Curbside Classic: 1950 Cadillac Series 61 Coupe – The Ultimate Curbside Classic

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(first posted in 2009)

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-plus 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 make sure you request it to be built as this one, with the very rare manual transmission. That, combined with the fact that this car lives outside (and has the patina to prove it), has a rare factory tri-power induction system, and gets driven regularly makes this hot rod Caddy the ultimate Curbside Classic.

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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 the luxury car field; it was the Duesenberg of its time.

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Ever since the late forties, GM’s excellent Hydra-Matic was installed in the overwhelming majority of Cadillacs. The proto-autobox was just the ticket for tooling smoothly down the boulevard, just not for racing. But if you really wanted one, Cadillac would install a three-on-the-tree stick shift. Less than 2% did so in 1950, most of them being ambulance and other commercial-chassis buyers. But there were a few racers too.

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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”; as can be readily seen why.

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.

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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, my jaw dropped and I almost wet myself. 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.

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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 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.

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That rare factory triple-carb setup is courtesy of a 1959 El Dorado-only option. The 365 cubic inch engine is from a ’56, which was already pumping 305 horses from the factory. 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 exactly hold back.

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As we blew by the right-lane traffic on the freeway, the Caddy was still in second gear. This is one 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 summer 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 a little knot of traffic finally put a stop to Mike’s Mulsanne Straight reenactment.

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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 so eloquently, and probably questioned the assumptions (and sensibilities) of the sidewalk patrons in front of the Steelhead Brewery enjoying the summer sunset. But there is something about this hot-rod Caddy that even the most hard-core bicyclists or Prius drivers can’t quite resist its charms; if they’re male, anyway.

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I’ve found and shot thousands of Curbside 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 anymore.”

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Mike is building a new motor for the Caddy, around a 390 cubic inch block. It will still have the the three-deuce carb setup from the 365 engine shown here, so it probably won’t look any different, but it will be a fair bit stronger. I’ll have to catch up with him (and a ride) when its done and installed.

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