The Le Mans cunninghams

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A chance to view, and ride in, the American challengers of the early 1950s

Before the advent of the Ford Motor Company’s crushing multi-million-dollar attack on Le Mans in the mid-1960s, victory in the 24-hour French classic had remained exclusively the province of European manufacturers. Chenard et Walcker, La Lorraine, Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Lagonda, Delahaye, Bugatti, Talbot, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Ferrari ensured that from 1923 to 1966 (with breaks in 1936 and between 1940 and 1949) the winner’s circle at Le Mans stayed in European hands. But in the early 1950s, the blue and white colours of the United States of America came very close to breaking into this elite when carried by the cars of that great amateur enthusiast Briggs Cunningham.

Cunningham, whose impressive automobile museum we visited during a trip to California last autumn, has been an all-round sportsman of some distinction. During the 1930s he raced six-metre boats as a member of the US team, sustained an avid interest in aviation which led to him qualifying for a private pilot’s licence in 1939, and took up racing MG TCs in SCCA events on the East Coast once the war was ended. In 1939 he had developed a machine dubbed the “Bu-Merc” in conjunction with Buick’s chief engineer Charles Chayne, this being a novel hybrid utilising both Buick and Mercedes components. It was driven by Miles Collier in the race at the New York World Fair in December 1940.

Once the war was over, a chance meeting with the Collier brothers helped fire Cunningham’s competitive enthusiasm in the direction of Le Mans. They discussed the possibility of building an all-American sports car to take on the best of the Europeans on their home ground. Accordingly it was agreed that they should enter the 1950 Le Mans to reconnoitre the situation, using a pair of 5.4-litre Cadillac Series 50-61s. Both machines had their engines modified by Frick-Tappet, and whilst Sam and Miles Collier drove a standard saloon, Cunningham and Phil Walters’ car was strikingly rebodied beneath an aerodynamic skin to take the form of an open coupe. Dubbed “Le Monstre” by the amazed French, it finished 1 1 th, one place behind its more conventional stablemate.

Suitably encouraged, Cunningham returned to his Palm Beach, Florida, home, where his team laid plans for an all-new sports-car design with which to compete at Le Mans the following year. The result was a rather ordinary looking two-seater roadster using an uprated version of Chrysler’s 5,426-c.c. V8 engine and De Dion rear suspension. The outcome was quite satisfactory and promising for one of these C-2Rs, driven by Phil Walters and John Fitch, held second place behind the winning Jaguar on Sunday morning before a trifling mechanical problem dropped it to an eventual 18th. The sister cars of Cunningham/Htuitoon and Rand/Wacker failed to finish.

Content that his team was progressing in the right direction, Cunningham developed his most successful sports car for the 1952 Le Mans race, the chunky, aggressive-looking C-4R which used a similar Chrysler V8 to that fitted in the C-2R. The car was distinguished by its unusual tube-shaped engine oil-cooler mounted just in front of the cockpit on the right-hand side of the bonnet top. It used a four-speed ZF gearbox and took Cunningham to the best personal placing of his Le Mans career. Sharing the wheel with Bill Spear, Cunningham drove a C-4R into fourth place behind two Mercedes-Benz and a Nash Healey. In the process the C-4R broke the distance record for its class (5-to 8-litres) which had been established by the Allard/Cole Allard two years earlier. Two years later the C-4Rs were to give the team their most rewarding result at the Sarthe, Spear/Johnson finishing third and Cunningham/Benett fifth.

Accordingly it was a great pleasure when Briggs Cunningham himself, a sprightly 68 years old, invited the writer to accompany him in the passenger seat of his display C-4R for an impromptu test run round the giant car park next to his museum.

In contrast to the European sports cars of the early 1950s, it’s very obvious that the Cunningham C-4R is a small production run “special”. It’s crude, bumpy and very noisy in the manner of the AC Cobra, ten years its junior. The big Chrysler V8 thumps and slaps away at low revs, building up to an obtrusive roar when its owner really floors the throttle pedal. Interestingly, all the Cunningham drivers wore lap belts and the raked position of the steering wheel must have caused a great amount of amusement to the Europeans in the early fifties. Jaguar and Ferrari drivers were used to steering with their elbows and shoulders, but Cunningham insists that his cars were more comfortable to drive for long distances because one could sit back slightly and employ a “straightened arms” technique.

Despite an admitted concern that the brakes might not be up to par as the C-4R had been standing for some months, Briggs Cunningham left me in no doubt as to his youthful approach; he might have been pounding round Le Mans yesterday if his spirited handling of the roadster was anything to go by!

Two other C-4Rs, driven by Fitch/Rice and Walters/Duane Carter (the father of Dan Gurney’s new USAC driver for 1976!) both dropped out with valve trouble in 1952. By this stage Cunningham realised that Jaguar had “rather stymied us with their disc brakes” and a faster car would be needed to take on the cars from Coventry in 1953, even though they’d all been eliminated early on in the 1952 race. The result of Cunningham’s thinking was the striking, ultra-sleek C-5R roadster of which only a single was built. Nicknamed “The Shark” because of its low, wide and fierce frontal appearance, it continued using the customary 5.4-litre Chrysler V8 but broke fresh ground by employing torsion-bar suspension.

During practice at Le Mans, the C-5R proved tremendously, quick. For the first time radar timing equipment had been installed on the Mulsanne straight at Hunaudieres, and the new Cunningham went through the trap at a record 249.135 k.p.h. The Alfa Romeo Disco Volante coupes with their 3.5-litre engines, were also fractionally faster than the Jaguar C-types in a straight line, but the Coventry cars’ superior braking performance settled the issue in the race. Nevertheless, driven by Walters and Fitch, the Cunningham C-5R proved a very definite challenge to the Jaguars and broke up a hoped-for Jaguar 1-2-3 by finishing third ahead of the Peter Whitehead/Ian Stewart C-type. Cunningham and Spear finished seventh in the C-4R and a specially built C-4R coupe, designed by Kamm, finished 10th in the hands of Moran/Benett.

The 1954 entry of two Cunningham C-4Rs was supplemented by a 4.5-litre Ferrari 340 for Walters/Fitch, but this suffered a rear axle failure shortly after half-distance. In 1955 Le Mans saw the last of the Cunningham roadsters when Briggs appeared driving his prototype C-6R fitted with a 2.9-litre Offenhauser four-cylinder engine. Sadly its reliability was not thatched by its competitiveness and, although it lasted 18 hours, it never climbed higher than 13th overall.

Later the car was fitted with a 3.8-litre Jaguar engine and raced in America, but the Cunningham roadsters were gone from Le Mans for good. “Everyone was a bit down following the big accident,” Cunningham explains, “and I had plenty on my plate as Sir William Lyons suggested I take over the Jaguar distributorship for the North East United States. I ran D-types, Formula Junior cars and Oscas in America and also sold Maseratis.” But it was to be five years before Briggs Cunningham’s colours were to be seen again at the Sarthe and, when they did return, they were carried by some rather unexpected machines. For the 1960 Le Mans race, Cunningham entered four 4.6-litre Chevrolet Corvette coupes for himself and Bill Kimberly, Lilley/Gamble, Thompson/ Windridge and Fitch/Grossman.

“Zora Duntov was keen to get those Corvettes at Le Mans,” Cunningham continues. “He got the President of General Motors interested and we got quite a bit of back-door assistance. They didn’t do badly, Fitch and Grossman finished eighth, Kimberley flipped his in the rain and it was burnt out, the Thompson car blew its engine, and the other car actually lasted 24 hours but didn’t cover the minimum distance required.”

From that point onwards, Briggs Cunningham gradually wound down his racing career until, after moving to California in 1962, he stopped shortly afterwards. He ran the occasional Jaguar and Maserati at Le Mans up until 1963, but the business pressures of building up and operating his ambitious public museum finally obliged him to stop. The Cunningham team never achieved its ambition of winning Le Mans, but their attempts to do so certainly added some Trans-Atlantic sparkle to that endurance event during its post-war renaissance, resulting in the construction of some fascinating cars.—A.H.

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