the verdant French countryside, the blat of their loud V8s ricocheting off the walls of old-world villages. Once they arrived, the Corvettes joined other race entries for inspection—55 in all.

On Saturday, June 25th, 1960, a quarter of a million spectators gathered under rainy skies for the start of the 28th Grand Prix d’Endurance les 24 Heures du Mans. By noon, four hours from race start, it was still early morning in the United States. Chicago’s Comiskey Park would see the White Sox defeat Boston’s Red Sox. In Cleveland, Mickey Mantle would score the only homer for the Yankees in a game they’d lose to the Indians. If you weren’t up for a ball game that particular Saturday, there were movies to see—The Apartment, Psycho, Ben Hur.

The drama at Le Mans began with the drivers dashing for their cars. First away was Clark in the Aston, but it was a short-lived advantage; he could not maintain the point. Lap One’s leading white and blue car might have looked like a Corvette in the distance, yet it was Gregory’s Camoradi-entered Birdcage that streaked past the start/finish line first, followed by Gendebien’s works Testa Rossa and more Ferraris. The Corvettes were already falling behind, but it was far too early to foretell an outcome.

At the two-hour mark, Cunningham brought the #1 Corvette into the pits, handing the seat over to Kimberly. With rain threatening, the team wondered if it should go to wet tires. Both Cunningham’s team manager John Baus and prep-maestro Momo wanted wets, but the Firestone rep argued to save their modest supply of rain tires until they were “really needed.” Kimberly later said the argument seemed to go on for five minutes, though it likely only lasted 30 seconds. When he got the go sign, he charged away from the pits with #1 still wearing drys. On his out lap, Kimberly recalled hitting “a wall of rain” while cresting the hill between Arnage and White House. He promptly lost control, and the Corvette flipped end-over-end twice, landing on its wheels. Somehow, Kimberly survived uninjured; the car didn’t. Despite the downpour, the #1 Vette burned to the ground.

First French Foray 5

Disaster struck the Cunningham team again when hard-charging Thompson stuffed the #2 Corvette into a sand berm at the Mulsanne Corner—as far from the pits as you can possibly be at Le Mans. It took him more than an hour to dislodge the car, its bodywork abysmally damaged, and limp back to pit lane.

As night settled over the track, the leading Maserati’s starter failed during a pit stop and Frère’s Ferrari Testa Rossa took command of the race. The unbelievably fast Camoradi Birdcages also succumbed to mechanical failures (a blown engine and a broken gearbox). However, the Camoradi Corvette was still soldiering on, as were the #2 and #3 Cunningham Corvettes. With a new moon that night, the track was dreadfully dark—only the race cars’ headlights and the fleeting dazzle of lighted pits and Le Mans’ fairgrounds lit the night sky. The rain continued, making for treacherous conditions.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the neon of Broadway was illuminating the New York skyline. Though most people were more concerned with “Bye Bye Birdie” or “The Sound of Music,” a small coterie of race fans were huddled together at Le Chanteclair, former Monaco Grand Prix winner Rene Dreyfus’ restaurant on 49th off Madison, discussing the big race in France. Who’s leading? Who’s out? Are the Corvettes still running? News was hard to come by, however. There was no live television, only spotty short-wave radio. If you wanted to telephone Europe to find out what was happening, your call was $12 for the first three minutes—$100 in today’s cash. Back in 1960, European motor racing was as remote from the U.S. as Mars.

Halfway through the race, as the earliest traces of dawn began to show, 40 of 55 starters were still in the game. Ferraris held the three top spots, with a Jaguar and an Aston Martin following behind. In sixth place overall and first in GT was a Ferrari 250 SWB. The #3 Cunningham Corvette was ninth overall, with Fitch at the wheel. Having flown combat missions over Europe for the U.S. Air Corps during World War II, he was accustomed to piloting fast machinery in the dark. Camoradi’s Corvette was running 16th overall.

First French Foray 6

In the pastel wash of Sunday morning, Windridge was at the wheel of the #2 Corvette, which despite repairs, continued to slough off pieces of fiberglass from the earlier off-course excursion. However, the car’s end came not with a whimper, but with a bang: Its engine grenaded while passing the pits. Windridge missed the escape road and climbed from his dead Corvette as track officials shouted edicts in French on where he should park it.

So now there was only one Cunningham Corvette left. Consistently gaining ground, Fitch and Grossman moved up to seventh overall by sunrise, while the Ferrari Testa Rossa of Frère and Gendebien continued to lead the field. This order remained the same into the afternoon, as the race ground inexorably toward its conclusion.

Then, after 23 nearly trouble-free hours, the #3 Corvette began experiencing problems. Like a horse ridden too far, it was overheating, forcing Grossman to dive repeatedly into the pits. Because the rule book only allowed fluids to be added to cars after 24 laps on track, the Cunningham team couldn’t simply top off the radiator; instead, ice was taken from food and drink bins and hand-packed on top of the tortured V8. The cooling-down effect was working, but just barely.

Momo instructed Grossman to drive at quarter speed, and to pit after each time around the 8.3-mile circuit for more doses of ice. Duntov stood watching in abhorrence each time more ice was applied to the sizzling small block, but with the other two cars out, the team wanted to make sure at least one of its Corvettes finished. Le Mans rules mandated that each entry must complete four laps in the final hour to be classified at the finish, so they had no choice but to continue. Nearby spectators yelled their encouragements, relishing the spectacle of adversity being overcome.

First French Foray 7

In the end, the ice trick worked. The Corvette crossed the finish line eighth overall and fifth among the GT entries. It was the first and only finisher in the 5.0-liter GT class. (The #4 Camoradi Corvette did not cover a sufficient distance and was not officially classified in the results.) Despite its lethargic final hour, the Cunningham car posted an impressive average speed of 97.9 mph. The winning Ferrari Testa Rossa wasn’t all that much faster at 110 mph.

In distant America, it was barely mid-morning. Very few people were yet aware of the gallant showing the Chevrolet Corvette had made in far off France that 26th day of June five decades ago. It would be another 41 years before a Corvette finished so high up the leaderboard, when a factory C5-R also finished eighth overall to win its LM GTS class.

According to Grossman, the Cunningham endeavor had cost an estimated $1 million dollars, as well as the hard work of 50 devoted team members. Had it been worth it? Cunningham had to be disappointed and ecstatic, all in one. An overall win had alluded him, as had the top GT position, but he had succeeding in scoring a class win. More importantly, in that tense final hour of the race, the struggling Corvette had been cheered on by thousands, establishing its international reputation.

The present owner of the #2 Cunningham Corvette, Bruce Meyer, was 18 years old in 1960. He was growing up in Los Angeles’ lively automobile culture, but was not yet into his first sports car (that ended up being a Porsche). Meyer was aware of what transpired that year at Le Mans, but never dreamed he’d own one of the Cunningham entries some 40 years later. “I had known of the car for quite some time,” says Meyer. “I wanted a particular Corvette that had the look—and this one did. I’m a proud American who just loves the idea of an American effort like this one was, along with the other two Cunningham team Corvettes at Le Mans half a century ago.”

First French Foray 8

The car’s post-Cunningham ownership history is far from complete. What is known is that Corvette enthusiast Michael Pillsbury bought it from an Orange County wrecking yard in 1984. Not yet aware of the Corvette’s provenance, Pillsbury intended to scavenge parts off it. But once he grasped the car’s unique combination of big competition brakes, huge gas tank and Halibrand wheels, he felt compelled to buy the car and establish its identity. “Pillsbury soon discovered it was originally white with blue stripes,” says Meyer. “That’s when he went right to Briggs Cunningham to see if maybe this was one of the Le Mans cars, and it was.”

Pillsbury suddenly had a restoration project on his hands. “Fortunately for Mike and the car, and for mankind,” says Meyer, “Frank Burrell was alive and well in Michigan, and still had the original seats, original dash and a bolt of fabric used to upholster the car. It was fabulous, because Frank, Briggs and Zora were all still alive then, and Pillsbury really did his homework on the car. He did an exquisite restoration job on it.”

Pillsbury, it appears, never really drove the car after the restoration was complete, but he did show it a few times before it went on loan to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. That’s when Meyer took genuine notice of the Corvette. He bought it in 2000. “It was in such good shape that all I’ve done is freshen it up,” he says. “Once it was in my hands, Jeff Reed, a Corvette restorer of note here in Southern California, got it mechanically sorted out. The next year we took it to Goodwood for the Festival of Speed and ran it up the hill, and people just loved seeing it, and hearing it! I’ve driven it to several shows and on a couple of all-day rallies. The car is great on the street. If I’m showing it within 50 miles of my home, I drive it!”

When I did the photography on Meyer’s Corvette, it had sat on display awhile in the Petersen Automotive Museum. The battery needed a booster to get it cranked over, and there was a tang of raw gasoline for a bit before the engine cleared. I listened and drew in the essence of what this Corvette was and what it had done so many years ago at Le Mans in the grip of Doctor Dick and Freddy Windridge, even though it whacked a berm and blew its engine. The thing just made me want to jump up and cheer.

Also from Issue 59

  • LMR-tuned ZR1 and C6
  • C6 show car
  • State of the collector-car market
  • Interview: Jim Campbell
  • 1972 LT1 coupe
  • Pratt & Miller LS7/LS9 engine
  • Racing: Laguna Seca ALMS
  • How To: C2/3 frame repair
  • 1965 small-block coupe
  • 1972 LT1 coupe
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