My Car Quest

October 22, 2020

Briggs Cunningham – A Great American Sportsman

Road Racer Briggs Cunningham: Horsepower, Endurance, Sportsmanship…

by Mike Gulett – 

Briggs Cunningham

Briggs Cunningham

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

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

He was born in 1907 in Cincinnati Ohio. His family helped finance railways, telecommunications, meat-packing and commercial real estate, and his father was the primary financier of Procter & Gamble. He married Lucy Bedford, daughter of a Standard Oil heir.

When he 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

Cunningham Continental C-3

Cunningham Continental C-3

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.

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

Time Magazine – April 26, 1954

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.

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 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.

Cunningham Race Car

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

Ferrari 2 Liter Type 166

America’s Cup

He won the America’s Cup yacht race in 1958 as the captain (and owner) of the Columbia. He also developed the ‘Cunningham’ a common device on sailboats that adjusts sail tension.

How many other race car drivers, constructors and car manufacturers have ever done that? I think none.

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

Cunningham advertisement

Cunningham advertisement

Briggs Cunningham Le Mans Corvette No. 2 owned by Bruce Meyer

Cunningham Le Mans Corvette No. 2 owned by Bruce Meyer-photo by Mike Gulett

Summary
Briggs Cunningham - A Great American Sportsman
Article Name
Briggs Cunningham - A Great American Sportsman
Description
Cunningham was born rich which allowed him the time and the money to follow his passions of motor sports and sailing. He became a race car constructor, driver, team owner, car manufacturer and car collector. And he won the America's Cup yacht race.
Author

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.

  5. Glen Durmisevich says

    Years ago I visited the Briggs. Cunningham Museum with a group of young car designers students. Mr Cunningham personally walked us through his collection. A very gracious, knowledgable and exciting person. His cars deserve more recognition.

  6. wallace wyss says

    I have never seen a Cunningham ad before, It t is interesting how much they exaggerated the side profile of the car from real life where it is shorter and stubbier. Kind of reminds you how how much Detroit autiomakers (particularly Van and Fitz) eaggerated car styling on Pontiacs in ads until photography just about elminated illustration in new car ads.

  7. How interesting it could have been, had Briggs Cunningham persisted a little longer with the Maserati Tipo 151. He had the resources and people who could have turned the ‘Last Monster from Modena’ into a Le Man’s winning car. And would have done so right in the middle of the Ford / Ferrari battle (which might then have come to??).
    Interesting to contemplate what might have happened at those ‘crossroads’ if the lights had gone green rather than red.

  8. wallace wyss says

    I agree with Tony O., Cunningham had the right instincts, picking good cars, but didn’t want to tool up in any sizable way, not like Shelby. Shelby knew he needed a big firm as partner, Cunningham did have Chevrolet makng Corvettes available, but since, for PR reasons, GM was off-and-on again in racing, they couldn’t help him that much say by having a Cunningham Corvette in Chevy showrooms in the same way Ford had Shelby Cobras in Ford showrooms.
    Another millionaire racer came along as a Champion of Chevy power, Jim Hall, an oilman from Texas but right at the time GM was officially anti-racing so he also didn’t develop a model for Chevy showrooms. Hall had the technical expertise to beat Ford and did beat them at one major race, but how could a guy towing his race car behind a pickup truck beat Ford arriving with several tractor trailers and a machine shop on wheels?

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