My Car Quest

December 12, 2017

Briggs Cunningham – A Great American Sportsman

 

by Mike – 

Many years before Carroll Shelby entered the racing world there was Briggs Cunningham who was making his own cars and racing them against the best that the world had to offer, meaning European racers.

Briggs Cunningham

Briggs Cunningham

Cunningham was born rich which allowed him the time and the money to follow his passion of motor sports. He became a racecar constructor, driver, team owner, car manufacturer and car collector. His story sounds a lot like the Lance Reventlow story.

When Cunningham was a young man, after World War I, he went street racing with his uncle in a Dodge powered by a Hispano-Suiza airplane engine. This experience led him to a life long love affair with the automobile.

Cunningham began racing in 1930 and in 1933 was the co-founder of the Automobile Racing Club of America, which was later renamed the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).

Briggs Cunningham in a race car

Cunningham owned and raced Jaguars, Ferraris, Corvettes, Listers, OSCAs and Abarths, but he is most remembered for the teams he owned in the 1950s with Cadillac and Chrysler powered sports cars of his own construction.

His goal was to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in an American car driven by American drivers. Even though he did not win the 24 Hours of Le Mans his team did deliver an impressive list of wins at Sebring, Elkhart Lake, Bridgehampton and other tracks.

Briggs Cunningham in a race car

In 1950 he entered two Cadillacs in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one a stock-appearing Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the other a special-bodied sports car called “Le Monstre” by the French. The picture below shows why it received this name. They finished 10th and 11th overall.

Cadillac race car called "Le Monstre” by the French

In 1952, Cunningham introduced the Continental C-3 road car that used a 331 cid Chrysler V8. These were aluminum bodied by Vignale in Turin Italy. Twenty-five Continental C-3s were produced: twenty coupes and five convertibles.

Cunningham Continental C-3

Cunningham Continental C-3

In 1952 the Cunningham C-4R driven by Briggs Cunningham and Bill Spear finished fourth overall at Le Mans.

A C-4R won the 1953 Sebring 12 Hours. At Le Mans Phil Walters and John Fitch finished first in class and third overall with a C-5R, and the two other Team Cunningham cars finished seventh and tenth. They were third and fifth place in 1954.

Cunningham Race Car

At Le Mans in 1955 the Cunningham C6-R, powered by an Offenhauser engine, did not finish due to a problem with the transmission.

Cunningham Race Car

Cunningham retired from racing in 1965 after which he spent much of his time managing the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, California, until it was sold to Miles Collier, Jr. in 1986.

He won the America’s Cup yacht race in 1958 as the captain of the Columbia. How many other racecar drivers, constructors and car manufacturers have ever done that? I think none.

Cunningham also bought the first Ferrari imported into the United States, a 2 Liter Type 166, below.

Ferrari 2 Liter Type 166

Briggs Cunningham died in July 2003 at the age of 96.

Click on the images for a larger view.

The April 26, 1954 cover of Time magazine. The caption reads: Road Racer Briggs Cunningham: Horsepower, Endurance, Sportsmanship.

The April 26, 1954 cover of Time magazine. The caption reads: Road Racer Briggs Cunningham: Horsepower, Endurance, Sportsmanship.

Cunningham advertisement

Cunningham advertisement

Cunningham C3

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Comments

  1. Our buddy Steve knows of an unbodied Cunningham that he wants to build a Vignale body for.

    Bruce

  2. Mike Gulett says:

    Bruce,

    I hope he does it!

  3. Anonymous says:

    The Seal Cove Auto Museum, located on Mount Desert Island, Maine, owns a gorgeous 1910 American "Traveler" Underslung that once belonged to Briggs Cunningham and was on display at his Automotive Museum. Briggs bought the car in 1948 from Isabel Weld Perkins, wife of Ambassador Lars Anderson, before the Lars Anderson Museum was established. Briggs loved the Underslung and drove it in the 1949 Glidden Tour.

  4. Mike Gulett says:

    There is much more to Briggs Cunningham that I know. Thanks for the story. He was a fascinating person.

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