Cunningham. The American dream at Le Mans

  • 01 November 2023
  • 2 min read
  • 5 images
Cunningham. The American dream at Le Mans image

Photo credit: The Collier Collection, Revs Institute, Wheelsage

Briggs Cunningham, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur from Cincinnati, developed the idea of establishing his racing team in the late 1930s, primarily due to his connection with the Collier family, with whom he participated in the 1939 Le Mans 24-hour race, driving an MG. The Colliers, who are prominent collectors today, were the founders of the Automobile Racing Club of America, later renamed the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) in 1944. Cunningham began his journey, eventually becoming an automobile constructor under his own name, in the post-World War II era. He began with a hybrid called the “Bumerc” (that combined a Buick 8V engine with a Mercedes-Benz chassis) and later with an MG TC and a Ferrari 166.

Cunningham. The American dream at Le Mans - 1 From his youth, a fascination with racing has surrounded Briggs Swift Cunningham's personality, first as a driver and then as a constructor.

In 1950, Cunningham took his first significant step by entering two Cadillac Series 61 Coupe de Villes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. One remained in its standard form but was skilfully modified and entrusted to Sam and Miles Collier. The other was heavily modified and dubbed “Le Monstre”, driven by Cunningham himself and Phil Waters. They finished 10th and 11th overall, respectively, a promising debut.

Cunningham. The American dream at Le Mans - 2 Before becoming a constructor Cunningham raced GM cars: Corvettes and, at the debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a Cadillac Series 61 Coupe de Ville and the prototype nicknamed “le Monstre”.

The following year, Cunningham decided to become an automobile manufacturer. The B.S. Cunningham Company was established in West Palm Beach, Florida, with the sole aim of conquering Le Mans. The various models, intriguing and embodying the European spirit despite being powered by American engines, were always white with blue stripes in the classic American livery. They achieved significant success in the USA but did not fare as well in the gruelling 24-hour race in France.

Cunningham. The American dream at Le Mans - 3 From 1951 Cunningham began producing cars with the aim of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Pictured here is Briggs Swift Cunningham with the C-4Rs.

The first model created was the C-1 in 1950, powered by a Cadillac engine, produced as a single example and used in the Le Mans tests in 1951. The experience led to a switch to Chrysler engines, resulting in the model named C-2R. These, too, proved to be uncompetitive. Cunningham persisted in his development efforts, obtaining progressively better results: the C-4R finished fourth overall in 1952, and the C-5R finally reached the podium in 1953. It was to be Cunningham’s best result at Le Mans.

Cunningham. The American dream at Le Mans - 4 The best result at Le Mans came in 1953 with a podium finish by the C-5R piloted by Phil Walters and John Fitch.

His activity as an automobile manufacturer continued until 1955, with his reputation flourishing in the USA but not enough to convince him to continue. Capricorns, like him, don’t like to lose! Nevertheless, he continued to race until he was nearly sixty years old. Then, when he retired, he wanted to sell all his cars. His friend, Miles Collier Jr., prevented them from being scattered and purchased them all to bring into the Collier Museum in Naples, Florida, which is now known as the Revs Institute. This happened in 1986. Briggs Cunningham, who had long retired from racing, passed away in 2003, at the age of 96.

Cunningham. The American dream at Le Mans - 5 The blue-white livery hallmark of American Cunningham cars. Production continued until 1955.