In a test of time and endurance exaggerated by savage heat, two tiny Italian cars went the full distance at Lime Rock, Conn, last Sunday to knock out the Swedish champions at the Little Le Mans classic for small production cars. At the end of eight hours of circling the 1½-mile track nestled in the Berkshire hills the Fiat Abarth Zagatos of the Team Roosevelt came in clear victors over Sweden's Volvos and Saabs, which twice in a row have taken on all comers in this Connecticut counterpart of France's big-car grind.
For the Fiats it was the climax of a season in which they have won all of their major races. Turning out some 47 horsepower from their small, 747-cc. engines (souped-up versions of the 600-cc. power plant in Fiat's 600 sedan), they fulfilled all the expectations of Chief Mechanic Jim McGee, who correctly foresaw the race as a long sprint in which his tiny charges would be going flat out all the way. All through the long, hot night before the race began, McGee and others had pondered the imponderables that lay ahead, tuning engines, adjusting mixtures, striving to foresee the various contingencies that eight hours of climactic strain would bring under a blazing sun. Volvo mechanics decided to rely on thin-air carburetion with a weak mixture, tuning maximum efficiency into their distributors. Saab put its faith in normal operational tuning. McGee gambled that his cars would run fast and hot, and chose a rich mixture with little spark advance for cooler running. Other teams in the seven classes (six production, one Gran Turismo) tuned, checked, rechecked as the night wore on, testing the cars in quick runs down twisting roads, leaving staccato echoes rolling back and forth between the hills.
When the drivers lined up at 10 a.m. for their Le Mans-type running start, the temperature was already in the mid-90s. There was not even a breath of wind to cool the burning air. Hot as it was for all, it was almost unendurable for the Saab and Volvo drivers: to keep the water circulating better in their engines, they ran with the heaters on and emerged at pit stops looking florid and parboiled.
Volvo led almost from the start, and in the early hours of the race had every appearance of another Swedish sweep, with Art Riley and Bill Rutan leading as they had done for two years in the same car and another Volvo close behind. Charles (Skip) Callanan and Roger Penske held third in an Abarth.
August 23, 1959
Another Abarth, No. 83, driven by" Paul Richards, was an early casualty. Midway through the S's it lost both wheel and axle. Stover Babcock came out to takeover and managed to get the car into the pits, with parts stripped from a passenger car. Back in the race eventually, 83 crept up from last place to 17th, with Dick Stoltz and Ray Erickson driving. Richards, meanwhile, joined Ray Cuomo in No. 87, which performed very well.
Dyna Panhard, the lone entry in Class E, seemed to be completely out of it when the car flipped in mid-race, with John Hearst Jr. at the wheel. The car landed on its top, was rolled back onto its wheels and continued the race minus windshield and back window. "It was the coolest car going," Hearst said later.
By mid-race, with the Riley-Rutan Volvo still leading, the Callanan-Penske Abarth had crept to second place, and Cuomo and Richards later backed them up in third place. Behind them, Volvos and Saabs alternated through the top 10.
Then, a little beyond the midway point, the pattern changed. In the 254th lap Bill Rutan came into the pits complaining of spark trouble. He warned Art Riley that he could get nowhere near full throttle. Seven laps later Riley bumped sluggishly to a stop at the S turn and sat resignedly while officials pushed the car a little way back toward the paddock. Riley thought his clutch was gone for good, but to his surprise he got the Volvo moving again and went back to lap the course in 1:23. The assistance he had received by being pushed, however, disqualified him.
Thus Callanan and Penske moved into the lead in Abarth 84, with Cuomo and Richards still behind them. Chief Mechanic McGee pushed his cap back from his dampened brow. "They've got first and second now," he said confidently, "and all three will finish."
The Abarths held on through the rest of the hot afternoon, and at 5:30, half an hour before the finish, the die was cast. Walter Cronkite brought his Volvo in to change a wheel and allow Vern Bennett to take over. Bennett drove in third over-all behind the Abarths, placing first in the sedan class. In fourth place was a Gran Turismo Saab, privately entered and consistently well driven by Alan Dillenberg and John Iglehart. "I think," Dillenberg had said when the race was six hours old, "that we are going to beat the factory cars"—and he did.
Of the other entries, Skoda, the badly dented Dyna Panhard, Anglia, Saab 93-B and NSU Prinz, smallest of the small, all won class prizes.
The winning Abarth turned 334 laps at an average speed of 62.47 mph, covering 501 miles. "This race," said Lime Rock's technical director, John Fitch, "shows many important features of automobile design. These cars are just as they come from the factory—the way you and I would drive them on the road. If they pass this endurance test, they show the public what the economy product can do." To give the small car race added interest, Fitch had put in a sharp right-hand turn at the end of the straightaway which forced all cars to shift to lower speeds (otherwise some would have been able to go all the way around in top gear). With no casualties, relatively few breakdowns and 27 of 34 cars finishing, Fitch could be well satisfied that the Little Le Mans indeed proved what he hoped it would.