1916 Cunningham. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Until the Ford Motor Company accomplished it in 1966, America had never won the world’s most prestigious road race, the 24 hours of Le Mans, France, held since 1923. Winning there and having one’s national anthem played was road racing’s highest honour.
The closest American cars had come was second and third by Stutz and Chrysler respectively in 1928. Briggs Swift Cunningham of Connecticut was determined to change that, and he wanted to win Le Mans with a car using totally American components.
Cunningham was born in 1907 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a family of considerable wealth. His mother had inherited investments in railroads and utilities and his father was one of the original financers of Procter and Gamble. After a couple of years studying engineering at Yale, Briggs left, got married, honeymooned in Europe and generally lived a gentleman’s life. He was interested in both car and yacht racing, and would excel in both by rising to the top in yachting, and almost to the top in car racing.
Following the Second World War, Cunningham began seriously pursuing auto racing. This brought him into contact with a couple of enthusiastic racers/garage owners from Long Island, New York named Phil Walters and Bill Frick. They were masters of engine swapping; one of their specialties was dropping Cadillac engines into Fords to produce “Fordillacs.”
Cunningham was so intrigued with the Fordillac he tried to enter one in the 1950 Le Mans race. When the hybrid wasn’t eligible he entered two 1950 Cadillacs, one almost stock and the other fitted with an aerodynamic, rectangular body designed by some Grumman engineers. The French quickly dubbed it Le Monstre. They did surprisingly well, the stock Cadillac finishing 10th and Le Monstre 11th, convincing Cunningham that he could win Le Mans with a proper American racing car.
Cunningham moved the Frick-Walters operation to West Palm Beach Florida where it became the B.S. Cunningham Co. Work began immediately on three racers for 1951. Since Chrysler was the only American manufacturer that offered substantial help, Cunningham used Chrysler’s new 5.4-litre overhead valve “Hemi” V8. They hopped it up from the stock 180 horsepower to 220 with four carburetors. It also got higher compression, reportedly achieved by fitting Cadillac pistons!