DANVILLE, California, 10 June, 2013
In the history of competition, few figures have participated in more than one sport at the highest level; even fewer have made history in two. Briggs Swift Cunningham II not only won the America’s Cup, the most cherished prize in yacht racing, but he also brought American sports car racing to the international stage in a grand manner. With the America’s Cup Trials in San Francisco Bay this summer, Tim McGrane, Executive Director of the Blackhawk Automotive Museum, believes it is the perfect time to remind lovers of both automotive and yachting history of Cunningham’s rich legacy. The special display will open between July 3rdand August 4th.
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“You could hardly read a newspaper or magazine in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s without reading about the accomplishments of Briggs S. Cunningham”, explained McGrane. “Briggs was a larger-than-life American Sportsman. He seemed to personally embody all that was great about America in the post-WWII era. No challenge was too big or too daunting. He was truly irrepressible and we could all benefit from learning a bit more about the man and his exploits”.
An uncle took Briggs to his first automobile race just after the end of the First World War. Both the machinery and the competition appealed to him immediately. While attending Yale he had a chance to skipper a yacht. Like auto racing, yacht racing was fiercely competitive and Briggs knew he would have to return to this sport at some point. In 1933 Cunningham along with two of his closest friends, Miles and Sam Collier formed the Automobile Racing Club of America. A decade later the club was renamed the Sports Car Club of America. Not only did it survive, but it grew to be the biggest sports car club in America to this very day.
Born into a wealthy family, Cunningham had the time and resources to pursue his passions. He became a race car builder, an entrant, and an internationally competitive driver for more than twenty five years. Interestingly, he did not start driving in competition until after his mother passed away in 1940, fulfilling a promise he had made to her.
The first car he constructed for road racing combined the body of a Mercedes SSK with the chassis and drive train of a Buick Century! This BuMerc, as Cunningham called it, was actually very competitive. It soundly thrashed many of the world’s most expensive and pedigreed cars on more than one occasion. The idea of a light car with a big American engine seemed to have merit.
Determined to put American race cars on the international map, Cunningham decided to enter two Cadillacs in the 1950 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious sports car race. One car was a relatively “stock” appearing two-door coupe, the second had its standard body removed and a light weight, aerodynamic, flounder shaped, roadster body installed. While greatly reducing its drag, the new body was less than beautiful. The car was immediately deemed “Le Monstre” by the French. To the amazement of most race fans, the stock bodied car finished a respectable 10th, with “Le Monstre” finishing just one position behind. The attention the American team drew on its first international outing made Cunningham even more determined to win at Le Mans.
Putting his vast financial resources to work, Briggs purchased a Long Island based shop that had constructed several Cadillac powered Fords and Studebakers. These “hybrids” were well built, fast, and they handled. He relocated his team of talented car builders to Palm Beach where they started production of purpose-built sports cars, named Cunnninghams, which would race at Le Mans and other great road racing venues. As the team entered at least two cars in most races, Cunningham assembled a stable of the best racers to drive beside him. While most of the competition towed their race car to the track behind a pick-up truck and ate out of a picnic basket, the Cunningham team had a sophisticated car transporting truck, a catering truck, and all of the amenities that professional teams now consider mandatory.
Cunningham and his team drivers piloted great, bellowing, brute force, sport cars combining light tube frame chassis and aluminum bodies with big powerful American engines. The thundering Cunningham sports cars enjoyed numerous wins in the US and had several top 10 finishes at Le Mans, yet a Cunningham car never did manage to win at Le Mans.
By the end of 1955 the manufacturing operations were closed, but this was far from the end of the Cunningham racing saga. The team simply switched from building cars to purchasing cars, while continuing to carry the team’s American white with blue stripes livery. Over the years, they raced Corvettes, Jaguars, Maseratis, and OSCAs. Their best finish at Le Mans came in 1960 when a Cunningham team Corvette driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman finished first in the GT class and eighth overall. This was the first ever win by a Corvette at Le Mans and was a feat that was not duplicated by a Corvette for more than 40 years!
By 1958 with his car manufacturing efforts halted, Cunningham found himself with time on his hands. He turned his attention to the new 12 meter sailing yachts that were about to compete for the America’s Cup. Calling on the skills he had acquired while at college, he commissioned the yacht “Columbia” and entered the race. He personally developed several special racing features including a device for smoothing the sails, named a Cunningham of course, and he skippered the yacht himself. And, he won, bringing the America’s Cup back to America.
While Briggs S. Cunningham is no longer with us, several of the cars that he used to make his mark on the international racing world have survived. Thanks to the efforts of Tim McGrane, the Blackhawk Automotive Museum will honor Cunningham’s accomplishments with a display of no fewer than six of his historic vehicles. Visitors will have an opportunity to see two of the very rare and handsome Cunningham-built sports cars along with several of the Team Cunningham race cars. The tribute includes:
1952 Cunningham C4R Race Car (2000 Continuation Car) VIN #R5211 (Peter Hosmer Collection)
1953 Cunningham C3 West Palm Beach Comp. Coupe VIN #5206X (Peter Hosmer Collection)
1953 Cunningham C3 Vignale Cabriolet VIN #5225 (Rich Atwell)
1960 Chevrolet Cunningham Corvette #3 team car (Lance Miller Collection)
1961 Jaguar Cunningham E-Type semi-lightweight-Reg No 9023 DU (The Blackhawk Collection)
1963 Jaguar Cunningham E-Type Lightweight- Reg No 5114 WK (The Blackhawk Collection)
“These cars are part of America’s racing history and are known around the world”, explained McGrane. “They are rarely on public display, and all are virtually priceless. The chance to see these cars and visit the America’s Cup activities in San Francisco Bay may well be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Cunningham was an authentic American hero and all of us at The Blackhawk are really pleased to help salute his life and legacy on land and in the water”.
Among Cunningham’s accomplishments are: Winning four US National Road Racing Championships and numerous sport car racing competitions, building his own world class sports cars, fielding one of the most sophisticated sports car racing teams of its era, and winning The America’s Cup! He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, he was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1993, the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993, and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2003. Cunningham lived to be 96 and never lost his passion for automobiles and competition.
The Blackhawk Automotive Museum is open every week Wednesday through Sunday. In addition to the Cunningham display, the Museum features a rotating collection of 90 of the world’s most spectacular automobiles in a striking 100,000 square-foot architectural masterpiece designed specifically to showcase these automotive jewels. If you’re an automotive enthusiast and you‘ve not been to the Blackhawk Automotive Museum, you need to add it to your “must do” list.