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THERE’S A neat story of tops and suitcases associated with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, curiously enough with a gap of 30 years. Here are several of my favorite tales, gleaned from two SAE papers I presented in 2000 and 2003 (“The Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans—the Early Years of a 5.6-Km Open-Chamber Wind Tunnel,” SAE Paper No. 2000-01-3556; and “The Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, 1956-1969: Suitcases, Elevons and Things That Go Bump in the Bodywork,” SAE Paper No. 2003-01-1382).
Already noted (see www.wp.me/p2ETap-1aD), in the early days of this French endurance race, 1924-1927, the event began with drivers sprinting across the track to their cars, erecting the cars’ rudimentary weather protection of the era and then speeding off.
What’s more, these tops had to survive 20 laps of racing. Also, though the cars didn’t carry suitcases per se, they ran with ballast equaling the weight of passengers.
By the mid-1950s, the most potent sports racing cars at venues such as Le Mans were, indeed, dedicated race cars with fenders. Long gone were thoughts of weather protection or passengers.
However, the Le Mans disaster of 1955, in which 83 people perished, caused a reevaluation of motor sports. Beginning in 1956, regulations demanded that sports racing cars become more practical. At least this was the intent; the responses were both innovative and occasionally bizarre.
Gone were abbreviated windscreens, replaced with full windshields, some of which dwarfed their cars.
Metal tonneau covers over vestigial passenger seats were out as well. And sports racing cars had to show proof of weather protection, though the tops were evaluated only during pre-race scrutineering.
Fortunately, these faux tops didn’t have to withstand 20 laps. In 1957, a Panhard D.B. carried an eloquent statement written across its top header. It read, in translation, “Yes, I am a roof, sorry to have cost my owner so much and be so ridiculously useless.”
In 1960, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile went a step further by decreeing the infamous F.I.A. suitcase, a valise measuring 60 x 40 x 20 cm. Cars of less than 2.0-liter displacement needed a trunk capable of carrying one of these; those exceeding 2.0-liter, a pair of them.
One of the more functional suitcase accommodations came in one of the most innovative Le Mans cars, the 1965 Rover-BRM turbine coupe. Actually this was the second turbine to run at Le Mans (a Rover-BRM open car ran demonstration-only in 1963).
The Rover-BRM coupe finished 11th overall at the 1965 Le Mans, driven by Graham Hill and a rising Scots star, Jackie Stewart.
Last, the history of the F.I.A. suitcase would be incomplete, were it to omit the tale of “Le Mans Les 24 Heures du Cyclops II,” by Robert Cumberford, illustrated by Stan Mott, R&T, August 1960.
The Cyclops II paid homage to the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR airbrake—but it also displayed a fine respect for the concept of a dual-purpose sports car. ds
[Corrected August 18, 2013: a typo in the dimension of the F.I.A. suitcase. The 60 x 40 x 20 cm shown here is correct. Also a full reading of the 1968 Appendix “J” makes clear the necessity of larger-displacement cars carrying two of these. I thank fellow enthusiast Geoff Thompson for bringing the original error to my attention.] ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013