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There aren’t enough people like Derek Drinkwater in historic racing any more.
Now the grids are made up either of the offspring of wealthy enthusiasts or pros who look upon vintage as another formula with which to bolster their CVs.
Both groups want to run the most competitive cars possible, which, aided and abetted by the powers that be, has created a situation where the building of replicas is actually encouraged.
The pace might be fast and furious, but the races tend to lack authenticity or variety – the upshot being that you can’t look at a Shelby Cobra or a Ford GT40 without questioning its origins.
It’s therefore refreshing to find a chap not in his first flush of youth, and with a reasonable but not huge budget, wanting to recreate not only an ugly car, but an uncompetitive one to boot.
“I really wanted to race at Le Mans,” Drinkwater explains. “Looking at all the cars we couldn’t afford, we decided on a Cadillac like the first Cunningham entries.”
We being Derek and wife Pat, who is undoubtedly his equal where the passion for big American vehicles is concerned. “We also wanted something unusual that organisers would look on favourably,” she adds.
The Drinkwaters are no strangers to unusually large, attention-grabbing American automobiles.
Their catering business has featured a number of strange converted vehicles over the years, most memorably a Peterbilt-hauled petrol tanker turned into a bar, all dreamt up and executed by Derek: “My folks were in mobile catering – Mum food, Dad vehicles – so I got involved early. I was welding by the age of 14, and driving trucks long before I should have.”
Visitors to Gasoline Alley at the Goodwood Revival will have seen his handiwork in the form of their burger-dispensing fire engine.
Derek, like his muse Briggs Swift Cunningham, was a keen young sportsman, including on water.
Though not quite in the Americas Cup like the Ohioan he was still a competent rower and worked with the national squad, but the aspect he really enjoyed was the preparation of the boats.
Ditto in the cycling that followed, the equipment became as much of the appeal as the competition.
Cars were part of Drinkwater’s youth and his first forays into motorsport involved drag racing a Rover V8-powered Capri in a series built around the powerplant.
“I called my ‘team’ KMA Racing,” he recalls.“Kiss My Arse… Well, I was only 18! I went everywhere: Shakey [Shakespeare], the Pod, all the way up to York only to get knocked out in the first round.”
Fast American road cars came and went until in 2013 he eventually took up historic racing, first with a Ford Mustang and then a 1964 Galaxie.
“The Spa Six Hours had always been on my list so I was delighted in 2015 to not only enter but also finish. I changed the brake pads halfway through, but I achieved what I set out to do.”
He and Pat were hooked, and before the end of the year the vessel of their next adventure was already on the water: a 1950 two-door Cadillac.
“Pat is my finder,” Derek confesses. “She scours the internet and is constantly turning up the most unlikely things.”
Such as a super-rare three-speed manual Caddy Coupe like the one used by Briggs Cunningham at Le Mans.
When Cunningham first took on the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1950 he did it using a pair of Cadillacs, General Motors’ flagship marque.
The wealthy, blue-blooded American entrepreneur had been involved in racing for many years through his friendship with Yale University chums Miles and Sam Collier, founders of the Automobile Racing Club of America (later the SCCA).
Legend has it that it was a conversation between the three of them that led to Cunningham’s name being associated with the classic French enduro for 13 years.
At first they considered entering a pair of Fordillacs, a hot rod consisting of a ‘shoebox’ Ford coupe powered by a Cadillac 331cu in V8, but the Automobile Club de l’Ouest rejected the notion on the grounds that it wasn’t a production model.
Ed Cole, then president of Cadillac, got wind of Cunningham’s application and offered him a pair of Series 61 Coupes (with a 122in wheelbase, the shortest of the company’s full-sized range) equipped with the optional three-speed gearbox.
Having just bought Frick-Tappet Motors, creator of the Fordillac, Cunningham engaged the firm to prepare the two Caddies, one with a stock body and the other as a roadster.
As long as the car retained its original chassis and running gear, it would be allowed by the organisers.
Within earshot of Frick-Tappet was the rather bigger aeronautical concern of the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, a company of enthusiastic experts, a dozen of whom would spend three hours a night building the special’s slab-sided body.
In profile it looked like the cross-section of an aeroplane wing and, though vaguely aerodynamic, it was far from pretty. The French press christened the roadster ‘Le Monstre’.
Two days before the race it was involved in an unfortunate road accident at, of all places, Arnage Corner when racing driver Phil Walters and his passenger, the daughter of ACO secretary Raymond Acat, collided with a short-sighted farmer and his cart.
Nobody was hurt, though hasty repairs had to be made before the team honourably acquitted itself in the race.
The Collier brothers finished 10th overall in the regular sedan known by then as ‘Petit Pataud’, roughly translated as Little Clumsy; Walters and Cunningham took 11th.
They might have placed better had Briggs heeded Miles’ advice and stowed a folding shovel onboard: on the second lap he pitched the aesthetically challenged brick into the sandbank at Mulsanne Corner and lost half an hour digging it out with his bare hands.
Neither car raced again, but a bond had been cemented between the suave Americans and the French enthusiasts.
On the setting up of The Cunningham Museum, veterans from the 1950 race were gathered with other Cadillac- and Chrysler-powered racers bearing the Cunningham badge, along with the Jaguars and Maseratis that wore the blue-and-white livery he made famous.
Cunningham was a formidable collector of classic cars and after his death in 2003 the exhibits were taken on by Miles Collier, who had amassed an enviable collection of Porsches in Florida.
In recent times it has since morphed into the Revs Institute and it was there that the Drinkwaters first saw the real racing Cadillacs.
It took a while for Pat to find a donor car for the coupe racer but eventually one turned up in Seattle.
Hassles with wire transfers led to them fly over to collect the low-mileage, ultra-rare Caddy in person, and a subsequent road trip to friends in Oregon ensued before putting it on a boat in San Francisco.
Derek had already entered the 2016 Le Mans Classic, despite not actually having the car in his possession.
Another Caddy, a four-door version, was acquired primarily for spares, but also as a shipping container for yet another project the couple had instigated.
“I cleaned it, checked the brakes and changed the oil,” Derek remembers. “It was a much better car than I thought and had only done 8500 miles since 1950, so we drove that to Le Mans behind the rig.”
Derek quickly turned the coupe into a racer in a fashion not dissimilar to those over-dramatised car restoration TV shows.
“Because I wasn’t doing anything radical, and basically working with what I had, it was pretty straightforward,” he says.
He had taken hundreds of photographs of the original so knew exactly where the bonnet straps should go, what colour the door panels were; attention to detail and accuracy were high on his list of priorities.
One decision he regrets is the farming out of the rebuild and preparation of the 5.4-litre V8.
“It was nearly our downfall and really disappointing given what a good reputation the company had,” he says. “I’d barely left the pitlane before I knew it wasn’t right; I did a lap and came in.
“The team, dressed in period embroidered white overalls, was telling me to go out again, which thankfully I did, but I pulled over just before the Dunlop Bridge. Thing was, I’d passed the start line twice so had qualified.”
The engine was toast but, in true never-say-die fashion, its demise only signalled the start of the next big adventure.
“The Caddy was recovered back to the campsite and we hatched a plan.
“By the time Pat had been and bought an engine hoist we had the motor ready to take out. By 3am we’d swapped the engine from the four-door into the two-door. We were going to race,” he remembers with understandable pride.
Excited at having got the coupe on the grid, Derek bolted across the track and was third away from the traditional Le Mans start.
With the untested stock motor propelling the big Caddy, the idea was to take it easy and just get to the finish.
Until the last session, when Drinkwater found himself embroiled in a titanic battle with the Lancia Aurelia of Jason and Louise Kennedy.
“I just decided to let it go,” he admits.“It was like a battleship but I was catching Louise. Apparently she took 17 secs off her best laptime trying to escape, but I kept reeling her in. I got past and promptly spun in the middle of the Porsche Curves because the gearshift broke.”
He limped across the finish line to realise a dream. Remedial work to the column-mounted shifter done, four-door loaded on to the trailer, he was ready to drive his race car home.
As is the way with these things, Cadillac parts started coming their way, including a chassis found in the West Country complete with running gear and spare engine. And for which Derek had grand plans.
Pat takes up the story: “When he told me he wanted to build a copy of Le Monstre I said no. A few weeks later we were at the Revs Institute taking pictures of the original. So much for His Master’s Voice!”
Once Derek gets the bit between his teeth he becomes pretty obsessed. So much so he entered the 2018 Le Mans Classic without submitting any photos – because there wasn’t a car to photograph.
“The people at Revs were outstanding, Paul Kierstein couldn’t have been more helpful,” says Derek. “They sent me copies of the team’s driving notes listing the gears and revs for every corner on the track.
“We had taken measurements and photos and projected them on to a sheet above the chassis and I worked morning, noon and night but missed the first cut of entries in January.
“Revs wrote to Peter Auto effectively saying they had faith that I’d make it and that they should give me a break. I was in the February cut, so then I really had to get it done!”
Derek fabricated the whole car himself inside five months.
Pat found hot rod rarities for the cockpit, such as winged Stewart Warner gauges and a 6000rpm Sun rev counter, and Derek made the unique five-carb inlet manifold that Ed Cole had designed.
Few compromises were made, but for an electric fuel pump and fan, and 15in wheels instead of 16s due to availability of rubber.
The headrest is 2in taller than the original because it now hides a roll hoop that would actually save the driver, should the unthinkable happen.
At 1678kg, compared to the 1820kg of the Series 61 Coupe de Ville, Le Monstre is no lightweight but Derek claims it is a lot easier to drive.
“It turns in like a kart, the coupe you have to set up for a corner miles in advance. Without a limited-slip diff and only 160bhp it’s not quick out of slow corners, and the column gearshift is painfully slow – it simply can’t be rushed. You have to stay off the kerbs or the jolt will tip it out of gear, but the more I drive the more I trust it.”
Sadly, 2018 wasn’t to be as successful as 2016 and, after an eventful weekend, team Drinkwater and Le Monstre were a DNF.
The master kill switch failed in the collecting area, but after borrowing a Swiss Army knife from a member of the crowd they changed it in time to join the back of the grid.
“There was a roar from the fans when it fired up,” recounts Derek. “No doubt about it, we are entertaining! A guy from racewear firm Stand 21 asked if he could sit in the car. It turns out that he sat in the original in 1950.”
The car ran like clockwork for an hour but the dual master cylinder started to weep through a seal in the pot serving the rear brakes.
Derek ran for a while during the night session but in the early morning plateau his co-driver prudently retired the car before the front brakes followed.
Derek, Pat and their army have unfinished business in France. They might not win next time but, rest assured, it won’t be boring.
Images: Olgun Kordal