Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Those Amazing Hot Rod Lincolns
I love any race car but I have to admit I am partial to anything Ford but the awesome history of the amazing Lincoln's that dominated the first days of La Carrera are without a doubt high on anyone pedestal. I love seeing the Lincoln's roll into the town square after a long day on the roads of Mexico. Every time I saw one I couldn't help but hope I would see the door open and see Herschel McGriff, Clay Smith, Bill Stroppe or Johnny Mantz come climbing out. The La Carrera affects you this way after you have been there. You race in it, you work at it, you live it, but you can never get enough of it.
(The following article originally appeared in the AUGUST 1, 2004 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.)
Since Johnny Boyd first twanged it out in 1960, and Commander Cody passed it to a new generation some 15 years later, it has been applied to everything from a primered Model A to the forgotten LSC coupe of the Eighties. But the real, honest Hot Rod Lincoln was actually a series of remarkably stock Lincoln Capri hardtops that pulled Ford out of a self-imposed exile from racing that had lasted more than 15years.
It was a glorious return for Ford, as a factory Lincoln-Mercury team eventually rose to dominance in La Carrera Panamericana, the fabled Mexican Road Race, the very last of the great long-distance competitions to be contested on public highways in North America. This Capri, which won the event's final running in 1954, was the race's top-finishing stock car, albeit in the hands of an unheralded privateer who hung on after Lincoln's factory juggernaut came to grief.
In its earliest concept, the Carrera Panamericana was born as something of a national holiday, a world-class race to commemorate the opening of the Pan-American Highway in 1950, by today's standards a primitive strip of blacktop that snaked and arrowed its way through mountains and across deserts between the U.S. and Guatemalan borders. Run south-to-north from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Ciudad Juarez just south of El Paso, Texas, the Carrera began as a stock car race, with most of the entries adhering to NASCAR's year-old Strictly Stock rules. The winner, in an Oldsmobile 88, was Hershel McGriff, who continued racing until he retired in 2002 at age 76, and the lineup also included NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., who partnered with Curtis Turner in a Nash.
Also in the 123-car field was Long Beach, California, mechanic Bill Stroppe, a sycophant of the cam-grinding prodigy Clay Smith, arguably America's first post-war team-organization savant. Stroppe and Smith were maintaining the Carrera entry of Johnny Mantz, who had won the first NASCAR Southern 500, a 1950 Lincoln that was the personal car of Inglewood, California, Mercury dealer and speed enthusiast Bob Estes. The Mantz-Stroppe team was hampered by blown tires and Montezuma's Revenge. But Stroppe was determined to come back.
He would partner with Troy Ruttman in 1951, who, with Smith, would finish fourth in a Mercury lifted from a used-car lot. In 1952, Smith and Chuck Stevenson would team for fifth overall in a Stroppe-prepared Lincoln Capri, the first stock car to finish. Stroppe parlayed his relationship with Estes into a meeting with Lincoln-Mercury general manager Benson Ford, and left with a commitment for a factory-backed Lincoln team to contest the 1953 Mexican Road Race. It would mark Ford's first official race since its team of flathead-powered Millers embarrassingly fell out of the 1935 Indianapolis 500.
Stroppe was loaded for bear in 1953, and mounted a four-car assault with some of America's most feared drivers in the seats: Mantz, Stevenson, Walt Faulkner and Indianapolis 500 winner Bill Vukovich. Lincolns, including privateers, amounted to 22 entries and swept the top four stock car slots, led by Stevenson. By this time, the Carrera had bloomed into a truly world-class event despite its antediluvian geography. International competitors raced everything from brutish 4.9-liter Ferraris to tiny, 1,000cc OSCA roadsters. Umberto Magioli took the overall win in a Ferrari 375, but Lincoln swept the top four stock car spots with Stevenson again leading the way.
This Lincoln Capri, now part of the National Automotive Museum collection in Reno, Nevada, was prepared for the 1954 Carrera under a pall of grief, as Smith was killed when Stevenson's runaway AAA Championship car struck him in the pits at DuQuoin, Illinois. Stroppe and future Ford racing chieftain Don Francisco undertook the preparation of six factory Lincolns and several privateer cars, one purchased by Los Angeles supermarket entrepreneur Ray Crawford, a veteran of several Carreras. Vukovich led the factory challenge.
The hulking, 4,250-pound Capris were prepped to withstand thousands of frequently airborne miles that saw them dodging-or sometimes, not-boulders, burros and buzzards, to say nothing of the screaming hordes lining the course. Double Houdaille shocks were employed at each wheel. Both the 317-cu.in. OHV V-8s, rated at 205hp and fitted with a Clay Smith cam and Ford F8 truck cam followers, and the General Motors-built Hydra-Matic transmissions were dyno-tested. An additional 50-gallon fuel tank replaced the rear seat, and a two-way radio went into the trunk.
Stroppe's preparation didn't anticipate that all teams would be forced to draw their starting fuel from a single tank in Tuxtla that was contaminated with sediments. All the factory cars, save Vukovich's, fell out the first day with burned pistons. Vukovich would later sail off a mountainside to end his race. At Juarez, Crawford took the stock car category over Faulkner, with Magioli again the overall winner, this time over a young Phil Hill.
Few knew it as the dust settled, but the Carrera had raced straight into obsolescence. As Leo Levine recounted in his masterly history Ford: The Dust and the Glory, "The race had become too unwieldy, and crowd control was almost impossible...It was one of the greatest chapters in auto racing history, and one of the shortest."
It also provided the venue for a racing resurgence by Ford, the first step in its rise to eminence over the coming 15 years.