Saturday, October 1, 2011

Cars & Coffee - 10/1/11: Briggs Cunningham edition

A Cunningham C-3 Continental Coupe, Lamborghini Jalpa, Lotus Elan COUPE, Pro-Street Vega and '67 Camaro, aluminum Alfa GTA, Fiat 500 Abarth, world tour wood-spoke Packard, Peugeot 403, CLK and SL65 Black Series, F40, 458, Scuds, 599, 430s, and a bunch of other Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis, E-Types and Minis were among this week's highlights, but the Cunningham was the star.

Briggs Cunningham

Briggs Swift Cunningham II (January 19, 1907 - July 2, 2003) was an American entrepreneur and sportsman who raced automobiles and yachts. Born into a wealthy family, he became a racing car constructor, driver, and team owner as well as a sports car manufacturer and automobile collector. You might think of him as a Reeves Callaway from a different era.

Introduced to motorsports as a youngster when his uncle took him to road races just after the first world war, Cunningham began international racing in 1930 with his college friends Barron, Miles, and Samuel Collier, who in 1933 founded the Automobile Racing Club of America (renamed the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) in 1944). He continued in competition for 36 years.

His first race as a driver was with his "Bu-Merc," a modified Buick chassis with Buick engine, and Mercedes-Benz SSK body, at Watkins Glen shortly after World War Two. This was a hybrid of a different sort that was popular at a time when Europe designed the best looking bodies and America had a lot of cheap powerful engines. Some of his other hybrids involved Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Fords.

In 1950 Briggs Cunningham entered two Cadillacs for Le Mans, one a stock-appearing Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the other a special-bodied sports car dubbed "Le Monstre." They finished 10th and 11th overall. On December 31, 1950 Cunningham participated in the Sam Collier Memorial Race, the first automobile race held on the Sebring Airport race track. He finished second in his Aston Martin DB2 Vantage LML/50/21, the first Vantage produced.

Cunningham C-1

Appetites whetted by their impressive finish in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Cunningham team embarked on a program to design and build its own cars and win the classic 24 hour race outright. Cunningham's announcement of his intention to build an American contender for outright victory at the Le Mans race had caused a stir on both continents. His team was already a favorite with the Le Mans fans, and the announcement demonstrated his commitment to fielding a winning team of American drivers and automobiles.

Four roadsters and a coupe were planned, and the first real Cunningham, the C-1, was finished in late 1950. It utilized a Cadillac OHV V-8 engine and Cadillac three-speed manual transmission installed in a massive frame made of three-inch steel tubing with a tubing cruciform x-member in the center to augment the front and rear crossmembers.

A Ford-based coil spring independant front suspension was used, along with a Cunningham-built de Dion rear axle assembly. The wheelbase was 105 inches and the track, front and rear, was 58 inches. The C-1 was the prototype from which the C-2R was to be developed and, as things turned out, the next three cars were C-2Rs, but with Chrysler Hemi V-8 engines instead of Cadillacs.


By the time work began on the C-2R, the supply of engines and the expected help from Cadillac had evaporated, so Briggs Cunningham called on an old Yale classmate, Bob Keller (the son of K.T. Keller, who had succeeded Walter P. Chrysler as president of the company), and suddenly Chrysler engines were made available to Cunningham at a 40-percent discount.

Chassis details of the C-1 and C-2R were identical, with Cadillac drum brakes, Chrysler Oriflow shock absorbers backed up by Houdaille lever-action units, and Chrysler worm-and-sector steering, modified to provide 2.75 turns lock-to-lock.

As delivered, the Chrysler engines produced 180 HP, but compression was raised from 7.5 to 8.6:1 (using Cadillac rods and pistons!) and a log-type manifold carrying four downdraft Zenith carbs was installed, resulting in 220 HP. Additional testing and development of cam timing, plus intake and exhaust porting, raised power to 270 HP by the time the cars ran at Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake in 1951.

These early Cunninghams were fast, a C-2R reportedly being clocked at 152 mph during the Le Mans race, but they were far too heavy and put an exhorbitant load on tires, brakes and clutches - a problem the Cunningham crew could not solve with the state of the art at the time.


The first Cunningham to bear the C-3 designation was actually built in 1951 on a C-1 chassis at a cost of $15,000, proving it unfeasible in an American market that, even in the upper income ranges, was not prepared to go to five figures. In addition, the car did not approach the deluxe level of finish Briggs had in mind for a Cunningham road car, as it was essentially a competition roadster with a hardtop.

Briggs then contracted with Carrozzeria Vignale of Turin, who would build bodies on the C-2 chassis. Rolling chassis were shipped to Turin from West Palm Beach and fitted with either coupe or roadster bodies, then returned to Florida for final finishing and delivery.

The car’s dimensions were such that it was smaller than the vast majority of American cars yet larger than the Ferraris and Maseratis it most resembled, while the styling was typical of Giovani Michelotti’s designs, restrained and well-proportioned, with minimal use of brightwork. The interior, described by a contemporary writer as "oozing luxury," was functional and beautifully finished. Performance was beyond practically any other American car of the time.

To be eligible for LeMans in 1953, Briggs Cunningham needed to produce 25 road-going examples of the C-3, or at least show that he had intent to produce 25 street cars. As the only series production model manufactured at Cunningham's Palm Beach, Florida factory, the C-3 was a hot rod in a European suit. The C-3 benefited from development done on the three C-2Rs that contested the 24 Hours of LeMans and also won at Road America and Watkins Glen.

Each C-3 used a ladder-type tube chassis which was similar to the C-2's. It had an independent coil-spring front suspension and Chrysler live axle located by parallel trailing arms. Braking was provided by Mercury drums.

Chrysler helped support the project and supplied their Firepower Hemi V8 at a discount. Cunningham kept the engine almost stock but used his own manifold, which was fitted with four Zenith downdraft carburetors. Shifting was handled by a semi-automatic Chrysler transmission and with 235 hp on tap, 7-second runs to 60 mph were possible.

The body, which is one of the most striking to be fitted to an American sports car, was designed by Michelotti of Vignale and closely resembles some of his Ferrari 212s. This is also true of the interior with its oversize gauges and small sporting seats. The only cue that this jewel came from America is the Cunningham script and the huge engine under the hood. Each body took Vignale over two months to complete.

The first C-3 competed at Watkins Glen in September 1952 before being displayed across America and at the Paris Auto Show. Series production began in 1953 with 20 coupes and five convertibles being made. Each cost between $8,000 and $12,000, and were as highly regarded as Ferraris in their time. The low production figures, however, prompted the IRS to withdraw Cunningham’s status as a manufacturer, a move that eventually caused the demise of the company’s racing operations. Today, 24 of the 25 original C-3 road cars are thankfully still with us.

C-4R and C-5R
The next race car in the evolution of Cunningham models was the C-4R. A Chrysler-powered Cunningham C-4R, proudly built by The B. S. Cunningham Company of West Palm Beach, Florida and driven by Phil Walters and John Fitch, finished 18th out of 60 starters in the 1951 Le Mans 24. The other, driven by George Rand and Fred Wacker Jr. failed to finish.

Undeterred, Briggs was back the following year, co-piloting his own C-4R. In 1952 the Cunningham C-4R of Briggs Cunningham and Bill Spear finished fourth overall at Le Mans. While he didn't achieve his goal at Le Mans, Cunningham didn't give up.

A Cunningham C-4R eventually won the 1953 Sebring 12 Hours, and at Le Mans, Walters and Fitch finished first in class and third overall with the new C-5R. Two other Team Cunningham cars finished seventh and tenth the same year and returned to take third and fifth place in 1954.

These years were to be the high point of achievement for Cunningham-built cars at Le Mans. With victory unattained, the effort was described as a "gallant failure" by American journalist Ozzie Lyons. Later in 1954, Cunninghams finished fifth and sixth in the Reims 12 Hour sports car race before the team turned to its newest creation, the C-6R.

At Le Mans in 1955 the Cunningham C6-R, fitted with an Offenhauser engine, retired from the race, ending Cunningham's quest for an overall victory at Le Mans for good. The retirement of the C-6R was attributed to transmission trouble and the poor quality of French gas. Cunningham and Sherwood Johnston drove the car to speeds of up to 141.32 mph, but were forced to go progressively more slowly until all but top gear in the transmission gave up. The extra load was too much for the Offy, which already had inherent overheating problems caused by the conversion from alcohol to gasoline; the engine eventually ate one of its pistons, and the car retired after eighteen hours in 13th place.

Certainly an even greater disappointment was that, as a consequence of witnessing the massive accident that took so many lives at Le Mans that year, the immensely talented Phil Walters decided on the spot that he was through with racing. Said Briggs years later, “I can’t say that I blame him.”

Briggs drove the car again at the Road America season-opener where the plucky Offy finally expired for good. The car sat dormant until 1957, when team mechanic Alfred Momo installed a 3.8-litre Jaguar engine and transmission. Cunningham entered the car at Sebring and cracked a cylinder wall during practice. It later ran in a couple of SCCA events before being permanently retired, and is now in the Collier collection in Florida. That marked the end of Team Cunningham, but the Cunningham name wasn't forgotten.

Briggs Cunningham's only son, Briggs S. Cunningham III, together with Robert (Bob) Lutz and Lawrence (Larry) Black, resurrected his father's company in the late 1990s and introduced the Cunningham C7 concept at the 2001 Detroit International Automobile show. No customer cars were built, however.

Co-Drivers of Briggs and Team Cunningham Drivers
Among the notable drivers to have shared a car with Briggs or to have driven for his team are some of the most legendary names in racing:
Dan Gurney
Stirling Moss
Jack Brabham
Bruce McLaren
Mike Hawthorn
John Fitch
Roger Penske
Augie Pabst
Denise McCluggage
Phil Walters
Sherwood Johnston
Charles StokeyLake Underwood
Ivor Bueb
Walt Hansgen
Archie Scott Brown
Paul Richards
Lucie Cunningham McKinney
Bill Lloyd
Bill Spear
Charlie Wallace
Ed Crawford
John Gordon Benett
Phil Forno
Russ Boss
Bill Kimberly
Bob Grossman
Fred Windridge
Dick Thompson
George G. Huntoon

Other Team Cars
In addition to Cunninghams, the team raced Ferrari, Jaguar, Maserati, O.S.C.A., Porsche, and other sports cars. One set a record in 1954 that remains unbroken: driven by Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd, Cunningham's 1.5-liter O.S.C.A. MT4 (Maserati Tipo 4) become the smallest-engined car ever to win the Sebring 12 Hours race, and also the first to win on wire wheels. The team won at Sebring again the following year, this time with a Jaguar D-Type. In 1964 Briggs Cunningham and Lake Underwood won the 3.0 Liter Prototype class at Sebring with their jointly-owned Porsche 904 GTS, and took first place in the 2-liter class and ninth overall in 1965, again with a 904 GTS.

Racing Stripes
Besides his own great race cars and his determination to win, this great American racer contributed something else to racing that still endures to this day. Cunningham's cars were the first to be painted with racing stripes. The traditional Cunningham racing colors were blue stripes on white automobiles. Carroll Shelby, who competed against Cunningham and his team, adopted the Team Cunningham colors and revived the stripes for his own brand of race cars. White and blue became the official colors of American race teams in international racing, where Italy used red and France adopted blue.

Cunningham amassed a collection of automobiles that included the first Ferrari sold in the United States by Luigi Chinetti, and a Bugatti Royale, one of only six made. To house the collection he opened the Cunningham Museum right up the road in Costa Mesa, California. Eventually the vehicles were sold to his long-time friend Miles Collier, to be combined with the Collier Automotive Museum collection in Naples, Florida, which also was open to the public at that time.

Today's C-3
At the Gooding Co. auction in Pebble Beach this year, this 1953 Cunningham C-3 Continental Coupe sold for $539,000. The catalog description read: Formerly the Property of Jack Hinkle. One of Only 20 C-3 Coupes Built. Documented by Cunningham Factory Records. * Fascinating History and Design. Recently Completed Show-Quality Restoration. AACA National First Award Winner. Displayed at Amelia Island and Mar-a-Lago. Ideal Entry for Leading Concours and Driving Events.

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