1916 Cunningham
1916 Cunningham. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

The Cunningham name has marched across the American automobile landscape twice, and with significantly different vehicles. Both were the products of meticulous entrepreneurs and were built in limited quantities.

The more recent Cunninghams were produced in the 1950s by millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham in his West Palm Beach, Florida factory. The main thrust was sports racing cars but he also built 27 road-going sports cars with Italian bodies. Cunningham’s goal was to produce an American sports-racing car that would win the famous French 24-hour LeMans endurance race.

Almost all of his 1951-1955 racers had Chrysler “Hemi” V8s, and although they would twice finish as high as third at LeMans against the world’s best, they never managed to win. A disappointed Briggs Cunningham began campaigning cars from other manufacturers.

The other Cunningham had a longer and more varied existence tracing to James Cunningham, who left the family farm in Ontario, Canada in the 1830s and moved to New York State. A keen woodworker, he found work in the carriage trade in Rochester.

In addition to being a skilled tradesman, Cunningham was an aspiring businessman. When his employer, Hanford & Whitbeck, became available in 1838, he and two partners bought it. Eventually Cunningham was able to buy out his partners, and through dedication to superb craftsmanship, the company prospered and established a reputation for quality products.

Cunningham’s son Joseph joined the business in 1882, and when James died in 1886, Joseph carried on. By the turn of the century, Cunningham was America’s leading builder of such products as carriages, cutters and sleighs. It was also renowned for elaborately-carved and decorated funeral wagons.

The arrival of the automobile attracted Cunningham, although it would continue to make carriages until 1915. After experimenting with electric power, they developed their first gasoline car in 1908.

Cunningham built only the bodies for its early motor vehicles, purchasing the mechanical components such as Continental engines from outside suppliers. That was temporary, and within a few years they were making their own mechanical parts such as the 1911 four-cylinder, 40-horsepower Cunningham engine.

Cunningham carried over its tradition of high quality coachwork. The cars were hand-built, luxuriously equipped and extensively road tested before delivery. This was reflected in the price, a princely sum of $3,500.

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