Big, hulking American muscle cars with their lazy V8s are the exact opposite of the kind of cars you would expect to see at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But Christophe Schwartz, a French writer, is doing exactly that and runs a 1974 Dodge Charger at the biennial Le Mans Classic events. While the sight of this massive hunk of American steel competing against exotic Porsches and Ferraris is endearing, what makes it even more special is the backstory.
In 2003, while writing a piece about American cars at Le Mans, Schwartz came across a photo of an Olympia beer liveried 1972 Charger run by the father-son duo of Hershel and Doug McGriff. The Olympia Charger and the McGriffs had slipped into relative obscurity and Schwartz went about trying to piece together their history.
By 1975, the Automobile Club d’Ouest (ACO), the organisers of the Le Mans event were struggling to fill all 55 places on the grid. The global recession and setbacks faced by car firms in the wake of the energy crisis meant that new, crowd pulling contenders were hard to come by. To remedy this, the Le Mans organisers teamed up with Bill France: the owner of Daytona International Speedway and organiser of the 24 Hours of Daytona. This led to the addition of a new class of Grand International cars at the 1975 Daytona race. The winners of this class would eventually get a shot at that year’s Le Mans event. These Grand International cars closely resembled NASCAR vehicles: a tubular frame and rollcage, stock body and suspension, steel body panels and a big block V8. Additions like headlights, taillights, running lights, windshield wipers, and sideview mirrors were made to assist in night/ bad weather driving.
Hershel McGriff, a seasoned NASCAR veteran/lumber mill owner from Oregon was one of the winners of this event (the other being a 1975 Ford Torino run by Junie Donlavey, Richard Brooks, and Dick Hutcherson). He had been active in NASCAR since the 1950s running Oldsmobiles and Chevelles, eventually ending up with a 1972 Dodge Charger for this event. This car came with the addictive Olympia beer white and gold livery and was built by Mopar specialist Ray Nichels.
Underneath the hood was 428 Hemi block with a Wedge head on top, built by Precision Engines. At Le Mans, the Olympia Dodge Charger was a crowd favourite. Fans loved the signature big block V8 soundtrack and the aggressiveness of the Charger’s classic muscle car proportions. The story on the track though, was quite different. The car’s NASCAR derived dynamics and weight meant that though the 650 hp car could reach speeds of up to 200+ mph (320+ kmph) on the Mulsanne Straight, it lost out to the smaller, more agile European cars it was competing with in the corners, thanks to those cars comparatively lithe handling characteristics.
Further aggravating the McGriffs’ problems were the fact that Le Mans regulations called for these cars to run on pump fuel. The V8s were originally designed to run 100 octane gasoline. The team had got these engines redesigned to run 93 octane fuel but had overlooked the variation in the rating system. A 93 octane rating in France was closer to an 88 octane rating in the US. These effectively crippled the car and the Olympia Dodge Charger only qualified at 47th place. The race was a bigger disaster with the car only completing 3 laps before a piston failed. Since no engine changes were allowed, this ended the Charger’s race.
After the race is when things get hazy, the Olympia Dodge Charger was shipped back to Oregon and the 426 Hemi-Wedge V8 (along with the backup Hemi block) was returned to Precision Engines as per the lease agreement. Its safe to assume that these were rebuilt and put back into circulation. The Charger’s rolling chassis was liquidated by the McGriffs when they put their lumber mill up for auction in 1980 and no record exists of its present location.
Christophe Schwartz opening the taps on the Olympia Dodge Charger at Le Mans Classic 2012
Cut back to 2003, and Schwartz found himself able to recreate this forgotten piece of Le Mans history. He got in touch with Dick Pierson, a member of the original crew and set about creating a replica of the Olympia Charger. He got hold of a ‘74 Charger, running a similar 428 Hemi and repainted it in the white and gold livery of the original. This car also had racing pedigree, having been the last Dodge to win the USAC championship in 1977. Schwartz debuted his car in Sarth in 2006 and eventually competed in the 2006 Le Mans Classic event, fittingly on the 30th anniversary of the original car’s appearance at the legendary event. He has since competed in every edition of the event with varying degrees of success. He has constantly improved on the car with numerous additions like a Ford 9” rear, disc brakes and a dropping a restored 428 NASCAR dry sump Hemi into the engine bay in 2014.
But focusing on the competitive success of Schwartz’s car is missing the point. This entire episode right from the McGriffs and up to Schwartz is special just in terms of the effort put in by a group of people, separated by decades, to satisfy their passion for cars and racing. Making it all the more momentous has been that regular car enthusiasts have been spectators to this unique merging of these two polar opposite forms of motor racing.