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by Pete Hagenbuch, former head of Chrysler engine tuning
In 1928, Chrysler Corporation was three years old and running at top speed. It had just introduced a new low-priced brand, Plymouth, which was already popular. The purchase of Dodge Brothers, something like Goliath being consumed by the biblical David, was in the works. Plans for introducing yet another brand, DeSoto, were well along for 1929.
1928 would also highlight the corporation’s first venture into international motor racing — and they started big. Chrysler entered the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race with a team of four 1928 Series 72 roadsters.
The cars were powered by L-head inline six cylinder engines with cast iron blocks and cylinder heads. Bore and stroke was 3.5” x 5” and each displaced 248.9 cubic inches (4.1 liters). The compression ratio was 6.1:1. The roadsters weighed in at 3005 pounds with a wheelbase of 118.75.”
The Chryslers were all painted in a light cream color with black fenders and trim. Drivers were European, with circuit experience being a primary consideration; Car 7 had the brothers Ghica and Cantacuzino, Car 8 had Stoffel and Rossignol, and the other cars had Lepori, Chiron, and Benoist. The latter two were well-known Formula 1 drivers.
The competition included Bentley, with three brand-new 4.5 liter cars having four cylinder engines with a single overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder, with pent-roof combustion chambers. Cylinder block and heads were of one iron casting, bolted to a cast aluminum crankcase. Car #2 was driven by Clement and Benjafield, who was co-driver with S.C.H. Davis in the winning Bentley the previous year. In #3 were Birkin and Chassagne and in #4, Rubin and Barnato. Woolf Barnato was not only a skilled driver, but also the chairman and majority stockholder of Bentley Motors.
The only other American car was a single Stutz Black Hawk roadster with the DV-32 engine, a 4.9 liter (298.9 cid) eight cylinder with overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder. The black car carried the racing number 1. Drivers were Brisson and Bloch.
The remaining entries were small displacement machines, competing for the Index of Performance. From Britain there were three 2-liter Lagondas, two 1.5 liter Aston Martins, and a pair of Alvis 1.5 liters with front drive. Italy sent only two 2-liter Italas. The French mustered just a few under-two-liter cars, including two Salmsons and three Tractas. Thus, 33 cars started the race at 4:00 PM on Saturday, June 16.
The race then had a “Le Mans Start,” in which the cars were angle parked in front of the pits facing out and the drivers stood across the track from them. When the starter dropped the flag, the drivers sprinted across to their cars, started the engines and drove away. To lessen the likelihood of accidents, the cars were arranged with largest displacement engines first; racing numbers were assigned in a similar manner. The Stutz and the three Bentleys were first away, followed by the four Chryslers.
At the end of the first lap, the three Bentleys still led, with the Stutz on their heels. Birkin’s first lap, from a standing start, set a new course record of 72.7 mph; it was soon obliterated by Barnato’s 74.98 mph. Then Brisson in the Stutz did a lap of 75.42 mph followed by another of 76.1 mph. Barnato and the #4 Bentley settled the argument with a lap of 76.16 mph.
The three British cars, followed closely by the American, drew steadily away from the rest of the field, led by the # 8 Chrysler with Stoffel driving and # 7, driven by Prince Ghica. One of the Chryslers dropped out in the first hour.
The Stutz team manager protested that the three Bentleys were using blocking tactics to prevent being passed by the American car. This led to a warning issued to Barnato for unsportsmanlike driving and a promise of punishment for any repeated violations.
At around 7 PM, Bentley #3 suffered a punctured tire. The team had eliminated jacks as a weight-saving measure, thinking that the car could be driven slowly back to the pits on the rim. Birkin did not drive slowly, though, and the wire wheel collapsed, putting the car in a sand bank. Word was brought to the Bentley pit by another British driver, and Chassagne set off on foot with the jack. He walked several miles before reaching the car. After replacing the wheel and digging it out of the bank, three hours were lost.
The Stutz-Bentley duel continued into the darkness, and Barnato and the Stutz swapped the lead repeatedly. A second Chrysler slowly dropped through the field and finally retired before dawn, leaving two in the race.
At about 1 AM on Sunday, the #2 Bentley retired with a broken chassis frame, which caused the radiator hose to separate, overheating the engine. With the #3 working its way through the tail enders, this left only the Barnato car fit to battle the Stutz, which stayed in the lead for most of the night.
The two remaining Chryslers were lapping steadily, not threatening the leaders but also not threatened by other competitors. Positions (other than first and second) remained static for into the morning. The Bentley people were worried about failure of their lead car’s frame; Barnato and Rubin, however, were busy staying with the American Stutz, while Birkin and Chassagne were still working their way back from their three hour delay. In the process Birkin finally ended the lap record competition with a resounding 79.29 mph.
At 2:30 PM, with only an hour and a half to go, the Stutz lost its top gear. After 22 ½ hours without a bit of trouble, the Americans were reduced to protecting their second place finish.
But it wasn’t over yet, as the leading Bentley began to show signs of a frame distortion, with several laps to go. As the distance between engine and radiator increased, the coolant leaked at an increasing rate. Barnato slowed the big car, continuing to finish laps as the engine grew hotter. At the finish he was ahead by well under a lap, but still in first place.
Brisson and Bloch, in the Stutz, were second; third and fourth places went to the #8 and #7 Chryslers, while Birkin and Chassagne took fifth in the #3 Bentley. While it wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t pretty, a win is a win, and this made two in a row for the Bentley team.
The Americans had reason to be proud. The Stutz had proven itself equal to the Bentley. Chrysler had shown great reliability and fair speed with their much less sophisticated design, which sold for far less and was built in much greater numbers.
4 cyl.- 267.9 c.i.
8 cyl.- 298.2 c.i.
6 cyl.- 249.1 c.i.
6 cyl.-249.1 c.i.
Ghica, Ghica, Cantacusino
4 cyl.- 90.4 c.i.
4 cyl.- 67.0 c.i.
6 cyl.- 121.45 c.i.
Davis, Urquhart, Dykes
4 cyl.- 66.8 c.i.
Chrysler 1904-2018 •
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