1953 Cunningham C3
1953 Cunningham C3. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Briggs Swift Cunningham II was to the manor born. His father Briggs Swift Cunningham I, had inherited money which he invested shrewdly, including financing for the Procter and Gamble Co. His mother inherited railroad and utilities interests. Thus when Briggs II was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1907 there was no shortage of funds.

The Cunningham wealth allowed Briggs to enjoy life, including golfing, yachting and motor racing. He left engineering studies at Yale University in 1929 after only two years, married, and took his new bride to Europe where they sailed the Mediterranean in a six-meter racing boat he had shipped over. He also acquired a Mercedes-Benz and an Alfa Romeo.

Back home, Briggs did some motor racing, and during the Second World War flew a single engine plane on Civil Air Patrol anti-submarine missions along the East Coast.

Following the war Briggs became serious about motor racing. In 1950, he tried entering a Fordillac in the famed Le Mans, France 24-hour endurance race. The Fordillac was created by Frick-Tappet Motors of Long Island, New York, by installing Cadillacs’s new overhead valve V8 engines in 1949-1950 Fords.

Le Mans authorities disallowed the hybrid, so Briggs entered two Cadillacs, one stock and the other with an aerodynamic body designed by a Grumman Aircraft engineer. They finished a commendable 10th and 11th, convincing Briggs that he could win Le Mans with an American car.

Cunningham set up the Briggs S. Cunningham Co. in West Palm Beach Florida in September, 1950, using Frick Tappet Motors as the nucleus. Bill Frick was an ingenious mechanic, and his business partner Phil Walters was a successful racer who drove under the name of Ted Tappet.

Walters, Frick and staff created the first Cunningham prototype, a handsome but bulbous roadster called the C1, followed by three C1-based C2s built in time to compete in the 1951 Le Mans race. The heart of the Cunningham C2 was the new 5.4-litre Chrysler hemispherical combustion V8 hopped up from the stock 180 horsepower to 220.

One C2 ran as high as second for five hours, but succumbed to the low octane gasoline supplied, and limped home 18th. Disappointed but undaunted, Cunningham immediately began plans for the 1952 race.

Although the C2s were sports racing cars that could be driven on the highway, they were not very civilized for regular use. To satisfy the Le Mans officials that he was a real car manufacturer, Cunningham also had to produce road cars.

His intention was to build a dual-purpose car suitable for racing and street use. The first C3 prototype road car was just a C2 with a hard top, and it quickly became apparent that a dual-purpose car required too many compromises. It was also too expensive to build, and was awkward looking to boot.

A deal was made with Italian coachbuilder Alfredo Vignale in Turin to build C3 fastback coupes styled by Italian stylist Giovanni Michelotti. Cunningham chassis were shipped to Italy where the completed bodies were installed, and the cars shipped back to West Palm Beach.

The C3 was a luxuriously appointed, stylish, high performance, sports touring coupe (plus a few roadsters) with a leather trimmed interior and full instrumentation, including a tachometer. But while sleek and attractive on the outside, under the skin it was a real amalgam.

Because Cunningham was a small enterprise it had to rely on established parts. The front suspension was from Ford, brakes were by Mercury, steering was Dodge, rear coil springs were Buick and the rear axle was Chrysler, all held together by a sturdy tubular steel frame. Early transmissions were Cadillac three-speed manuals, but most had Chrysler three-speed, semi-automatics. Power came from Chrysler Hemi V8s with four carburetors and dual exhausts giving 220 horsepower initially, later raised to 235.

The first Cunningham C3 was displayed at the Watkins Glen, New York sports car races in September, 1952, and production began early in 1953. The C3 married rugged American mechanicals with svelte Italian styling, but alas it could only be enjoyed by those who could afford $11,400. It was a grand touring car for two, although luggage was stowed behind the seat as the trunk was filled with spare tire and fuel tank.

With a powerful engine in a relatively small car, performance was excellent. Zero 96 km/h (60 mph) was in the seven second range with the Cadillac transmission, and eight seconds-plus for the Chrysler. Top speed would have been very high; the C2 racers reached 245 km/h (152 mph) on the long Mulsanne straight at Le Mans.

A total of some 27 C3s were built during 1953 and ’54, 18 coupes and nine roadsters. It was enough to satisfy Le Mans officials that Cunningham was an automobile manufacturer, but not enough to convince the U.S. Internal Revenue Service that is was a viable business. There would be no more C3s.

Briggs Cunningham continued his quest to win Le Mans for America, but although finishing as high as third in 1953 and ’54, the Stars and Stripes never played for his cars. He did, however, leave a legacy of beautiful and highly collectible Cunningham C3 grand touring cars.

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