Sometimes winning isn’t required to elevate a car to star status. The Tipo 60/61 has that intangible quality in spades, for its fame far exceeds its track record. Even its significance in history as the last of the classic front-engined sports-racers is overpowered by the sheer glamour of the car.
“Birdcage” was the car’s nickname, derived from the way the car was constructed. Its foundation was made up of approximately 200 finger-sized tubes welded at hundreds of points under a body contoured to fit skintight over the essentials. Weighing less than 70 pounds in all, the frame was a marvel of engineering. Italian historians have referred to this Giulio Alfieri design as courageous. Certainly it was very clever. It was also very complex…too much so.
Designing the engine into a Birdcage required dry sump lubrication and canting it 45º to the right. Getting an engine out of a Birdcage required better than four hours. Merely getting at the engine at any time was not easy. Fortunately, in either two liter (Tipo 60) or three-liter (Tipo 61) size, a Birdcage engine was the most dependable part of the car. Unfortunately, other things broke. A lot.
When nothing broke, a Birdcage was wonderful – as in its first-time-out victory at Rouen (Stirling Moss driving) in 1959, the Nürburgring wins in ’60 and ’61, as well as Gaston Andrey’s SCCA championship in ’60 and Roger Penske’s Cooper Monaco-assisted championship in ’61.
No two Birdcages were precisely alike. Variations depended on the whim of the welder and the preference of the customer. The car on display was the sixth of the 22 Tipo 60/61s built and was purchased by Briggs Cunningham in August 1960. At Le Mans in ’61, Briggs and Jim Kimberly drove to an eighthplace finish overall and third in class behind two Porsches. The car behaved impeccably, asking only for fuel during the entire day’s drive, proving that the one trait that links most super stars is unpredictability.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham was one of the first to use two-way radios at Le Mans in 1950 by installing them in both the LeMonstre and the Petit Pataud. You can see both cars at Revs. Learn more