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The Cunningham – An American Auto Racing Legend

The Cunningham CarsWest Palm Beach, Florida is hardly a factory town and surely not a location anyone might associate with car manufacturing. From 1951-55 American racer Briggs Cunningham, a man with a dream to build an American sports car which would race at Le Mans, did just that.  In this short time span the B.S. Cunningham Company built competitive sports cars which made a big impression on American sports car racing.   Cunningham 1951 C-1Number one, C-1 to be exact, the one and only prototype fitted with a Cadillac eight-cylinder engine was completed in late 1950. The car was never officially raced but was used during practice at Le Mans.  Apparently some difficulty with obtaining the Cadillac engines from GM caused an immediate shift to a Chrysler Hemi for the C-2.  All three C-2s were raced at Le Mans in 1952 and while only one finished, 18 out of 60 was admirable for this new American racer. Results improved for the C-2 in 1951 with wins at Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen.

1952 Cunningham C-3 Continental CoupeThough street use was not their focus the C-3 cars were C-2 race chassis adapted for street use, sent to Turnin, Italy and bodied by Vignale and returned to West Palm Beach for finishing. Twenty-five C-3’s were built, 20 as coupes and just 5 were convertibles. Take a look at the Vignale bodied Ferraris of the same era and you’ll note the similarities. However the 1953 Cunningham C-3 was selected by the Museum on Modern Art in New York as one of the 10 best contemporary car designs.

1952 Cunningham C-4RNarrower, lighter and shorter design changes were made which resulted in the C-4R, and they worked. In 1952 this car came in fourth at Le Mans driven by Briggs and Phil Walters. In 1953 a C-4R won at Sebring 12 Hours.

Reducing drag was one of the keys to creating an effective race car. Dr. Wunibald Kamm, a German scientist changed the rear of racing by proving a short “cut-off” tail reduced car turbulence at high speeds. Dr. Kamm revolutionized car design and these details can be seen in many marques.  He made a special visit to Cunningham in West Palm Beach and a change was made. 1952 Cunningham C-4RKThe C-4RK, K for Kamm, now had the new Kammback design elements with a long tapered nose and an abrupt cut tail. The result was this revised beast had the best lap time of all the Cunningham cars in 1952.

1953 Cunningham C-5RThe car was improving, design and mechanical changes were achieving results. With a C-5R the Cunningham team finished third overall and first in class at Le Mans in 1953.

1955 Cunningham C-6RBy 1955 beating the Europeans at Le Mans had still eluded Cunningham. Out went the Chrysler Hemi and in came the Offenhouser engine, normally used to power Indy cars, for the new C-6R. This also meant a much too difficult conversion from methanol to gasoline and its lap time at Le Mans proved 13 mph slower than the C-5R. This was the end of the Cunningham cars, not necessarily by choice but the IRS rules only allowed a company 5 years of unprofitability before it was classified as a nondeductible hobby.

Cunningham C-5RFinally, let’s dispel an unfortunate legend that Carroll Shelby “invented” the racing stripe.  Not true, it was Cunningham. Blue and white were the international colors for American entries. Cunningham placed two blue stripes running the length of the car bodies. Previously blue was often found on the frame rails but as these were covered on the Cunningham cars, the innovation of the racing stripe was born. Shelby was at Le Mans, driving for Aston Martin, when the Cunningham cars were there and would have seen them.

Briggs Cunningham and the B.S. Cunningham Company had an impact on motorsports history and American automotive ingenuity. All the above cars were photographed and can be seen at The Revs Institute in Naples, Florida.  If you like cars, it is a MUST VISIT.


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