This 1954 Lincoln Cosmopolitan Is A Modified Carrera Panamericana Veteran
Photography by Ingo Schmoldt and Christian Reichardt
I met Christian Reichardt at this year’s running of the Targa Baja California, a rally that started in Palm Springs and went to Ensenada, Mexico, and back. It was hard to miss him as he had the biggest car by far on the tour: a 1954 Lincoln Cosmopolitan. It wasn’t just any “Cosmo” though, this thing is significantly more badass than something you might find at an estate sale.
One look at the decals on the car gives a strong hint to this fact. This is a car that has competed in the vaunted La Carrera Panamericana, not once, but 10 times since 2005. After getting to know Christian and his brother-in-law Bill, it was clear there is a great story of passion and a little bit of craziness behind the relationship between this particular car and driver. Before we get Christian’s side of it, here’s some background…
La Carrera Panamericana, that’s really all you need to say, isn’t it? The history, the speed, the obvious danger. For those fuzzy on the details, it’s a hard-driving 2200-mile, seven-day rally from the Guatemala/Mexico border up towards the southern edge of Texas. It originally ran from 1950-1954 before being cancelled, some say due to the costs to the Mexican government. Others point to the number of accidents and casualties in the race, coupled with the tragic loss of life at Le Mans in 1955 that made safety a major priority for all motorsport.
Resurrected in 1988, La Carrera Panamericana has been running ever since as a vintage race with cars from the 1950s being the vehicle of choice for the multiple classes of competition. Most of these vehicles may look like they did decades ago, but underneath the body shells most have been highly modified as endurance racing machines.
1952-54 Lincoln Capri & Cosmopolitan. The then-all-new Lincoln was launched in 1952 and was built through ’54. It featured a new engine replacing the famous flathead V8, and a stiffer chassis with six crossmembers on a separate frame supplemented the car’s MacPherson strut suspension while improving the durability over the previous models. They were run very successfully in period during the original Carrera Panamericana. In fact, in 1952 and ’53, they finished 1st through 4th in the race’s stock car division. Chuck Stevenson (with Clay Smith as his copilot) won both years in that class.
This modified 1954 model, nicknamed “La Bestia del Norte,” first competed in La Carrera Panamerica in 1997. Christian acquired the car in 2002—in a sad state, it had sat forlorn in the backyard of a former racer who had fallen on hard times. Since Christian’s acquisition, this car has had several complete overhauls, including four rebuilds of the motor and transmission. In 2004 it was painted in the same color scheme as the 1954-winning Lincoln. With each rebuild, the car was increasingly modified, as each year brought new insights into the needs of running a race of this caliber in a car of this age. Some notable ones include: several complete suspension overhauls, a full roll cage and five point harnesses, electrical systems brought up to racing specifications, and a host of mechanical upgrades including a fuel cell tucked underneath the body that’s designed to handle the rough roads encountered in the race. In fact, all work was done according to the FIA standards, yet kept in line with the “Original Panamericana” class that this car would have competed in. Very few cars today qualify for this class, in fact, and as a testament to this one, Christian’s Lincoln received the “Best of Race” award in 2007.
Having followed the car for over a 1000 miles of various road conditions and going from sea level to 9200ft at the Observatorio Pedro San Martir, I can say this car is categorically fast, connected to the road to a degree that its size and shape belie, and definitely able to keep up with many of the modified Porsche 911s that were competing in this year’s Targa. After watching such a performance, I just had to do a photoshoot when we had some downtime in Mexico one night. I also sat down over a few cervezas to chat with Christian.
Ingo Schmoldt: Christian, thanks for sitting down with me. So, I heard you mention that something with four wheels was not your original preferred method of transportation. Can you tell us about your initial motorcycle adventures, and what made you decide to shift your focus?
Christian Riechardt: First of all, I want to thank you for having the interest in this car and I want to thank Petrolicious for featuring it! I have been a gearhead since I was a kid growing up in Germany. In those days, the stories about the famous Carrera Panamericana and the legendary race car drivers were the dreams of every kid who was interested in cars.
I started tinkering with motorcycles and scooters when I was 13, and my love for two-wheeled transportation has not stopped since. I moved to the United States when I was 18 and continued riding motorcycles. Reading Easy Rider magazine was a monthly ritual, and as fate would have it, I met Keith Ball, the editor for the magazine, and we became fast friends. Every year we would go on motorcycle trips, build race bikes for Bonneville, and generally just have fun raising hell on two wheels. In 2003, my riding buddy was diagnosed with cancer and with uncertainty surrounding his outcome, we decided we needed to embark on a different type of adventure. It was at that time that the dreams of La Carrera Panamericana came back to me. I ran the idea by Keith, and we decided, what the heck, let’s do it!
We wanted to do it the way the old California racers used to: “run what you brung.” We had no idea what we were in for! I found this ex-Panamericana Lincoln Cosmopolitan and started to tear into it, completing it just in time to register for the 2005 event. Fast forward to October 2005, we packed up the car in Los Angeles and drove 3000 miles in three days to the border of Mexico and Guatemala, to the town of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the starting point of the race. We then ran the seven-day, 2200-mile race to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso. After finishing the race, for good measure, we then drove two more days straight through to our homes in Los Angeles! We were on the road for 12 days total, covered 6500 miles in that span, and, amazingly, the car held up just fine. We did so well that we repeated that trip three years in a row.
IS: Crazy! So you ran the Carrera Panamericana in this car 10 times so far; what’s your most memorable experience from those races?
CR: You know, some of the most amazing memories are being in the back country of Mexico, driving through unbelievably beautiful countryside. We encountered the most amazing people along the way in these tiny towns. The way that they celebrate the race car drivers; we are adored and welcomed, it is just phenomenal.
To be able to do all this in a vintage race car, eight to nine hours a day of driving, often times at hair-raising speeds… this is just something that can’t be explained. The trust between the driver and copilot is crucial. This isn’t like any other racing, you have to be fully focused and pay attention or devastating crashes can, and do, occur. Every day you go through a plethora of emotions and feelings, but it is absolutely addictive. As a team, you either do it or you crumble.
The attrition rate in the race is extremely high, and often only 30% of the cars make their way to the end, not only because of mechanical failures, but often because driver and copilot are at each other‘s throats! The terrible thing is, that when navigating or driving errors are made, the consequences often come with fatal results. Every year serious accidents and sometimes deaths occur. The fact that we’ve been able to do the race 10 times without a major incident is a miracle in itself!
IS: Why did you choose to come on this year’s Targa Baja California, it’s obviously not an outright race like the Carrera. What’s been your impression of the event as a whole?
CR: After having done the Panamericana so often, I felt it was time to choose a different event. I love Mexico and wanted to return again, so this was a good choice. Plus, the Targa Baja California was right in my backyard so it seemed like the next logical step. The much shorter time commitment—just four days—was also very appealing. The whole event is fun, fast, and just generally very enjoyable. I loved the fact that it combines race track driving, high-speed freeway runs, and of course, fantastic camaraderie.
IS: What’s next for you and the car? Or do you have another two or four-wheeled beast in mind for the future?
CR: Every year there are several races like La Carrera Panamericana in Mexico. There are options. I think the next event for me is going to be the Chihuahua Express in April 2019. It follows the same formula as the Panamericana: high-speed segments and a transit rally, although it is shorter, only lasting three days. The interesting thing about it is that in those three days, you cover the same number of miles of racing as you do in seven days in the Panamericana. In other words, a pretty grueling race for both man and machine. Of course, the crazy thing is, this kind of car event is now only possible in Mexico—where else could you drive your highly modified vintage car as fast as possible and have the police stand by the side of the road cheering you on to go faster?!