The Cannonball: Coast to Coast, As Fast As You Can Go!

 

In 1971 there was an obscure, unknown race that over the ensuing decades became the stuff of legend, and movies. “The Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Dash” was named after Erwin G. "Cannon Ball" Baker, a turn-of-the-20th century daredevil and successful automobile and motorcycle racer. 

Over the course of several decades, Baker challenged himself by seeing how quickly he could travel from Point A to Point B in a vehicle of some sort. This was at a time when many of the roads weren’t much better than dirt trails, and his legend started in 1914 when he traversed the country on a motorcycle in 11 days. Nineteen years later while driving alone in a Graham-Paige, he went from one coast to the other in a bit over 53 hours. 

The Cannonball's Creator

From this feat came the Cannonball, which ruminated from the fertile mind of Brock Yates. Yates was an insightful, prolific journalist with a serious iconoclastic streak and good sense of humor. In 1971 while working at Car & Driver, he, his son Brock Jr. and fellow C&D wordsmith Steve Smith took a modified van from coast to coast in a bit over 40 hours. As Yates noted in his marvelous book “Cannonball,” “The early 1970s was a time when illegal acts were in style. Everyone was going nuts with causes, most of them against the law…(That) was the unhinged fear and loathing that pervaded the land...Therefore, what better time to add to the national psychosis?”

And so was born the Cannonball Memorial Dash. “We convinced ourselves,” Yates went on to note, “that all manner of crazies, race drivers, hot car wackos, and fellow journalists would immediately throw in their lot if a coast-to-coast Cannonball was announced.”

In the first Cannonball, Brock Yates and Dan Gurney crossed the country in less than a day and a half in a Ferrari Daytona similar to this.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. The first contest was held in mid-November 1971, and a grand total of eight vehicles and “23 lunatics” participated. Winning it in approximately 36 hours in a Ferrari Daytona was Brock and his friend, racing ace Dan Gurney. Other Cannonballs were held in 1972, 1975 and 1979 before the underground contest officially came to an end. 

A Different Kind of Crazy

Flash forward four-plus decades, and the Covid-19 upheaval and even more insane market gyrations has created its own kind of national psychosis and unhinged fear. I recently found solace from the bombardment of this continual news reel when I stumbled across the aptly named COZI TV, a cable network that was playing deliciously crappy but entertaining shows from the 1970s. Think bionics, a soothing voice on a speakerphone who conversed with three angels, two detectives who ran around with a dude named “Huggy Bear,” and you get the idea.

The perfect comfort food for today's chaotic environment: escapist TV shows like "Starksy & Hutch," and their Gran Torino. It was definitely a different time and mindset...Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Looking at the atmosphere that existed back then, and the cars on the shows, it got me wondering if I knew what I know now, and could take a time machine back to that decade to go out and purchase any car to run in any or all of those Cannonballs, what would it be?

Which sent me down a very enjoyable rabbit hole. To tackle the burning question, it meant first determining a set of criteria for said car(s). Speed would obviously be needed, as would good brakes and handling, for there were 2,800+ miles to traverse in the least amount of time on a number of different types of roads. Reliability would also tantamount, for having any chance of finishing first in that cross-country trek, first you have to finish. You would be constantly driving and only stopping for gas, so the car's interior better be properly commodious, and comfortable. And you would want to have a light and airy greenhouse to help you see the cops that the CB channels might alert you about.

Away We Go!

Parameters laid down, I scanned all my digitized images to see what I could come up with. Out of the many options considered, here are five cool (and hopefully reliable!) Cannonball rides. Next week there will be five more, plus some which are still in slide form in the archive. Intriguingly, the fastest of all is also the oldest, so let’s start there, and work our way to the most modern…

  1. 1963 Ferrari 330 LMB. Ferrari built only four LMB’s, and out of the four my choice would be chassis 4619 SA. It was Ferrari’s development car, and early April 1963 it ran at the Le Mans test days and was clocked at 186 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. With speed definitely there in spades, what about reliability? That’s covered too, for a different LMB finished 5th overall and 1st in class at that year’s Le Mans. But what makes 4619 the choice of the litter is not long after the Le Mans time trials it was properly upholstered at Ferrari and sold off as a road car—which it has remained to this day.

  

  1. 1966-1969 Ferrari 330/365 GTC. Ever since the GTC model got into the hands of customers and road testers in 1966, it has been lauded as one of the best all-around Ferraris, and with good reason. A 330/365 GTC is so civilized you could have it as your only car, yet when you drop the hammer it gets up and moves, straight up to a maximum speed of around 150 mph. Back in the late 1970s I owned 330 GTC for a while; I think it cost me all of $9,000—a far cry from the mid-six figure price today.

  

  1. 1967-1972 Monteverdi 375 S/400 SS. What could be better for crossing the country at hyper speeds than having an extremely robust chassis, good suspension and brakes, with sleek styling and a Chrysler 440 under the hood? That’s the recipe for the extremely limited production machinery that was made by Switzerland’s Peter Monteverdi from 1967-1977. This particular second series 375 S spent several weeks under my care after a good friend bought it in the 1980s, and I found the car to be a very relaxed, comfortable and roomy grand tourer.

 

  1. 1968 Shelby Green Hornet. While you certainly couldn’t go wrong with a standard, 130+ mph GT500KR, this one-off Shelby test bed/development car came equipped with a trick 428 and upgraded automatic transmission. Back in the day the Hornet saw 157 mph during testing, and ran 0-100 in 11.4 seconds—which was quicker than the Daytona Yates and Gurney drove. It’s also extremely comfortable to drive, with a good ride, light controls and nice greenhouse for cop-spotting.

 

  1. 1969-1970 Lamborghini Islero 400 GTS. I had a real debate on whether to put a Lambo 350 GT on the list, for in the mid-1960s its comfort and refinement made Ferrari’s cars a bit agricultural in comparison. I ended up settling on the Islero GTS, for it was the last of the line to use the 350/400 GT drivetrain and chassis, and thus the most developed and (hopefully) reliable. It was also a legitimate 160 mph car, and a brilliant all-around performer. Indeed, so complete is this package that in the early 1990s this particular 400 GTS was my only car for the better part of a year, and I loved every minute of it.

Next week we will take a look at some more tasty potential Cannonball participants. Until then, if you could jump in a time machine and head back to the 1970s, what would be your perfect “blast across the country” machine, and why? Be sure to post your thoughts, for I'm running a contest until this April 10, and then my team and I will choose our favorite response. To tie in with our "across the USA" theme, the winner will get a copy of my American landscape/Zagato cars book that can be found on my storefront, and is signed by myself, Andrea and Marella Zagato. Have fun with this, keep your choice(s) period correct (able to be purchased new or used in 1979 or earlier), and be as creative as you wish! 

 


12 comments


  • Carter Emerson

    How about a car always cited as one you could put on a ferry from Dover and drive nonstop to Monte Carlo in a day, the Bentley Continental R Type?


  • Carter Emerson

    That’s a really hard choice to make for the Cannonball run. I like your and your other readers’ suggestions. A 289 Cobra would be fun for 4-5 hours but a BMW 3.0CS would be comfortable the whole time and I know it could do 130 mph all day and night long as could a Bentley Continental R Type.


  • Matthew Lange

    Like most people I have a lot of time to think about this at the moment so if I may I have another choice in the Facel Vega Facel II, especially a ltge example one with a manual gearbox. The late manual cars came with 413 cu in Chrysler Wedge motors and could run over 150mph. I was lucky enough to do a tour through France and UK a few years back and I confirm they are a very fast car although they are a bit too big to match the Ferraris of the day in handling terms. For extended high speed comfortable cruising needed for the Cannonball they are a great choice.


  • George Saylor

    While a Daytona would be my first choice I’d have to go with a BMW M635i solely based on experience. I drove a friend’s M635i for several hours on the freeway and it was wonderful.


  • Matthew Lange

    The Daytona would be my preferred choice, probably for the same reasons Brock and Gurney used one, fast and stable at speed, comfortable and a monster fuel tank (as my credit card regularly testifies). If not a Daytona I was thinking maybe an Aston Martin DBS V8. The injection system was temperamental but when it worked it was the fastest four seater of the early seventies. Final choice would be a rare one indeed a 7 litre series 2 Iso Grifo with the ZF 5 speed transmission option. IIRC correctly they made less than 30 with that configuration but it was probably even faster than a Daytona?


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