Lime Rock little Le Mans is the curious name of a unique American automobile race that is dedicated to two propositions: 1) good things in automobiles come in small foreign packages, and 2) the beauty of these packages is more than skin deep.
Lime Rock is the name of a village tucked away in the Berkshire Hills greenery of northwest Connecticut and of the 1½-mile road-racing course there. Le Mans, as every racing fan, but perhaps not every general reader, knows, is the name of a town in France, and of the world's foremost endurance race. The Lime Rock event is patterned after the one at Le Mans; hence the race name.
When 34 small passenger cars from six European countries buzzed away from starting positions last Saturday in Lime Rock's second annual 10-hour Little Le Mans, they were setting out on a journey of peculiarly timely interest. Sales of foreign cars in the U.S. are at an alltime high and should reach a total of 300,000 this year, almost 100,000 more than in 1957. Detroit automakers, on the other hand, are awaiting the public reaction to their big new 1959 models this fall with no little anxiety.
It was not all cakes and ale for the manufacturers' representatives at Lime Rock, however, because the race among foreign builders for American dollars is becoming more intense by the day, and car-to-car competition right out in public is hard on corporate nerves. There was a lot of educated guessing about the equivalent in normal highway driving to Lime Rock's 10 rugged hours, with estimates ranging all the way from 50,000 to 200,000 miles. Undeniably the cars faced a stiff test. Engines would be wound up to peak speeds on the straights, brakes jammed on hard at the corners, tires, wheels and suspension systems racked this way and that in the turns.
The sky was cloudless and the air crisp at midmorning as a pack of Swedish Volvos led the field into the first tight turn, but the day soon got hot. Drivers of the four Swedish Saabs promptly turned on their heaters (via the defrosters). This seemed odd until a Saab man risky explained the obvious—that the heaters helped bleed off excessive engine warmth. But then the Saab people, best organized of the entrants, had thought of nearly everything—even a two-way radio hookup between pits and drivers.
Up, around and down, hour after hour, sped the little machines—the largest (Volvo) with a 1,600-cc. engine about one-third the size of a middling American V-8, the smallest (Germany's Goggomobil) with an engine just one-quarter the size of the Volvo's. It was a parade with much variety: three-cylinder, two cycle engines and front wheel drive in the Saabs and Germany's DKWs; vertical two-cylinder, rear-mounted engines in the Goggomobils; flat two-cylinder engines in France's front-wheel-drive Panhards; a flat four-cylinder engine in a seldom-seen German Goliath.
THE DOGGED SKODAS
A Czech Skoda was one of the earliest casualties, but its entrants set an example of persistence that would soon inspire others. First a stone kicked up by the wheels of another car made a thousand tiny cracks in the windshield. The windshield was ripped out (and the rear window, too, for better airflow); later the clutch needed repair. With no chance of winning anything, the car nevertheless stuck it out to the end.
Meanwhile the Volvos, as expected, were running off to a big lead. The 750-cc. Saabs were burbling along smoothly in the second flight, sounding their characteristic pocketa-pocketa exhaust note and fighting off a challenge from a British Sunbeam Rapier.
The Rapier removed itself from contention dramatically in the third hour. Descending the steep, curving slope to the half-mile homestretch, Driver Peter Brown saw the left front wheel fly off. He fought the car to a safe stop on the track's shoulder. Had Peter Brown earned a rest? He had not. An appeal was broadcast to any Rapier owner among the spectators who wanted to do his bit for Britain. One responded immediately—Mr. William Dessereit Jr., of Ridgefield, N.J.—and poor Peter Brown spent the better part of the next two hours repairing the damaged racer with parts stripped from the spectator's car. Brown, English-born and a former motorcycle racer, had to do it himself because of a rule barring assistance in such cases.
While Brown toiled under the noonday sun the white No. 1 Volvo of Arthur Riley, Franklin Square, N.Y. and Bill Rutan, Essex, Conn. moved surely ahead. This was the Volvo that had won the first Little Le Mans last year, and they were its drivers then. The car had some 19,000 more miles on the odometer now; it had been raced hard all year. By the time Brown had his Rapier on the road again, in the sixth hour, the Riley-Rutan car was three laps ahead of the second-place Volvo and going like gangbusters.
Bad racing luck in the sixth hour briefly interrupted the Saab team's big push. Emmanuel Pupulidy, of Freeport, N.Y., a leading sports car driver, had relieved Dick Thompson, Washington's racing dentist, at the wheel of the leading Saab. A DKW spun around as its rear axle snapped, and the Saab hit it head on. Pupulidy nursed his mount to the pits. Mechanics repaired front-end damage and waved it on, but meanwhile the No. 59 Saab of Bob Holbert and Gaston Andre—another pair of swift sports car drivers—had taken a lead on handicap that it would keep.
With the sun westering rapidly now, the strain on drivers and cars was intense, and there were two close calls. A DKW lost a wheel on that tough downhill run to the homestretch and flipped; a tiny Fiat 600 went into the turn at the end of the stretch with too much verve and rolled over on its side. In neither case was the driver injured, and the Fiat, after being pushed upright, kept going, although grotesquely bent.
And if the Lime Rock story of stick-to-itiveness need be further documented consider the case of the Renault Dauphine. Battered already from a flip in practice, it charged out gamely with the rest at starting time only to burn a hole in a piston. This was plugged up hastily with a sheet metal screw, which did expensive things to the cylinder head and didn't last anyway, but the Dauphine's guardians pounded a larger item—a bolt—into the piston and stood by for the finish. With a quarter-hour to go they asked the plucky old girl to try again, and, by George, she made it around to finish.
The winner was that much-traveled Volvo of Riley and Rutan, which completed 399 laps (one more than last year) and averaged a shade under 60 mph. Other Volvos were second and third, with the Holbert-Andre Saab a solid fourth over-all and first on handicap. A beautifully driven Auto Union 1000 (big sister of the DKW) was fifth. Another Saab, a Fiat 1100, a Panhard, a DKW and another Panhard rounded out the first 10, in that order.
Only four of the 34 starters were not running at the end and, all in all, the field earned high marks for endurance.