Le Mans: Twenty-Four Hours of What?

RICHAHD BENSTED-SMITH is an authority on sports cars and motor racing, and is the editor of the British weekly THE MOTOR.

The twenty-four-hour Grand Prix of Endurance at Le Mans, torn between spectacle and reality, does not know where it is going. On one hand are the organizers, intent on providing excitement for the quarter of a million spectators who swarm annually to the circuit. On the other are the competing manufacturers — or, at any rate, some of them — for whom spectators on the spot are secondary to the millions who, even if they are not interested enough to read about the race, will absorb its results. But manufacturers do not all make the same kind of car. A victory for Ferrari or Maserati will sell expensive and recherché “grand touring” vehicles as nothing else can, but a win by Jaguar or Mercedes brings in publicity for a whole range of touring sedans. Not unnaturally, these factories’ views on what kind of car should be raced to spread the good word about their bread-andbutter line are not always the same.

The taint of commerce has been part of motor racing since very shortly after the arrival of the automobile, so it is no surprise to find that the first Grand Prix of Endurance in 1923 was supported by a number ol manufacturers’ teams. Names since forgotten, like La Lorraine, Chenard-Walcker, and Excelsior, topped a list of thirty-three starters, including a single Bentley — also a works car. All of the cars were, basically, stock production models, but in those days, when the Henry Ford scale of production had only recently hit Europe, “stock” had a good deal less significance than it does today. Most were expensive and built in small numbers. Compared with the Model T tourer of much the same size at £120 in England, a Lorraine cost £775 and a sports Bentley £1295. Bentleys were custom-built by the handful. It was clearly in their maker’s direct interest to offer his clients a virtual replica of the car on the track, and was no great trouble to do so.

The circuit, too, was very closely representative of the driving conditions of its day. A triangle of narrow, dirt-surfaced public road almost eleven miles long, running into a hairpin in the outskirts of Le Mans, it was rapidly churned into mud by four hours of heavy rain. During the first twenty-four-hour race, when the Bentley ran out of fuel, die driver, having run three miles to his pit, slung a couple ol cans of gasoline over his shoulder and made his way back to the car on a bicycle. Le Mans was a road race. The most remarkable feature of the 1923 race, in fact, was that only four of the thirty-three starters failed to finish. Compare this with thirty-seven retirements out of fifty-five at the start in 1962 for an insight into the ordinariness of the competing cars, remembering especially the state of the road. On the other hand, the most recent winner covered almost twice as many miles as the best car of 1923.

In the next few years the organizers did their bit to establish the race as a test of practical touring vehicles. The sedan was by no means a novelty in the twenties, but its early perpendicular style was neither glamorous nor aerodynamic. If you had sporting pretensions, you bought a car with an open body and a soft top, often of immense complexity, leaning heavily on traditional babycarriage principles. Fashionable fast cars, particularly from Britain, had their gearshift outside the body, or at least outside the driver, who had no door of his own.

Taking a long look at all this, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest introduced the famous Le Mans start, wherein the cars were lined up in echelon on one side of the track and the drivers on the other; every driver had to sprint across the road, leap in, raise the top singlehanded, and keep it there for the first twenty laps. The Motor, slightly partisan, reported a Bentley pit stop in 1927: “The hood was stowed away and properly clipped down in 35 seconds only, while the total stop, during which 27 gallons of petrol were taken in, lasted only 3 minutes 23 seconds — a really wonderful achievement. . . . In marked contrast to the crews of the Bentleys, the drivers of the big Ariés took nearly six minutes to fold their hoods, fill up and change drivers.”

Putting the top up. seldom less than half a minute’s work, was a useful way of making sure that drivers were in their cars and out of the fairway before anyone farther down the line came through with a full head of steam. It is a perennial mystery that no one has been swept off his feet since the top-up rule was suspended in 1928 and Le Mans began a prolonged withdrawal from its louring principles, giving ground to speed at any price as the performance of sports cars naturally increased. First the hairpin was bypassed, then a new loop of private road built and the whole circuit resurfaced to a boulevard smoothness, which has made road-holding ability a quite minor virtue in the race.

The abuses set in seriously after World War II, when the hustle to sell sports cars in the newly discovered gold-mine market of North America inspired the “prototype rule,” admitting cars with no relation whatever to the current showroom offerings, simply on the manufacturer’s undertaking to put them into production if they proved successful. Prototypes, bound by vestigial regulations concerning passenger space (around two seats), the number of lights, and the size of the windshield, were justified reasonably as a means of testing new developments before production, and less reasonably as presenting a better spectacle of their far greater speed. After a year or two of racing with prototypes, of course, it was much easier to claim that by eliminating them Le Mans would lose its glamour. Equally obviously, no manufacturer could be forced into selling or even building facsimiles of the car he had raced, whether or not it had been successful.

The prototype concession was directly responsible for a new kind of automobile, which was to hold the international stage for a good ten years. Classified as a sports car, it was little more than a pure racing car supporting two seats and lighting equipment, designed from the start for competition within the new rules and frequently quite unusable on a public highway. A car competing at Le Mans, Sebring, or any of a dozen other major events during the fifties could have no trunk space at all, microscopic ground clearance, and a vast turning circle, headlights too low for any legal standard, and a windshield cut down so that the driver could look over it without strain. The biggest machines, being unrestricted in engine size, were often faster than the Grand Prix single-seaters of their day, and there was no doubt about their value as a spectacle.

Were they, or are they, useful? Without attempting to analyze the states of mind of either the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or the Le Mans organizers, who have between them juggled the rules in every direction and very nearly come back to their starting point, consider two case histories. The Jaguar CType and D-Type cars which won at Le Mans five times between 1951 and 1957 were designed quite openly for that purpose; a small number of C-Types were subsequently produced, but although they were perfectly drivable in traffic, it is doubtful if more than half a dozen were bought, except to be raced in similar events. Sir William Lyons of Jaguar and his chief engineer, W. M. Heynes, have publicly favored the admission of prototypes because to abolish them, in Heynes’s words, “would not only take most of the interest from this race, but it would also lose to the manufacturer a most valuable proving ground where he shows to the world the extent of the advance of automobile engineering technique which has been achieved by the company over the past year, and if the company abides by the spirit of the prototype rule, these cars, if successful, eventually become production models.” In 1960, Briggs Cunningham entered a car “specially built" for him by Jaguar that was, in reality, a prototype of the extremely practical E-Type, now being produced in quantity.

The opposite extreme, of rank absurdity, is a good deal easier to find. A fair example might be one of the “birdcage” Maseratis (so named because of a chassis built up from two hundred separate lengths of bicyclesized tubing — “If the canary can get out you must have forgotten one”), which competed in the 1960 race at Le Mans. In a desperate attempt to make racing sports cars look like road-going automobiles, the organizing club had specified windshields ten inches deep. The Maserati answer to this compulsory air brake was to slope the windshield four or five feet backward from a point almost over the radiator, seating the driver just high enough to see over the top if it rained. The entry was quite legitimate since the rules of that year did not require an undertaking to develop a production car, and no road-going Mascrati has ever been remotely comparable.

In 1962, after a start had been made in getting back to normal by encouraging production of grand touring cars, some astute management of the international regulations effectively reversed the trend. At Le Mans, prototypes with 4-liter engines competed for the same outright award with grand touring cars restricted to three quarters of that engine size (both categories, incidentally, were too small for any competitive American car). Jaguar held back officially, their E-Type being too big to run as a grand touring car and too civilized to stand up to cars designed from scratch for racing. Aston Martin ran a single, genuine prototype road car and came home with valuable experience but no glory. Both firms have stated if Le Mans were organized for production of grand touring cars only, they would happily contemplate a full return to racing. Ferrari won the Grand Prix of Endurance at a comfortable average of 115 mph with a production engine in a pure racing chassis. Second, less than 2 mph slower but infinitely less exciting to watch, came a fully equipped, weatherproof, closed-coupé Ferrari which any man with something over $15,000 and a pair of earplugs may confidently order from his dealer.