This article is about a specialist car company that developed pure racing machines and was a huge success in the States. The company is Cunningham – the creator of the racing stripe at a time when teams used national racing colours. This Cunningham is not related to the luxury Cunningham cars of the 1920s and 1930s.
The company was founded by Briggs Cunningham II in the US in 1951. Mr Cunningham was born in 1907 and was a true speed freak at a time when cars were just becoming common. He went to his first car race just after the First World War, with his uncle racing a Dodge fitted with an Hispano Suiza aircraft engine and he was hooked.
By 1930 he was competing himself with some friends and in 1933 he got together with Barron, Miles and Samuel Collier, the sons of a property tycoon in Florida to form the Automobile Racing Club of America to promote sports car racing. This club was renamed in 1944 to the Sports Car Club of America – which now controls many club series. Cunningham was also behind the creation of some circuits like Watkins Glen – with money from the Collier family.
To go racing, Cunningham built racing specials out of a mix of other vehicles and these were so successful that other drivers wanted to buy his experience and skill in developing fast racing cars. By 1940 he was selling customer cars using local and imported components, in fact he was the first Ferrari owner in the US.
In 1951, Cunningham decided it was time for an American team to win the Le Mans 24 hour race in France. He set up B.S. Cunningham Company in Florida to build a team and announced to the world his intentions of taking on the Europeans. Cunningham had entered two Cadillac Coupe Deville’s the year before and had achieved top 15 places.
The first car built was the C-1 towards the end of 1950 with a Cadillac V8 and a three speed box with Ford suspension. The C-1 acted as a prototype for the C-2R that was almost identical except the Cadillac motor was replaced by a Chrysler Hemi with Cadillac rods and pistons. Output was rated at 220hp. They were fast but heavy and chewed up their tyres quite quickly which was not a race winning combination!
To help grow the business, Cunningham released a road version of the C-1, called the C-3. It was basically a road going racing car and didn’t sell well, so he contracted Vignale to design shells for the C-2 chassis and badged them as the Continental C-3. 25 were built, with the completed chassis being sent to Italy for the body to be added and then shipped back for final assembly.
1952 saw a three car team at Le Mans with a C-4R and a C-4RK. Cunningham piloted one to 4th place overall. These cars were lighter than the C-2 and had much more power – 325hp. They followed this up with a 7th and 10th the following year, however, a C-5R came in third behind two Jaguar C-Types. The C-5R was faster than the Jaguars, but couldn’t match them on handling and braking. The C-4Rs were entered again in 1954 and finished 3rd and 5th.
In 1955, Cunningham produced the C-6R, a model that used all the lessons from the previous models. It was lighter and more aerodynamic in Le Mans trim and reached 140mph. It was originally intended to have a Ferrari V12 motor and when it finally hit the circuit it had an Offenhauser 4 cylinder. It raced at Le Mans but overheated and the Offy motor disintegrated. After another engine failure, the Offy was replaced by a Jaguar XK unit. The engine failures were put down to the fact that the Offenhauser motor was developed for methanol and not the local fuel supplied for the race.
By this stage, the US Government had withdrawn their manufacturer status due to very low sales and with the huge accident at the 1955 Le Mans, the team stopped manufacturing cars but continued racing in the US with Lister-Jaguars. Cunningham then started to buy other cars like an OSCA, Porsche and Chevrolet and run them for drivers in various series. With rule changes for the 1959 Le Mans race, the team took the Listers and Corvettes with one of the Corvettes finishing in 8th spot, albeit completely worn out.
By the 1960s, Cunningham had become the Jaguar and Maserati distributor for the US and campaigned a Maserati Birdcage and a lightweight Jaguar E-type. Cunningham never won Le Mans and stopped racing in 1963 – 4 years before Ford would do what he wanted: an American car winning Le Mans, with the MkIV GT40.
During the early 2000’s Briggs Cunningham III and Bob Lutz, ex Chrysler and now a retired General Motors bigwig, had a plan to build a V12 2+2 called the C7, however the cars never materialized.
Images are owned by uniquecarpages.com