The 9 Coolest Pre-War Le Mans Racecars
As someone who would prefer an 8-track player over Bluetooth, I - alongside many of you, I'm sure - am absolutely fascinated by motoring history; the sort with black and white photos and footage of people walking quickly.
It's hard not to indulge yourself in it every now and then, and the parts of car history which are the most back-shivering to learn are within Motorsports. Anything from the brutal Gordon Bennett races from 1900-1906 to the mad 400km/h German streamlines of the 1930s. Cars and their carelessly brave drivers seem to be looked at as legends who left a hero's mark, as opposed to the social media-craved personalities of today (*COUGH* Lewis Hamilton).
Nonetheless, the Le Mans 24h endurance race was a far more dangerous game to play back in the times of beige corsets and black top hats. And some of the cars that competed back in the early years were mouth-wateringly fabulous! It showed that the various manufactures - some of which no longer exist - put hours of soul, passion and oily engineering skills into creating these enormous brutes.
Coming up now are the top nine- at least in my personal opinion. Enjoy:
1923 Chenard Et Walcker 3.0 litre Sport
People must've been clueless as to what the first ever Le Mans 24h would be like: it must've been a sea of 'what ifs' and 'will this be okay?' I doubt nobody really knew how to make a car that was fast, reliable and efficient enough to be driven repeatedly for 24 hours. I wouldn't have bothered...
But clearly, the engineers including Henri Toutée (designer of the brand since 1906) at Chenard-Walcker had a go. And boy was it worth it! Piloted by Frenchmen, René Léonard and André Lagache, the car with the enlarged 3.0 litre engine had racked up the first ever Le Mans victory.
Clearly, pedigree at this race would become important to manufacturers; Chenard-Walcker became the 4th biggest French car maker by 1926 and a 2.0 litre version of the Le Mans car was sold to the public. Little did they know, that they were about to start some serious trends.
1926 Lorraine Dietrich B3-6 Sport
It seems that the earliest Le Mans victors were of French descent - which is hardly surprising as the race was held in France and all the local car firms wanted to get their names out. And Lorraine-Dietrich was no exception - especially in 1926.
1925 had already been a success, but only a year later would the firm grab the top three places on the grid! All of which were with the sleek B3-6 Sport. With a 3.5 litre straight six making 100bhp, this was a clear recipe for success as these engines proved to be sturdy as well as effective in performance.
Robert Bloc and Andre Rossignol (both of whom piloted the winning car) were subsequently impressed. Which can't be shared with the recent public as the car came up for auction in 2015 with... wait for it... no sale.
But still, it's nice to see who was on top before the Bentley boys came along.
1930 Bentley Speed Six
You probably know a fair bit about the Bentley boys; the fact that they would simply catch a boat to France, win Le Mans and simply get back home for a glass of champagne. If the term 'Ballers' had an origin, then that would be it.
The Speed Six was a fantastic car. Not only did it rack up first place two years in a row, but an 8.0 litre version was also designed to race at Brooklands - thus, piloted by Sir Henry Birkin.
The Le Mans car "only" had a 6.6 litre unit, and proved to be the most majestic racer at the time by claiming victory in 1930, and also dominating the 4.5 litre Bentleys which claimed victories in the previous years.
But it was the Speed Six that takes the credit game for me: because a hardtop was raced by Birkin from Cannes to England - who thought he could beat the Blue Train which would travel from Cannes to Calais. And guess what? The Bentley won!
1931 Talbot AV105
It's all very well naming the victors of Le Mans, but few remember about the underdogs which were just as capable as the masters. Incoming, the Talbot AV105.
In 1931, at the hands of Tim Rose-Richards and Owen Saunders-Davies, the plucky green car managed to get third place at Le Mans. And you've got to remember it was up against the supercharged Mercedes SSK and the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300M - both of which were considerably stronger contenders!
Talbot remained a very competitive name after 1931, but if their strive for Motorsports was to be highlighted somewhere, this was it.
Unfortunately for them however, from 1932 onwards, Le Mans cars were about to get a lot sleeker, and a bit quicker.
1931 Mercedes Benz SSK
Mercedes was in the Motorsports game since day one: they loved to compete in Grand Prix racing and couldn't keep their hands off records and trophies. But only in 1931 with the SSK, were they about to draw their mark at Le Mans.
Powered by a 7.1 litre Supercharged straight 8, the SSK was one of the most powerful cars on the grid, and it made second place in the hands of Boris Ivanowski and Henri Stoffel.
Granted, the team was managed under Ivanowski and not Mercedes as a factory brand, but the fact that the brand had one of their most successful cars gaining even more credit at Le Mans proves that the SSK is one of the best-engineered cars of all time.
You could almost call it two-faced: great at Grand Prix racing, great at endurance racing too.
1935 Lagonda M45R Rapide
You might think of Lagonda as that controversially-styled saloon car in the 1970s made by Aston Martin. But back in the day, Lagonda was an incredibly competitive racing manufacturer with a desire to win.
This showed in 1935 when the M45R Rapide racked up a Le Mans victory piloted by Johnny Hindmarsh and Luis Fontés - both of which were also aviators!
The M45R had a 4.5 litre straight six made by the small English engine and gearbox maker, Meadows. It was a very powerful car, yet it's victory was a little bit controversial.
It was merely a fault from the commentators: they said that Alfa Romeo was in the lead, only to realise the Lagonda was actually ahead by 8km! Silly reporters. At least it shows that Lagonda really had a dominant car.
1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Le Mans Speciale
It's sad to say that this gorgeous looking thing wasn't in any way successful at Le Mans in 1938. It's aerodynamic body designed by Carrozzeria Touring should've given Alfa Romeo a real advantage in the gruelling endurance race, but that - sadly - was not to be.
Tyre issues followed by a dropped valve had forced the car to be taken back to the pits - where it was retired soon afterwards.
Aside the negatives, the 2900B had a lovely 2.9 litre supercharged straight 8 making around 230bhp (290 in Grand Prix form!) and it didn't really matter that they lost it at Le Mans, because the open top versions racked up continuous victories at the Mille Miglia.
Alfa Corsa even took the Le Mans car racing even after the war - where it proved to be competitive. But quickly changed hands into museum ownership shortly afterwards.
But out of all the cars on this list, the streamlined Alfa (in my opinion) is almost certainly the coolest!
1937 Bugatti Type 57G Tank
Next up on this list, we turn to one of Bugatti's most successful designs aside the famous Type 35 Grand Prix car, the Type 57 Tank.
They claimed victory in 1937 with flying colours. Piloted by Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille, beating everything in the field by a huge margin.
The fascinating thing is, the engine and running gear are pretty much identical to the road-going Type 57. A 3.3 litre straight 8 making 200bhp, but wasn't supercharged!
Bugatti also made a huge comeback in 1939 by racing a redesigned version called the 57C Tank - and that was the last car to win Le Mans before the war started. Oh, and it was also piloted by a man called Pierre Veyron... does that name sound familiar to you?
1938 Delahye 135CS
After Bugatti had their victory in 1937, they didn't actually take part in the 1938 Le Mans 24h. Which gave Delahaye an advantage with their fast and nimble 135CS.
So much of an advantage, that they actually won it. Three 135CS' entered and they racked up 1st, 2nd and 4th place on the grid - with a plucky Talbot T150SS Coupe between them. The winning car, driven by Eugène Chaboud and Jean Trémoulet was ahead of the second car only by two laps! This really proves how dominant Delahaye can be once they've got the right tools. Or any manufacturer in that matter!
The 135CS was also one of the last Le Mans cars to have housed a fairly basic design - most others such as Alfa Romeo and Bugatti (of course) had switched to more aerodynamic bodies.
But with a powerful 3.6 litre straight 6 engine and a lightweight structure, the 135CS was taking the event by storm and nothing aside that Tablot could really match it in 1938.
What do you think?
What do you think is the coolest pre-war Le Mans car? Or any pre-war racecar for that matter?
If I've missed anything out or if you want to say literally anything, then please get in the comments!
I hope you enjoyed reading, bump, repost etc. but mainly, thank you for reading :)