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An honourable warrior

If you set yourself up as a manufacturer and only built 30 or 40 cars, that might sound like something of a failure. But if eight of those were racing cars, and just three of those tallied five top-10 places at Le Mans, beat the best home opposition and won three-quarters of the races they entered — well, your name would have to be Briggs Cunningham.

A fast driver himself in the Fifties, Cunningham’s chief legacy has been a handful of cars bearing his name. To get the race-cars to Le Mans, he had to build some road cars. The resulting C3 models were Chrysler-engined like the most successful of his racers, but with auto-boxes inside their Vignale bodies. Interesting, but not significant.

Instead, let’s look at the race cars; one particular car, in fact, a car glowing with past glory and boasting an important position in American, and European, race history. Cunningham C4R no 5216R.

What brought the American’s name to public notice in the European racing world was his startling Cadillac entry for Le Mans in 1950. There were two. One looked standard, and was looked on by most as a no-hoper, unsuitable for the Sarthe. The other boasted special streamlined open bodywork which was extremely ugly but aimed at closing the performance gap between the solid grunt of the V8 and the high revs of the opposition’s sophisticated racing units. This was immediately nick-named Le Monstre by the French onlookers. In the event, the doubting Thomases were surprised, and Briggs Cunningham encouraged, when the coupé finished 10th and the special 11th.

Using Cadillac chassis, however, was not Cunningham’s original plan. He had tried to enter a pair of Caddy-engined Fords, a high-power, low-weight recipe concocted by Phil Walters in the States, but such a cross-breed was turned down by the ACO. However, Cunningham was convinced that combining a strong American V8 with a simple chassis would produce a car which was fast enough to be competitive and tough enough to outlast more exotic machinery. When the Le Mans 24-hour arrived in 1951, he was ready.
Three specially-built sport-racers with Chrysler engines started the race. Two crashed; the third struggled against bearing problems to finish 18th. But before leaving the road, one of these C2s had been running in second place, a significant achievement for the first appearance of a new name.

For 1952, less weight and more power were the goals. By now, having noted the C2’s promise (it had won at Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake) Chrysler itself was tacitly backing the team’s attempt to defeat the Europeans on their home ground. The Detroit giant now had a stock engine with real power potential, and the sales impact of victory was tempting. The ‘hemi’ V8 engine used lateral push-rods to operate splayed valves from the single camshaft in the vee. This gave it the advantage of hemispherical combustion chambers with less complexity than using twin cams, and the stock output was somewhere around 180bhp.

After much rapid development, involving valve-gear lightening, needle-bearing rockers, roller cam followers, solid lifters instead of hydraulic, special cranks and fire-breathing cams, the team was claiming well over 300, even up to 340bhp. Four Zenith carbs hosed fuel into the hefty cylinders, which compressed it at 8.6:1. And with two banks of them displacing 5425cc, the torque mushroomed to some 312Ib ft at only 2000rpm. This cast-iron giant with its two-inch valves was hardly over-stressed. Indeed, when 5216, the subject of this story, was overhauled after 30 years in 1986, the main bearings were unmarked. They went straight back in.

Cradling the massive block, two pairs of steel tubes, joined vertically by tubing and gussets, made up a strong and rigid two-deck ladder chassis. Coil springs and double wishbones handled the front wheels, while a coil-sprung rigid axle replaced the De Dion set-up of the C2. This plain but proven Chrysler item was kept in check by trailing arms and a Panhard rod. Here too, the factory became involved, sorting out the geometry, spring rates and damping. Cunningham’s team (Phil Walters, Jack Donaldson and Briggs Weaver) were building their own car, but benefiting from a much broader research programme.

One thing Chrysler could not offer in this pre-musclecar era was a gearbox to swallow all this muscle, and it took a truck unit to cope. Yet this was no bruiser; it came from Italy via a Siata lorry, and enclosed its 4 ratios in an aluminium case, strong and sweet-shifting, it proved to be one of the C4R’s plus points. Not so hot, or rather much too hot, were the brakes. They were big, they were ally, they were finned and drilled, but even 13in drums couldn’t get rid of enough heat. They needed babying to stay effective. In 1952 everyone had this problem at Le Mans. By 1953, Jaguar had disc brakes — and everyone else had a problem.

Bridging the 4ft 6in track front and rear, the 7in-wide Firestones covered Halibrand alloy wheels, a novelty in European circles, and the bodies abandoned the elongated lines of Le Monstre. Of the three C4Rs built, one was a Kamm-tailed coupé, while the two spyders barreled down Mulsanne clothed in plain upright shapes designed by Bob Blake, a gaping grille and cutaway wings channelling huge draughts of air to the thick radiator and glowing drums. Rear wing scoops cooled the tyres: neat slots in the trailing edges of the rear wings kept the flow going. For the spiders, instead of siting the oil-cooler low, where it would be vulnerable to stones, the team adopted that distinctive cylindrical aircraft-style unit high up on the scuttle. At 2410Ibs, the C4R was a middle-weight, but a vast step ahead of the bulky C2.

Race debut was at Bridgehampton early in ’52: for thirteen laps the team exulted as Phil Walters led the field. Then a tail-pipe came loose, and he was black-flagged. It was a minor disappointment, which at the same time raised hopes for Le Mans. Cunningham had entered a spyder for himself and Bill Spears, the second, no5216R, for John Fitch and George Rice, while Phil Walters and Duane Carter handled the coupé. By Saturday night, Carter had stuck his car in the sand, and Fitch and Rice had retired with valve problems. But they had been quick, and Briggs Cunningham stuck it out solo in the remaining car for nearly 20 hour’s, before letting Spear cruise home fourth.

The following year, a new streamlined Cunningham, the C5, out-paced even the winning Jaguars in top speed, reaching 154mph on Mulsanne. But Dunlop brakes tipped the balance; the C5 placed third, the C4R spyder seventh, and the coupé tenth, It looked like solid progress for Cunningham and Chrysler — but Briggs’ passion for a win at Le Mans was tempting him away from Detroit. A string of national and international successes in the States ought to have been supremely satisfying, since the blue and white cars were beating the twin-cam Europeans handsomely over there. Best of all was a hard-fought win against the complete works Aston Martin team at Sebring in 1953. Two of the new DB3Ss, staffed by Reg Parnell/George Abecassis and Peter Collins/Geoff Duke, traded positions with Fitch and Walters from the start. After Duke collided with another car, the other Aston couldn’t close the small gap; at the end of 12 hours racing the Cunningham scored by 3 1/2-minutes.

However, in that race, Cunningham himself drove an OSCA, and he wanted a Ferrari engine for Le Mans. The short route to this end was to buy the whole car, and Fitch and Walters according arrived there with a 375MM. A new Cunningham (the C6) was not ready, and the rapid but unstable C5 had been destroyed at Rheims the year before, so the two dependable C4R spiders were pressed into service to complete the entry. The Ferrari broke; the veteran American machines went on to achieve the best result ever for the tiny marque at the Sarthe: third and fifth. Their vanquishers were the cream of works sophistication: a 375 from Maranello and a D-type from Coventry. The holiday resort of Palm Beach seemed an unlikely base for a team in this company.

The Offenhauser-powered C6 proved to be a disappointment, and it was the three C4s which continued to thrust the Cunningham chequered-flag badge under the matching flag for a couple of private seasons, in the hands of Charles Moran and Fred Wacker. Eventually, the coupé and one spider, no 52I7R, went into the Cunningham museum. The other open car has stayed in private hands, recently being added to the collection of a sports-car enthusiast on the East coast of the USA, the only Cunningham outside the museum.

Unlike the majority of racing car histories, the C4 Cunninghams records are straight-forward. All three exist now; none was ever crashed, none underwent major rebuilding or development. They differ visibly, once you learn to distinguish the louvres on the two open cars. The car we inspected is 5216R: it failed Fitch and Rice at Le Mans in ’52; was the unused car for the 24-hours in 1953, and scored the valorous third the following year, driven by Bill Spear and Sherwood Johnston. Even more proudly, this was the home-grown machine which triumphed over John Wyer’s Aston team at that arduous Sebring confrontation, and tallied six other major USA wins in ’52 and ’53.

Even for the most fragile old racing car, retirement is only a phase given the burgeoning period racing business, and not surprisingly this sturdy warhorse has been active again over the last nine years at Classic meetings across the USA, and at Brands hatch in 1987. It has also thundered around Italy on the Mille Miglia bash several times, being driven in 1988 by old campaigner John Fitch. In 1986 it underwent a body-off overhaul and was repainted to feature the ’57’ numbers of that Sebring 12-hour victory, but with no real deterioration to be seen, little has been changed since the late Fifties when the car ran a last couple of seasons in private ownership.

Luckily (and surprisingly given the USA approach to automotive legislation) “vintage” cars can be run on the road in most states with virtually no restrictions. This is a major blessing as far as noise, emissions and seat-belts go, though responsibility for safe roadworthiness is left entirely up to the owner. So on a muggy summer day we were able to fire up the unsilenced monster V8 and emerge into the otherwise quiet streets of Philadelphia to go for a little drive.

Getting close to the car tells you several things: it couldn’t be Italian, for one. It’s too well finished, the polished aluminium panels nicely trimmed and fitted inside the cockpit. And the bus-driver wheel angle hints at the USA recirculating-ball steering gear. The bonnet blister and square-cut louvres are plainly there for a reason — and it isn’t aesthetics. It looks and feels extremely solid, and inside it’s really quite roomy, even with a passenger in the skimpy second seat.

The deep door and high flat floor (the result of the twin chassis rails) made access slightly less of a problem for me, but it wasn’t easy. Since the accident two years ago which has left me in a wheelchair, climbing into anything interesting takes planning and effort. But with the aid of some friendly muscle-power I was soon strapped in and we set off to unleash some automotive music on the locals.

The starter button is above the throttle, so you can pump the pedal, prod the starter, and catch it on the throttle as soon as it fires. As long as there are enough amps in the battery to churn the massive crank, it erupts very quickly into the typical flat stacatto beat of a hot V8, that irregular cadence which sounds like a galloping horse.

Between the snuffling carbs, the cannon-fire from the half-concealed side-pipes and the hurricane blast over the unscreened passenger scuttle, a live “tell me how it feels” session was out, so I settled for a few shouted questions every time we pulled up, shuddering and heaving, at a red light, before we made it to more open areas. Although the cam is designed to perform at 4000rpm-plus, the idling torque of 5.4 litres is enough to move the car, and it slogs away at a couple of thousand revs with only a smattering of burps and hiccoughs. In its stride, though, the noise becomes a wail, interrupted by the clean breaks that a light flywheel causes when a crisp competition engine readjusts for the next gear. The push in the back is terrific in second and third; we didn’t dare stretch top gear out to the 145mph and more it used to peak at. The story is that the unit is good for 6200rpm, though long-distance races would call for more restraint.

Skipping and thumping over tram-rails and drain covers, adjectives like “crashy” and ‘cartlike” began to assemble themselves in my mental notebook, but as we passed 60 and 70mph, it was clear that the springs and dampers were beginning to do the job they were designed for. The ride became more fluid — but still on the firm side of “hard”. What did show was the solidity of the frame; despite the hard springs, it was the suspension which flexed, not the chassis or body. And this in a race car with two 24-hours and a 12-hour race wrung out of it! I felt quite secure as the needles on the plain metal dash spun clockwise. Contemporary accounts agree that the C4s were stable and safe-handling cars.

From my side, minus a steering wheel, the 100in wheelbase chassis seemed to be showing the placid nature of a modern saloon — except for the extra 200 or more horsepower which can instantly order the tall rear tyres to step out. Which helps, because the steering is neither quick nor especially precise. You get more help changing direction by using the brakes. Sadly you can never tell beforehand which way they are likely to twitch the car. Still, it’s all excitement.

For a car like this, any motoring this side of a 20-lap race counts as misuse. Yet the brutal sounding machine stayed cool and kept its blood pressure steady even when our high-speed thrash was over and we were rumbling through narrow residential streets, blowing over cats and small children with the blast from the side-pipes. Was it exhilarating? Yes. Was I glad to get out of it? Yes. The racket, and the co-driver’s inability to breathe against an 80mph gale saw to that. That high floor means that the occupants’ shoulders stick well up, and while the upright driver’s screen does a fair job, passengers must grin and bear it. Full-width screens were not a requirement until 1956, and the Cunninghams ran with a metal tonneau over the second seat.

Later, back in Britain, I asked Gerry Marshall for his recollections of driving 5216 at Brands in 1987. Immediately he praised the gearchange – light and accurate – the rigidity, and the very neutral handling. “Like a C-type,” he thought, “not that I’ve driven one…” Brickbats were aimed at the slow steering and the erratic brakes. More surprisingly, he felt that it was short of the go that 5.4 litres of hemi should serve up. He must be a braver man than me.

Drive any interesting open car in Britain and people talk to you; go soft-top motoring in the voluble USA and you can make life-long buddies at the traffic-lights. Yet of all our questioners on our excursion, even those who asked reasonably knowledgeable questions (“It’s a ’50s Maserati, ain’t it?”), none had heard of Cunningham. A sad obscurity for one of only four American sportscar makes to have made serious international impact. Scarab, Chaparral, and Ford are the rest of the quartet – Cunningham was the first.

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