Curbside Classic: 1950 Cadillac Series 61 Coupe

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1950 cadillac series 61 coupe

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.”

More new Curbside Classics here

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3 of 39 comments
  • Robert.Walter Robert.Walter on Sep 18, 2009

    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?

  • Obamanot Obamanot on Oct 20, 2009

    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

    • Carnutz Dave Carnutz Dave on Jul 24, 2016

      Me too and it's also Berkshire Blue with 37K original miles. Email me and I'll send you some pics if you're interested.

  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs
  • Sid SB Not seen a Core without the performance pack yet. Prefer the more understated look of the Core vs the Circuit, but both are great fun to drive.
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