Bill Vance: Fast Cunningham couldn’t beat taxman

Gentleman sportsman Briggs Swift Cunningham II didn’t suffer from a shortage of funds. Both his parents came from families with wealth earned in meat packing and banking. When Briggs II arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1907 he was to the manor born.

The Cunningham wealth allowed Briggs to indulge in golfing, yachting and motor racing. He studied engineering at Yale University but left in 1929 after two years and took his new bride on a tour of Europe. They sailed the Mediterranean in a six-metre racing boat he had shipped over. While there he acquired a Mercedes-Benz and an Alfa Romeo.

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Back home, Briggs did some motor racing, and during the Second World War flew Civil Air Patrol anti-submarine missions along the U.S. East Coast.

Following the war, Briggs became serious about motor racing and attempted to enter a Fordillac in the 1950 Le Mans, France, 24-hour race. The Fordillacs were hybrid that Frick-Tappet Motors of Long Island, New York created by installing Cadillac overhead valve V-8s in 1949-1950 Fords.

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

He established B.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 business partner. Phil Walters was a successful racer who drove under the name Ted Tappet.

The first Cunningham prototype was a handsome but rather bulbous roadster called C1. It was followed by three C1-based C2s for the 1951 Le Mans. The heart of the Cunningham C2 was the new 5.4-litre Chrysler hemispherical combustion V-8 hopped up to 220 horsepower from the stock 180.

One C2 ran as high as second for five hours before suffering detonation from the low octane gasoline provided. It limped home 18th, but Cunningham was encouraged enough to begin planning for the 1952 race.

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

He planned to build a car suitable for both racing and street use, but the first C3 prototype, a C2 with a hard top, demonstrated that a dual-purpose car required so many compromises the idea was abandoned.

Cunningham then made a deal 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 bodies were installed, and the cars shipped back to West Palm Beach for completion.

The C3s were luxuriously appointed, stylish, high performance, sports touring coupe or roadster with leather trimmed interior and full instrumentation, including a tachometer. But while sleek and attractive on the outside, it was an amalgam under the skin.

Because Cunningham was a small company it used outside parts.

Front suspension was Ford, brakes were Mercury, steering was Dodge, rear coil springs were Buick and the rear axle was Chrysler, all tied together by a tubular steel frame. Early transmissions were Cadillac three-speed manuals, but most had Chrysler semi-automatics. Chrysler Hemi V-8s with four carburetors and dual exhausts gave 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. Production began early in 1953.

The C3’s rugged American mechanicals and svelte Italian styling could be enjoyed by those who could afford the $11,000 plus price. It was a grand touring car for two, but they had to store their luggage behind the seat because the trunk was filled with the spare tire and fuel tank.

With a powerful engine in a light car performance was excellent. Zero to 97 km/h (60 mph) was in the seven-second range with the Cadillac transmission, and eight-plus for the Chrysler. Top speed was at least 200 km/h (125 mph), good, but not as fast as the C2 racers that had 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 satisfied the Le Mans officials but didn’t convince the U.S. Internal Revenue Service that B.S. Cunningham Co. was a viable business. There would be no more C3s.

Although finishing as high as third at LeMans in 1953 and ’54, the Stars and Stripes never played there for Cunningham’s cars. But it was a valiant attempt for a privateer, and it left a legacy of beautiful, highly collectible Cunningham C3 Vignale-built grand touring cars.

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