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Left: The Locomobile Type 1906, "Old 16", driven by George Robertson on its way to winning the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island.

Center: Action during the 1916 Vanderbilt Cup event at Santa Monica with William Bolden (#12) leading Omar Toft.

The Ardent Alligator and The 1949 Watkins Glen Grand Prix
by Russell Jaslow


It started life out in 1929. Twenty years later, in a different country, with a different engine, a different body, and a different name, it would win a race in a small community in upstate New York in the Finger Lakes region that would soon become synonymous with road racing in America. The car was the Ardent Alligator, and the race was the Watkins Glen Grand Prix.

The car was built in England as a Riley Brooklands with an 1100cc engine capable of producing 55 hp. It was purchased in 1934 by Miles Collier, who along with his brother, Sam, founded and raced in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA), the premier road racing sanctioning body before WWII. The car was green at this time and being from the Florida Everglades region, they named it the Ardent Alligator.

The car was stored between 1935 and 1939, whereupon it received a new body and a new engine, a Mercury 3.9 liter V-8 flathead and drivetrain producing 175 hp. The War forced the car to go back into storage until 1949.

A group of sports car enthusiasts organized the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) soon after the War had ended. Their initial purpose was to preserve and enjoy the sports car. They had no plans to enter the racing game. However, with ARCA showing no signs of being revived and many of their prominent members joining SCCA, the new club was talked into organizing and promoting a race in Watkins Glen being proposed by Cameron Argetsinger.

The map of the original Watkins Glen circuit. To see a full size map, click on the image.

The 1948 race was a great success, and the idea spread in 1949. Organizers in Bridgehampton staged a road race through the streets of that small town on the Eastern end of Long Island. The Ardent Alligator returned to action. Miles Collier drove the car, but it did not finish. However, Collier was still confident in its ability.

He entered it in the 1949 Watkins Glen Grand Prix to be run on the same course as the inaugural event, a 6.6 mile layout that resembled a miniature Nurburgring with its extreme elevation changes, breathtaking blind turns, and flying "ramps" over railroad tracks. This year, the main event would be nearly doubled from 8 laps to 15.

The Ardent Alligator as it appears today. For a full size image, click on the picture.

There was no practice or qualifying, so the starting order was done by a draw. Miles Collier was unlucky to pick the 12th starting position. Unlike the preliminary Seneca Cup race which used the classic "Le Mans" start, the main feature would begin with a standing start in rows of two on Franklin Street. Honorary starter, Wilbur Shaw, stood by as the flag was dropped. Collier got off to a poor start and immediately dropped back to 17th.

By the end of the first lap, Collier worked his way to 14th, but a minute back from the leader. He started to make his move on the second lap passing ten cars to move into fourth, a few car lengths behind third. Collier would take third early on the next lap, but still found himself 51.8 seconds behind the leader.

The race started to become one of attrition on the fourth lap as many of the 43 starters began to drop out. However, this was all behind Collier, continuing to chase the two leaders but not making any headway. Collier would remain in third place for the next nine laps and found himself 49.6 seconds behind the leader at the completion of the 13th lap. Then began one of the most stirring and thrilling comebacks ever seen at Watkins Glen on any of the many course configurations.

The leader through most of the race was Briggs Cunningham driving a Ferrari. This was only the second time a Ferrari was seen on these shores, having made its debut at the Bridgehampton race. Behind Cunningham was another car he owned, a BuMerc, so named because it was a Buick Century chassis and 5.2 liter V-8 engine inside a modified Mercedes SSK body, driven by George Roberts.

Cunningham held a healthy lead until the start of the 14th lap. Roberts finally used the extra torque in his machine to catch Cunningham going up the long hill. Roberts made a pass attempt on the straight just after the railroad crossing that began a brilliant wheel to wheel duel. Over the narrow stone bridge, over the railroad crossing, past Friar's Corner, and down into Big Bend. Cunningham put an end to this battle using his experience and the superior handling of the Ferrari, and arrived back at the Start/Finish line with a 15.5 second lead.

Little did either of them know, that while they were battling with what they thought was for victory, Miles Collier in his Ardent Alligator had turned up the wick. Collier completed lap 13 in a new lap record of 5:39.0. He would lower that record on lap 14 by an astounding 14.5 seconds with a time of 5:24.5. And he wasn't done.

Now within sight of the two leaders, Collier pressed on. He caught Roberts and the BuMerc going up the hill towards White House Corner, making the pass for second after the railroad overpass. He then set his sights on the leader.

Collier was within a few car lengths as they got to the railroad crossing. Both cars flew over the tracks, literally, as they would launch the faster cars completely airborne. Collier was on Cunningham's tail going into Big Bend, an extremely long, quick downhill right hand sweeper. It ends with a ninety-degree left hand turn, still going downhill, called Milliken's Corner, thanks to the luckless Bill Milliken who flipped his car there the previous year.

Collier made his move. Shortly after Milliken's Corner was a ninety-degree right hand turn leading onto Franklin Street. The front straightaway crowd saw Collier come out of that turn with the lead, and he stretched the margin to 8 seconds by the finish line. Cunningham finished second, just ahead of Roberts. To add icing to the cake, Collier broke the track record again with an even more amazing time of 5:12.2 for an average speed of 75.38 mph, nearly 7 mph faster than the previous year's record.

1949 proved to be the Ardent Alligator's most memorable moment, but it continued to be raced often. Miles Collier entered the car in events at Boca Raton, Florida and again at Bridgehampton. Sam Collier drove it at the Mt. Equinox Hill Climb in Vermont in a record time that stood for many years. It returned to Watkins Glen for the 1950 Seneca Cup where it finished third overall, first in Class C, despite Miles running into the haybales and only having high gear. It was not eligible for the Grand Prix because the race was now approved by the FIA, thus run under their rules, and the car could not carry a spare wheel, an FIA requirement. Sam Collier would be killed in the 1950 race while leading, and Miles immediately retired from driving.

Bret Hannaway took ownership of the car and entered it in the 1952 Watkins Glen Grand Prix, but the race was stopped after one lap when a seven-year-old spectator was killed and twelve others injured by a wayward car. George Robe bought the car, and raced it on the first permanent Watkins Glen course in 1954 and 1955. 1954 also saw the death of Miles Collier from natural causes.

The car was owned by J.D. Engleheart in the 1960's when it was damaged in a fire. Bill O'Donnell got his hands on it next and began restoring the car. Don Lefferts drove it in vintage events. Current owner, Peter McManus, finished the restoration to it's 1949 state including the red paint and number 39.

Results of The 1949 Watkins Glen Grand Prix

Date: September 17, 1949

Pos Num C DRIVER                YR. CAR/ENGINE                             LAPS
 1   39 D Miles Collier         '39 Riley-Mercury Special/Mercury V8       15  Class D Winner
 2    4 D Briggs Cunningham     '48 Ferrari 166 SC/Ferrari V12             15
 3    6 D George Roberts        '39 BuMerc Special/Buick V8                15
 4   48 B Tommy Cole            '49 H.R.G. Sports/Singer L4                15  Class B Winner
 5   18 C John Fitch            '48 MG TC/MG L4                            15
 6    8 B Fred Wacker, Jr.      '48 MG TC/MG L4	                           15
 7   28 B Karl Brocken          '48 MG TC/MG L4                            15
 8   21 A Logan Hill            '49 Cisitalia 1100 Coupe/FIAT L4           15  Class A Winner
 9   12 D Col. George Felton    '27 Vauxhall OE 30/98/Vauxhall L4          15
10   36 C James Pauley          '49 Lea-Francis Type Sport/Lea-Francis L4  15  Class C Winner
11   53 A Joseph Fergusen, Jr.  '49 Cisitalia 1100 Coupe/FIAT L4           15
12   60 B Gus O. Ehrman         '49 MG TC/MG L4                            15
13   17 B Arthur Eldridge       '48 MG TC/MG L4                            15
14   49 B Rowland Keith         '48 MG TC/MG L4                            15
15    5 C Samuel Collier        '48 MG TC/MG L4                            15
16   63 B James Kastrup         '48 MG TC/MG L4                            15
17   61 A Charles Kotchan       '49 MG TC/MG L4	                           15
18   16 D Dave Garroway         '39 Jaguar SS-100/Jaguar L-6               14
19   62 B James Carson          '48 MG TC/MG L4                            13
20   14 C John Bentley          '49 MG TC/MG L4                            13
21   42 B Alden Johnson         '47 MG TC/MG L4                            13
22   24 A Antonio Pompeo        '49 FIAT 1100 MM/FIAT L4                   13
23   30 D Ledyard Pfund         '34 Ford Special/Ford V8                   13
24   38 A E. Reg Ogilvie        '48 MG TC/MG L4                            13
25   31 D Corwith Hamill        '48 Allard K1/Ford V8                      13
26   19 B David Whitcomb        '49 MG TC/MG L4                            13
27   25 D Robert Grier          '38 BMW MM Coupe/BMW L6                    13
28   10 D Philip Cade           '34 Duesenberg J Sedan Conv./Duesenberg V8 12
29   45 B George Fleming        '49 MG TC/MG L4                            12
DNF  23 D George Huntoon        '35 Alfa Romeo 8C 2600 Monza/Alfa L8       11
DNF  20 C Charles Moran, Jr.    '29 Bugatti Type 35A/Bugatti L8            11
DNF   7 B Denver Cornett, Jr.   '47 MG TC/MG L4                            10
DNF  26 D William Milliken, Jr. '32 F.W.D. Miller/Ford L4                  10
DNF  32 A Robert Keller         '48 FIAT 1100 S/FIAT L4                     9
DNF  43 B Neal Allen            '49 MG TC/MG L4                             5
DNF  46 B Peter Iselin          '49 H.R.G. Sports/Singer L4                 5
DNF  34 D Zora Arkus-Duntov     '49 Allard J2 "Ardun"/Ford V8               4
DNF  56 D Larry Kulok           '47 Allard K1/Mercury V8                    4
DNF  40 D Mel Ord               '38 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B 'S'/Alfa L8         3
DNF  52 B Bruce Stevenson       '48 MG TC/MG L4                             3
DNF  55 D Paul Timmins          '49 Ardun Ford Special/Ford V8              3
DNF   3 C Cameron Argetsinger   '27 Bugatti Type 35A/Bugatti L8             1  Fuel Pump Failure
DNF  15 C William Christy       '47 MG TC/MG L4                             0
{Ten drivers did not start the race.  Some were multiple entries.
The most notable DNS was George Weaver in a '36 Maserati V8RI.}

Race Distance: 15 laps of 6.6 mile circuit -- 99 miles.
Race Weather: Sunny, Dry.
Fastest Lap: 5:12.2, 75.38 mph, Miles Collier, '39 Riley-Mercury Special/Mercury V8.

Class A: Up to 1100cc
Class B: 1101cc to 1500cc (and supercharged Class A)
Class C: 1501cc to 2000cc (and supercharged Class B)
Class D: Over 2001cc (and supercharged Class C)

Bibliography

For more details concerning this subject, consult the following:

Defechereux, Philippe. Watkins Glen 1948-1952, The Definitive Illustrated History. Beeman Jorgensen, Inc., 1998.

The Glen '98 -- 50 Years of Road Racing Excellence. UMI Publications, Inc., 1998.

Green, Bill. "Star of '99 Festival Is '49 Winning Ardent Alligator." Watkins Glen IKEPOD Grand Prix Festival 1999 Official Program, 10 September 1999, pp. 6-7.

Lynch, Michael T.; Edgar, William; Parravano, Ron. American Sports Car Racing In The 1950s. MBI Publishing Company, 1998.

Copyright 1999 by . All Rights Reserved.

 
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