Briggs Cunningham, the American determined to win Le Mans
Wealth and ambition turned Briggs Cunningham into a formidable race car constructor and driver, who tried and tried again to conquer the 24 Hours of Le Mans
The adage fits the image of Briggs Swift Cunningham, the man who reputedly coined it. ‘How do you make a small fortune in motor racing? Start with a large one…’
He was, after all, the gentleman driver, car manufacturer and all-round go-getter who sunk his money into chasing his dream of winning the Le Mans 24 Hours with an American car powered by an American engine and steered by American drivers.
Long before Ford’s Total Performance programme set about taking the fight to Ferrari and other Continental blue bloods on sacred ground, this old-money scion of an East Coast ‘good family’ was making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.
The thing is, Cunningham didn’t come up with this oft-repeated maxim, although you could be forgiven for believing that he did. Born into a wealthy Cincinnati family of Scottish extraction, his father made his money in real estate, banking, and railroads, only to die aged 75 when his son was seven-years-old.
The family’s wealth ensured that young Briggs enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He excelled in sport and, while at Yale University, began a career as a successful yacht-racing skipper that would ultimately lead him to international fame as owner and captain of the America’s Cup-winning Columbia.
However, you could argue that his greatest achievement was in helping usher in non-oval motor sport in the USA. During the 1930s, he and classmates Miles and Sam Collier began plotting how to go about establishing the sport in the USA, the Colliers having previously driven an Auburn on the Monte Carlo Rally in addition to importing MGs.
Together, they formed The Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) which promoted motor racing on street and airfield courses, although Cunningham did not compete during his mother’s lifetime out of respect for her wishes. However, in 1940, he began fielding cars, most famously the Bu-Merc, which comprised a 1939 Buick Century chassis/engine and a modified Mercedes-Benz SSK body.
With the resumption of motor sport following World War 2, and after his mother had passed on, Briggs drove the Bu-Merc at the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix meeting in 1948, finishing second to Frank Griswold’s Alfa Romeo 8C2900.
This was the jumping off point for bids as both a driver and an entrant. And if you’re going to race sports cars, you may as well do so at the biggest event of its kind. The lure of Le Mans 24 Hours had bewitched other American teams long before Cunningham first participated in the endurance classic, but his was to be a sustained and well-funded attack.
Cunningham was already the wrong side of 40 when he entered two Cadillacs in the 1950 running of the Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans. A largely stock Coupe deVille nicknamed Clumsy Puppy was steered by Cunningham and Phil Walters (aka Ted Tappet).
The Colliers, meanwhile, drove ‘Le Monstre’, which was a more radical variant with a streamlined body that looked not unlike an aeroplane wing viewed in profile. The Clumsy Puppy scurried home in a non-too-shabby tenth place, with its ugly sister following it home in eleventh after a detour into a sandbank cost valuable time.
This maiden run whetted Cunningham’s appetite to the point that he formed the B.S. Cunningham Company in September 1950. Just to leave onlookers in no doubt as to his intentions, the firm’s letterhead featured the legend ‘Competition Motor Cars’ alongside a chequered flag logo.
However, while he was used to having an abundance of talent on tap to design and construct his racing yachts, building racing cars was something else entirely. There were no manufacturers of sports-racing cars in the US, nor a brains trust, so he created one. Cunningham was in no way a designer or engineer, the design team comprising Walters and William Frick.
The first fruits of their combined labours was the Cunningham C-1 (below). This was an all-American sports car that predated the Chevrolet Corvette by three years. Powered by a torquey OHV Cadillac V8 mounted in a robust twin-tube frame, complete with coil-sprung independent front suspension and de Dion rear end set-up, it was technically up to par with overseas’ rivals.
What’s more, the C-1 was achingly pretty. The handcrafted all-aluminium body may have borrowed a few styling cues from European contemporaries, it was far from a slavish copy of anything. There wasn’t a line wrong on it.
There was, however, a stumbling block. General Motors saw no worth in a motor sport programme. As such, it refused to supply engines. No matter, Cunningham’s former Yale classmate Bob Keller (son of KT Keller, who had succeeded Walter P Chrysler as president of the company) came to the rescue: Chrysler engines were made available to the Florida-based would-be motor mogul, and at a 40 percent discount. Enter the C-2.
Visually similar to the C-1, the new strain featured suspension revisions and 5.4-litre Chrysler ‘FirePower’ Hemis that were breathed on to the point that they produced 270bhp. That was a 90bhp increase over the standard item.
There were other pressing issues, however. For starters, because the B.S. Cunningham Company wasn’t contributing to the Korean War effort, it was ineligible for government permits to buy steel tubing and suchlike. Instead, it had to acquire raw materials at great cost on the black market.
Three C-2Rs (the ‘R’ being subsequently added to denote ‘Racing’) were built from March-May 1951 and subsequently loaded onto a rail car and transported to New York before being put on-board the Mauretania for the crossing to France. On arrival in Le Havre, the cars were then driven to Le Mans.
The 130-mile drive constituted a development programme, and the lack of prior testing showed come the race. Despite displaying an impressive turn of speed, the lead car shared by Walters and John Fitch (shown above at the start with the Moss/Fairman C-type) aboard C-2R being clocked at 152mph along the Mulsanne Straight, reliability wasn’t on the team’s side.
Two Cunninghams were eliminated in accidents, while Walters/Fitch came home in a beleaguered 18th place after 24 hours of racing, having ran as high as second at the half-way point.
Meanwhile, back in Florida, construction had already begun on a coupé based on the C-2 called, imaginatively enough, the C-3. It looked like a C-1 wearing a hardtop and was intended for series manufacturer as a road car. However, Cunningham abandoned the scheme on learning that it would cost around $15,000 to make each car locally.
Unbowed, Cunningham changed tack and commissioned Italian coachbuilder Alfredo Vignale to refine the concept and build deluxe C-3s (below) in Italy, with 25 being made in 1952-53.
A new car was deemed necessary for the 1952 competition programme, with G Briggs Weaver being brought in to design the new C-4 series of cars. The former Indian Motorcycles engineering chief came up with a lighter sports-racing car with a shorter wheelbase and narrower track than its predecessor.
Chrysler also paid more attention and became actively involved in developing engines for racing. Two variants emerged: the open C4-R and the closed C-4RK. Three cars were then dispatched to France for the 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours, but only one would finish.
Cunningham drove a measured race and stayed in his car for a remarkable nineteen-and-a-half hours. He only handed over to co-driver Bill Spear in the closing stages, and even then it was under duress.
He later admitted to author Dean Batchelor that ‘…the clutch began slipping around midnight. Bill liked to go like the hammer of hell. Well, I wanted to finish the bloody race. I’d gotten this far and we’d already lost two of our cars.’
His fortitude was rewarded with a remarkable fourth place finish as the chequered flag descended which was good enough for a class win.
Not only that, C-4Rs proved frontrunners closer to home, with wins that year at Allentown, Thompson, Elkhart Lake and at Albany, Georgia. Most of these victories were accrued by Fitch who was crowned the Sports Car Club of America’s first-ever national champion at the end of the year.
The team started the 1953 season with outright honours in the Sebring 12 Hours for Fitch/Walters, while Cunningham and co-driver Sherwood Johnston were third in the 12 Hours of Reims. C-4Rs also won at Thompson, Floyd Bennett Field, Albany and March Field, California. Le Mans, however, was a different story.
The Cunningham squad was among the favourites to win the 24 Hours in 1953 (below) although the Jaguar C-types with their new-fangled Dunlop disc brakes proved unbeatable. Joining a single C-4RK and a lone C-4R was the new C-5R.
Cunningham built his most powerful car to date with the long Mulsanne Straight in mind. 'The Smiling Shark', as it was dubbed, proved super-sleek and it averaged 104.14mph over the 24 hours. That was 8mph faster than 1952's winning speed but 1mph slower than the victorious Jaguar. The C-5R finished third overall driven by driven by Fitch and Walters. It was just four laps behind the victor, while the C-4R and C-4RK both finished in the top ten.
It was an excellent showing against established factory-backed opposition. A two-car bid in 1954 resulted in another third place (Spear/Johnston), the sister C-4R driven by Cunningham and John Gordon Bennett coming home in fifth place. Tellingly, the team had hedged its bets by also entering a Ferrari 375MM, which set a precedent for future bids.
Cunningham teamed up with Johnston in a new car, the C-6R, for 1955 which was powered by a specially-made Offenhauser engine. However, second and third gears failed early on, while the 2942cc four-banger overheated repeatedly, which hastened its retirement. Cunningham had also entered a brace of Jaguar D-types (which also failed to finish) and wouldn’t field another car of his own making in subsequent attempts.
Cunningham continued to enter cars at Le Mans and elsewhere into the mid ’60s, while also establishing a globally-renowned motor museum with a Bugatti Type 41 Royale as its centrepiece. He died in July 2003, a mere stripling of 96, having been decorated with just about every motor sport-related honour going during his autumn years.
He deserved every last one of them as his contribution to American – and international – motor sport lore is inestimable.