By on September 15, 2009

Bob Lutz may well prove that the Cadillac’s CTS-V is the fastest production sedan in the land, thanks to an engine transplant from the Corvette ZR-1. But what about a genuine all-Caddy production racer? Something you could take to Le Mans, and challenge Europe’s finest exotics or just down to the local drag strip, and blow away every production car in its day. You’d have to turn the clock back sixty years, when Cadillac’s new V8 was the hottest engine in the land. But if you were serious about racing with it, like Briggs Cunningham did at Le Mans in 1950, or the original owner of this car, you’d have to request the factory to make one important change, which alone makes this hot rod Caddy the most historically significant Curbside Classic find to date.

Cadillac’s superb OHV V8 arrived in 1949, and became the standard for the whole industry. Pretty much every US pushrod V8 engine thereafter owes it a tip of the hat. Until 1951, when the Chrysler Hemi and Lincoln’s new V8 appeared, the Caddy was the only game in town; it was the Duesenberg of its time.

Ever since the late forties, GM’s excellent Hydra-Matic was standard across the board at Cadillac. The proto-autobox was just the ticket for tooling smoothly down the boulevard, just not for racing. But if you asked nicely, Cadillac would install a three-on-the-tree stick shift. Less than 2% did so, most of them being ambulance and other commercial-chassis buyers. But there were a few racers too.

If you fell in the latter category, you’d make sure it was all wrapped up in the Series 61 Coupe, because it had a shorter 122 inch wheelbase and weighed a mere 3,829 pounds. That made it the lightest Cadillac built until the ill-fated Cimarron and some four hundred pounds lighter than a new CTS-V. Looks can be deceiving.

When the legendary American sportsman Briggs Cunningham received an invitation to race at Le Mans in 1950 (that’s how you got in back then), it didn’t take him long to see that the recipe described above was the ticket. So Cunningham ordered two coupes, with the three speeds, and commissioned an aeronautical engineer, Howard Weinman, to build a special aerodynamic light-weight alloy body for one of them. The result was brutally effective but none too handsome. The French dubbed it “Le Monstre”; you can see why here.

Cunningham entered the stock coupe, too, as a back-up, but drove Le Monstre himself. It sported no fewer than five carbs but the engine internals were bone-stock, as was required back then. A spin on the second lap ended up in a sand bank, and it took twenty minutes to free the beast. Meanwhile, the big coupe roared steadily around the track, topping 120 on the straights, without any major incidents, and went on to take the number ten spot at the finish. Not bad for a bone-stock yank tank mixing it up with specially-prepared sport-racing Ferraris, Jaguars and the like.

I knew of Cunningham’s Cadillac exploits, and saw the coupe and Le Monstre at his museum thirty years ago. So when I ran across this very similar Caddy hunkered down in front of a house in the Whiteaker district a while back, it piqued my interest more than usual. When its owner, Mike, came out and showed me the unusual three-speed, and then raised the hood, I knew I was in the presence of a living time capsule; an early-fifties vintage hot-rod Cadillac.

Mike has been very attached to this car since he stumbled across it in 1972. He was looking for a replacement for his beloved 1949 Caddy fastback coupe, a true classic that was totaled by a drunk late one night. But that one didn’t have the stick shift. Or the hopped-up engine under the hood. Mike knew he had found a keeper.

That rare factory triple-carb setup is courtesy of a 1959 El Dorado-only optional engine. The 365 cubic inch engine is from a ’56, which was already pumping 305 horses stock. Vintage speed parts and a Chet Herbert roller cam keeps this Caddy bellowing way beyond the usual valve-float induced red line. This particular block is a replacement for the one that blew up at 92 mph while still in second gear, on the Woodburn drag strip some years back. I believe him: Mike took me for a ride, and he didn’t hold back.

As we blew by the right-lane traffic on the freeway, the Caddy was still in second gear. This is a long-legged beast; just the ticket for Le Mans. The crescendo from the engine and the two shorty pipes exiting just behind the front door ripped the early evening calm to shreds. As we hit the ninety degree bend just across the river, the lowered coupe took a set not unlike Cunningham’s #3 coupe in the picture. Since there wasn’t a seat belt in sight, my elbow clamped down hard on the open window sill. The faux-ivory tipped shift lever eventually found its way home to third, but traffic finally put a stop to Mike’s Mulsanne Straight reenactment.

A few more short, noisy blasts through downtown on the way back to his house reinforced the mixed metaphors this prophet of Detroit V8 muscle cars-to-come projects, and probably questioned the assumptions (and sensibilities) of the sidewalk patrons in front of the Steelhead Brewery enjoying the summer sunset.

I’ve found and shot over five hundred Curbsides Classics sitting on the streets of Eugene so far, but this is the star to date. It embodies the CC ethos perfectly: it’s parked out front and is a real driver; a genuine living time capsule, not a glossy re-enactment kept safely in the garage. It proudly wears the scars and patina of life lived fully, and is literally dripping with well-earned character. As Mike summed it up succinctly: “If I restored my friends, I wouldn’t want to hang out with them.”

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37 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1950 Cadillac Series 61 Coupe...”


  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Definitely #1 to date.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    Now that is a proper car, even with the drum brakes and vague steering.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Now THAT, Mr. Lutz, is a Cadillac! This, to me, is (or should be) the essense of an American car. Big, bold, durable as can be, and able to fly with (or maybe even without) a little tinkering. Bou would I have loved to hear the bellow of that Cadillac V8.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Great find
    Great article
    Great Car
    One minor point, Olds had a pretty good V-8 then too. (and a much different design)

  • avatar
    geeber

    Great article! Shows how the mighty have fallen…yes, there was a time when Cadillac could credibly claim that it was the Standard of the World. That the car is an unrestored daily driver makes it even better.

    Interesting that the car is LIGHTER than a new CTS-V. I never would have guessed that!

    One question – when you talk about Cadillac being the “only game in town” regarding ohv V-8s, do you mean in the luxury class? Oldsmobile introduced its Rocket V-8 for 1949, too. And I think that Lincoln’s new ohv V-8 debuted for 1952, in conjunction with the all-new (and much needed) body.

    • 0 avatar
      Tinker

      Well it still can,if you mean the WAY we drive a car today. Cadillac was first with a car that had a clutch brake and gas pedal in the proper order, and a standard shift pattern. So you see, they were most certainly the STANDARD of the WORLD. Before Cadillac, you might have a hand clutch as well as a hand throttle, and how you were supposed to shift and steer at the same time, I don’t know.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    EPIC WIN Mr. Niedermeyer.

    However, your link to The Mostre doesn’t work.

    This one does:

    http://www.oldclassiccar.co.uk/photos-racing/lemans14.jpg

    And that thing (The Mostre) was FUGLY as hell.

  • avatar
    davejay

    Good lord; the CTS-V weighs more than the 1983 Mercedes 240D on vacation in my garage? How did THAT happen?

  • avatar
    threeer

    How the mighty have fallen…while I tend to like the CTS-V, it seems, well…un-Caddy-like. Sure, the CTS-V is a damn fast car, but somehow doesn’t seem to embody what a Cadillac should be. Powerful, graceful, larger than life…Caddy should be less interested in taking on the likes of BMW and Audi and look to making the most unabashadly American cars they can. The STS and the redo of the SRX are NOT it…

  • avatar
    NickR

    Could that car be cooler? No, it could not be cooler.

    And until 1951, when the Chrysler Hemi and Lincoln’s new V8 appeared, the Caddy was the only game in town; the Duesenberg of its time.

    Shame on you, especially since ‘Rocket 88′ was, arguably, the first real rock n roll song. I am still not clear on which one actually entered production first, but both the Olds 303 and the Caddy 331 were ’49s. There’s a cool 303 Olds on youtube with a vintage Cragar 4×2 bbl intake. I love multicarb set ups. The 5 carb set up must have looked awesome.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    This classic has started me wondering: was there ever a more robustly designed engine than the 1st gen Cadillac ohv V8 (from the 331 ci 1949 thru the 429 ci version thru 1967). Although I’m a big mopar booster, I saw a lot of these cars in years gone by and cannot say that I ever recall seeing a Caddy of this vintage burning oil. And I saw a lot of older ones in the 60s and 70s in neighborhoods where their owners could not afford much maintenance. I am not sure that there was ever a more bulletproof powertrain than that old Cad V8 and the old 4 speed HydraMatic. Just wondering?

  • avatar
    geeber

    jpcavanaugh: The Olds V-8 was pretty robust, too, although it was unfortunately hooked up to the crappy “Slim Jim” automatic transmission from 1961-64.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    NickR: Shame on you, especially since ‘Rocket 88′ was, arguably, the first real rock n roll song.

    The Caddy was the Duesenberg of the time, and the Olds was the…Auburn(?) of its time. The Olds Rocket V8 deserves full credit as being the Caddy’s little bother, but the Caddy did have more power and a better hp/weight ratio. That’s why it went to Le Mans.

    I just shot a terrific ’51 Olds 88, and it will get its day in the sun here soon.

  • avatar
    Mervich

    OK, I just got smacked, right between the eyes, by deja vu. My dad was a Cadillac aficionado. Whilst viewing the photos in this post, I had a flashback to the early 50s and a Cadillac tail lamp assembly with a lower red reflector button that one would push, causing the entire assembly to flip up, exposing the fuel filler cap underneath. I must have been four or five years old. Was this a Cadillac feature, or am I simply delusional?

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Yes it was a feature, Mervich. You have outdone yourself Paul. I await with baited breath the Rocket 88 send up.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    I just shot a terrific ‘51 Olds 88, and it will get its day in the sun here soon.

    Looking forward to it.

    Mervich
    You are correct.
    A lot of hidden filler caps in the fifties. Very creative stuff.

  • avatar
    stickman

    I feel guilty for parking in my garage.

  • avatar

    Paul, you should ping me when you’re writing these tales as I almost always have a photo of historically important vehicles! (of course now that I claim that I’ll not have the next dozen you need.)

    Petit Petaud (The stock Cunningham Caddy)

    Le Monstre from the rear and the front.

    –chuck

  • avatar

    As a pre-driver’s license lad in the early sixties, I saw one of these Caddies languishing in a used car lot. Looking under the hood and seeing the factory multple carb setup, I asked the salesman if I could buy just the engine. After dragging that boat anchor home, I learned more about IC engines than years in a tech school could have ever taught me.
    Thanks Cadillac! You were my idol.

  • avatar

    As a pre-driver’s license lad in the early sixties, I saw one of these Caddies languishing in a used car lot. Looking under the hood and seeing the factory multiple carb setup, I asked the salesman if I could buy just the engine. After dragging that boat anchor home, I learned more about IC engines than years in a tech school could have ever taught me.
    Thanks Cadillac! You were my idol.

  • avatar
    50merc

    jpcavanaugh, geeber — well said! How could GM let itself and its great brands fall so far?

    Few today remember that in the 50′s Cadillac’s V8 was noted for fuel economy as well as power.

    This piece brought to mind that John Bond, founder of Road & Track, had been an engineer at Cadillac.

    Mervich, your mention of the flip-up taillight led me to recall that feature, and how I used to wonder how GM got away with putting an electrical device in such close proximity to gasoline fumes.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Damn!
    That thing utterly reeks of testosterone, Old Spice and T Rex! It hairy pecs, body sweat and pumped! You look at this car and you realize that it is the great grandpa of Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers and 300s.

    The dudes that made this car bombed Germany to smithereens, nuked Japan and gave us the baby boom when they returned.

    We salute you, oh great men!

  • avatar
    Hank

    davejay: Good lord; the CTS-V weighs more than the 1983 Mercedes 240D on vacation in my garage? How did THAT happen?

    Not only that, it weighed only 149 lb. more than a 2009 Camry Hybrid.

  • avatar
    texlovera

    Awesome.

    Just frigging awesome.

  • avatar
    Harleyflhxi

    GM surely needs to return to its roots. Don’t make cars more complicated, just design them elegantly and use top-quality construction and materials. Success will follow!

  • avatar
    CyCarConsulting

    I beleive the hot rod Caddy started in 49

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Thankyou for the link to the picture of the sedanette. My favorite 40s car style. Circa 1970, a bunch of my friends drove a 50 Caddy hearse to the west coast. IIRC, no major issues were incurred with a vehicle that had been driven to death then given a minimum of life support. It did have a 3 speed stick.

  • avatar

    My goodness Paul, I don’t know how you keep outdoing yourself in this series…but you do!

    Thanks for such a great read.

  • avatar
    e85_STi

    A hero’s car.

    Not a plasticity steriod mobile promoted by 2nd rate battery salesmen who some how get promoted to be GM management.

    Back when Colonel and Battle of the Bulge meant something far different than they do today.

    America, bring back the draft … Real cars … AND build quality.

    Lutz? Go back to Switzerland prep school as your alma mater’s headmaster.

  • avatar

    that last sentence is beautiful!

  • avatar
    NickR

    Hmmm, I see the garter hanging from the rearview mirror. If I have my customs right, doesn’t that signify the owner is still a bachelor? Just proves women have NO CLASS anymore.

  • avatar
    postjosh

    http://www.life.com/image/53368722/in-gallery/23056/back-when-cars-had-real-curves

  • avatar

    Not trying to flame, but it’s really depressing that you have to look this far back to find a good GM car. :(

    They’ve been flatly terrible since the 1970s at least, Where did they lose the way? I know the first fuel crisis screwed them up pretty hard, but did they just never recover from that?

    Also beancounters. Lots and lots of beancounters make cheap, horrible cars. GM is the WalMart of carmakers, just like you can’t buy anything worth having, anything that’s not hideously cheap tat – from a WalMart, so goes it for General (Government) Motors.

  • avatar

    The Cadillac came before the Rocket 88. The two engines were designed more or less at the same time, but the Olds V8 was originally intended only for the big Ninety-Eight. Putting it in the smaller chassis of the Seventy-Six was a controversial decision — both Cadillac and GM management were not keen on it — and the “Rocket Eighty-Eight” didn’t go on sale until February 1949, months after the ’49 model year started.

    http://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/family-cars/112-oldsmobile-rocket-88.html

  • avatar

    Also, Cadillac introduced the fuel filler under the taillight trick back in 1941. From a practical standpoint, it was better than GM’s sixties and seventies trick of hiding the filler behind the rear license plate, where it was hard to fill up the tank without getting gasoline backwash all over yourself (I suppose in the days of full-service gas stations, that wasn’t the driver’s problem).

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Is it me, or does Cunningham’s Monstre look a lot like a proto-Can-Am or LeMans car only minus the ff spoiler and the rr wing, and about 20 years ahead of time?

  • avatar
    obamanot

    Hey Mike nice coupe I e-mailed Neidermeyer and got no reply. I have 5 or more Vinty Caddie stories about Eugene. I also have a 1950 series 61 coupe it is Berkshire blue iridescent. I grew up in Eugene. Is this a Cadillac Joe or Doc Ranken car? These are the best cars made and will last another 60 years. JDL


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