Images courtesy Geoff Hacker.
Famed auto design instructor Strother MacMinn might not have directly built any of the Le Mans coupes he intended to compete at the race of the same name, but he left behind enough inspiration and information for pretty much anybody to build one themselves, which is exactly what one team of restorers intends to do – to the letter – with one of two Le Mans bodies known to exist.
While some have claimed that MacMinn – who studied auto design under Frank Hershey as a boy and later became perhaps one of the most famous and influential instructors at Art Center School in Pasadena (later Art Center College of Design) – never designed a car for production, his resume includes time in a number of production studios, including the one that Hershey set up to design the 1938 Opel Kapitan. In addition, MacMinn wrote and illustrated articles for a number of contemporary automotive publications, including Road and Track, where he found in editor John Bond a fellow sports car enthusiast.
Bond, frustrated generally at the lack of American representation in the winner’s circle at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (and specifically at Briggs Cunningham‘s lack of success in the race), began in 1957 to use a series of articles in the magazine to explore what it would take to win Le Mans with an all-American car.
Over a series of four articles, aided by a team of engineers, he drew up a list of specifications: 88-inch wheelbase, 189-inch overall length, 48-inch tread, 46-inch height. Power would come from a Corvette’s V-8 and, like a modern Corvette, drivetrain layout would consist of a front/mid-mounted engine and a mid/rear-mounted transaxle.
“The frame itself is extremely rugged and simple, being two straight parallel box beams, which keeps the cost down on this custom fabricated item,” MacMinn wrote in his book, Sports Cars of the Future. “Brake drums are Buick, and driven through modified Cord hubs. Even the wheels are made up from standard elements. The entire assembly is as small as practicable to cut head resistance and weight to a minimum.”
MacMinn, reportedly influenced by a prewar Talbot-Lago, put plenty of work into designing an aerodynamically efficient body. To that end, he eliminated louvers, ducts, and handles from the design, integrated the headlamps with the body, and in some versions of his design added a stabilizer fin running down the center of the tail section. Ideally, MacMinn would have liked to have seen the car bodied in Lucite, but he acknowledged that fiberglass would have been a more practical choice. He even made sure to include a section of the body for a legible roundel, noting a trend toward racing number-obscuring body creases over recent years.
The duo and their engineers calculated that the car should be capable of a 180 MPH top speed and a 0-100 acceleration time of 10.5 seconds. For reference sake, the gullwing Mercedes of just a couple years prior had a rated top speed of 160 MPH while the Jaguar D-Type that won Le Mans in 1957 hit 172.8 MPH on the Mulsanne straight.
And the neither Bond nor MacMinn built their proposed Le Mans winner. Rather, much like a former-day Elon Musk with the Hyperloop, Bond and MacMinn released the plans into the wild in an attempt to encourage some intrepid American to take up the blueprints and fulfill the car’s destiny.
According to fiberglass car researcher Geoff Hacker, two teams actually took up Bond and MacMinn’s design, though neither intended to actually take the cars to Le Mans. “They were more interested in building sports cars,” Hacker said. “Mac and Bond visited both teams and clearly preferred one over the other, but because neither team was building the cars to race, they didn’t get involved beyond that.”
One team, led by Ed Tift, only produced one car before calling it quits. The other team, which MacMinn and Bond preferred, was a bit more organized with two aeronautics technicians (Marvin Horton and Ed Monegan) and a fiberglass specialist (Alton Johnson) coming together to build first a clay model then a wood-and-plaster frame for a body mold. (Johnson, who worked for Victress at the time, got fired from that job, reportedly for spending too much time on personal projects like the Le Mans coupe.) Their first completed car, finished in red, appeared on the cover of the August 1960 issue of Road and Track.
Hacker said he believes the group produced about six copies of the Le Mans coupe – his research has turned up five different bodies attributable to Horton, Monegan, and Johnson, and he said small-scale fiberglass body manufacturers at the time typically quit after a half dozen. (Not enough is known about the Le Mans coupe body that became Walter Johnson’s Witchcraft dragster in the late Sixties to attribute it to a specific manufacturer.)
Exactly who began construction of the Horton, Monegan, and Johnson body that Hacker bought out of Illinois in 2008, he hasn’t been able to find out. However, the car, which at one point had been relegated to a junkyard, did come with a set of vellum drawings of the chassis by the team of engineers that Bond had come up with his specifications for the coupe.
Instead of the divorced drivetrain, Hacker’s car came with a conventionally placed Chevrolet 283 and automatic transmission installed in a 1-inch square tube spaceframe. Whoever began the project, however, only got so far before abandoning it. “Some sections of fiberglass are finished, while other sections aren’t,” Hacker said. “They replaced the gullwing doors with a canopy cut into the body, but hadn’t yet cut out the windshield or installed glass into it.”
During his several years of research, Hacker discovered Bond’s original blueprints for the Le Mans coupe in Bond’s archives, which his family transferred to Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. Armed with those, Hacker decided that if he’s going to complete his Le Mans coupe, he might as well complete it in the way MacMinn and Bond intended – as a Le Mans racer and not as a sports car.
“I think it’s the best way to honor everybody involved in designing the car,” he said. “We’ll do it the right way and follow whatever guidelines they set down.”
Not only will that involve sealing the canopy and returning the body to the gullwing-door design that MacMinn specified, completing the Le Mans coupe will involve as many as three different shops (Craig Johnson for the body, JR Speed Shop for the chassis, and Dave Koorey to put it all together) and a two-and-a-half-year timeline.
“But after, what, nine years, I think we’re ready to do it,” Hacker said.