Raced: Cunningham C4R

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Of the many fascinating cars that grace the track during Goodwood race meetings, few are quite as distinctive as the Cunningham C4R. Here’s how it feels from behind the wheel

writer Sam Hancock

As is so often the case, the call comes late. With barely a week to go before the 74th Members’ Meeting at Goodwood, my old pal Ben Shuckburgh (or ‘Le Patron’ as he becomes known during the weekend) rings asking if I’d pedal his mighty Cunningham C4R in the Peter Collins Trophy.

In the past I’d have thought carefully about a last-minute invitation, questioning testing time, likely competitiveness, availability of fresh tyres and generally taking it all far too seriously.

This time I have no such concerns. “Yes!” I reply, not giving Ben the time to finish asking. It’s not just that Ben is a friend, nor that I had a hoot racing this very same car to a near-win in the 2014 Revival and saw a chance to go one better. It’s just that this car’s story is so special. 

In the early 1950s, US industrialist Briggs Swift Cunningham II was determined to take on the likes of Jaguar and Ferrari at Le Mans with an all-American effort, backed entirely by his own money. Although failing in his mission to win the greatest of all endurance races, the Cunningham cars commanded tremendous respect, with Briggs taking a fine fourth overall in 1952, before the team went on to finish third in both ’53 and ’54. 

Only three C4R sports roadsters were built as racing cars, but 27 road-going C3s were required by the rules to homologate the racer.

Ben’s example is based on a totally original C3 chassis mated to its original engine and correct four-speed gearbox. Having first spotted it in 2009, when it sported a home-made body, Ben set about turning the car into a C4R so uncompromisingly faithful to the original specifications that one suspects Cunningham himself would struggle to tell it apart from one of the factory cars.

Shunning the opportunity to enjoy performance enhancements from modern componentry, Ben and the team at Jim Stokes Engineering scoured the globe for original parts, only recreating new ones when absolutely necessary – and ensuring that they did so in the most exacting of ways. The aluminium body, for example, is the result of a perfectionist digital scanning process of a surviving C4R housed within the Collier Collection at the Revs Institute in Florida. From these a 3D buck was created around which this perfect replica body was made. The crew’s exhaustive searches for original parts led to aircraft breakers’ yards for items such as the oil cooler, and vintage American truck spares stockists for the Gemmer steering box.

As he was recovering from a life-threatening illness just as this story began, one imagines Ben’s obsessive Cunningham build adopted a special importance all of its own. A herculean effort to have the car ready for the 2011 Goodwood Revival involved a 24-hour shift and a ‘shakedown’ en route to the circuit. After an understandably glitchy debut, the following Revival a year later better illustrated the car’s potential as it raced comfortably within the top six. 

My own first taste came in bitter-sweet form, Ben calling me from the medical centre after an accident while qualifying another car. Pole position and runner-up spot in the race came as a surprise to us all, except perhaps those well-informed historians who remembered the coupé version, the C4RK, leading the first lap at Le Mans in 1952.

***

Now to 2016 and the 74th Members’ Meeting. I arrive at Goodwood on the Friday in style, ‘Le Patron’ chauffeuring me to the circuit in his British Racing Green V12 Ferrari 456GT. Let us pretend he also sported unnervingly dark sunglasses while reminding me of his expectations, “Win the race. Do not crash.” Actually Ben is too charming and articulate to be so blunt, but the gentle directives he did proffer essentially translated the same way.

Once in the paddock, I rush to sign on before the office closes. There is no sumptuous Drivers’ Club at the Members’ Meeting, administration and changing areas being in a gaggle of cosy Portakabins, and I sense that all enjoy this more straightforward environment. Jostling for position, I find myself reacquainted with British Touring Car Championship winners Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden, whom I’d seen only a few weeks earlier in Sweden at Richard Tuthill’s ice-driving school. With the stars arriving in droves, the locker room bristles with excitement as the long off-season comes to a welcome end.

Among its competition, the Cunningham commands attention with its sheer presence. Bold and imposing, the functional styling looks better than ever. A traditional ‘seat fit’ ensues, but with historic cars this involves little more than wiggling your bum around a little and giving the mechanics a thumbs-up to confirm what they already know – namely “It is what it is, pal, take it or leave it.” I ask to remove the seat cushion, hoping to sink deeper into the short but voluminous cockpit in search of more knee room around the vast wood-rimmed steering wheel. Mission accomplished, I wiggle a bit more and give the lads from CKL, who now prepare the car, a nod of approval.

On to the evening drivers’ briefing, in a Hogwarts-style assembly hall. Sitting at the long candelabra-dressed dining tables, we are introduced to our house captains by Lord March in unapologetically British boarding-school style. “House points will be accumulated both on and off the track with a medley of games and challenges,” he says. “There will, however, also be penalties.” Cue an introduction to the race director, who adopts a serious tone to instil in us the importance of best behaviour at this old-school circuit. After a video spotlighting those responsible for misdemeanours of previous years, his message is received loud and clear.

After the briefing, and keen for an early night, Ben and I head for a quick pub supper with expert historic racer Ludovic Lindsay. Ludovic has co-driven this car with Ben and, over a pint, helpfully distinguishes between he and I. “You see Sam, I am a tart,” he says, referring to the fact that he’ll drive anything for free. He is quick to point out that I am thus a very different kind of ‘pro’ and by definition we concur that Ben must be our pimp! Cheque please…

***

Saturday is qualifying day, and with our session not scheduled until five o’clock I arrive just in time for lunch. There’s a warm familiarity as I find myself transported back to my school days, waiting in line, tray in hand for bangers and mash, crumble and custard. Spotting Lord March and Howard from Take That also queuing, I marvel at the egalitarian atmosphere unique to this event.

Food-coma settling in nicely, I retire to the changing rooms in time to hear Derek Bell telling Dickie Attwood about how a demonstration of McLaren F1s at Le Mans so nearly went wrong. “Strict instructions to crawl around at 50mph predictably lasted about five seconds,” he says. “Coming flat out through the kink at the end of Mulsanne, a few of us got well out of shape. Chatting afterwards none of us could understand why until we realised the owners of these things often forget the need to fit new tyres. We were all on old blocks of concrete!” 

Things take a turn for the surreal when I gently voice my envy for the lunch vouchers they have been given. Cue disproportionate concern and the most generous fuss as two giants of our sport, clad only in their Nomex undies, rush to share theirs with me. Gentleman racers indeed.

Into qualifying and my mechanic, Dave Lampard, earns himself a beer by getting the car lined up at the front in the assembly area. Leading the field out onto the circuit, this proves crucial as it gives me one clear flying lap to post a time before catching the tail end of the traffic. That lap is enough to secure provisional pole, but working the traffic a little later in the session gives me just one more, this time a touch faster. Our time of 1min 32.751sec puts us 2.8sec ahead of the pack. Things are looking good.

It might be bitterly cold, but I for one am grateful that it is at least dry. You see, the Cunningham has what I might carefully describe as great ‘character’. Stand trackside as it thunders by at 150mph, the Chrysler Hemi V8 rattling the fillings from your teeth, and you’ll understand well enough. But at the wheel it’s another story altogether. 

The chassis is poised and elegant, belying its 1145kg weight. The drum brakes inspire an unexpected confidence for the task they face, but the steering has a somewhat disconnected feel. When Chrysler designed the Plymouth truck from which Cunningham pinched the steering box all those years ago, I don’t expect they anticipated it being used to race at Goodwood more than 60 years later. I learn quickly that the trick is to take up the not inconsiderable slack well before the corner so that the car is then taut and poised, ready to turn on demand. Through the apex it’s a dream to balance the car on the throttle thanks to the mountainous 418lb ft of torque. Problems arise, however, if you over-cook it and get out of shape through the exit. Unwinding the steering fast enough to get through the slack and into opposite lock on the other side takes quick handiwork. By the end of qualifying my arms feel like they’ve gone a few rounds with Joe Calzaghe. 

“Stop being a girl,” says Ben, “You’re on pole by three seconds so it seems OK to me.” 

***

Sunday begins with a coaching session. My team-mate this weekend is Charlie Settrington, son of Lord March, making his Goodwood debut in Ben’s impressively prepared Mini. Stowing ourselves away from the cold in dad’s office above the pit straight, we delve into what makes for a quick lap at Goodwood and how best to wring the Mini’s neck without breaking it. His onboard footage reveals all the bravery of youth and a most natural feel for car control. A little rough around the edges just now, Charlie will be one to watch, mark my words.

Furnished with the vouchers of Messrs Bell and Attwood, I thoroughly overdo it again at lunch, this time walking it off with a stroll around the magical paddock before settling in to watch a fantastic touring car race on the chicane banking. Sadly, a later accident delays the afternoon’s proceedings and by 5pm I wonder if our race – last of the day – will happen. 

Still dry, but with light fading fast, we are finally ushered onto the circuit for a shortened 10-minute contest. Eyes glued to the drop of the flag, I slip the clutch off the line a little more than feels comfortable in an effort to contain the massive torque. It works beautifully and I have a clear lead into the first corner. With 385bhp, the Cunningham enjoys a power advantage on the straights but lacks the nimble handling of the Aston Martin DB3S and Jaguar C-type that provide its stiffest competition. Sensing my chance to escape, I give the opening lap everything and build an unexpected seven-second lead. The comforting sight of blazing headlights being reduced to a distant glow in my mirror is offset by the reappearance of a subtle misfire that first showed up in qualifying. Using a few less revs seems to contain the problem and I concentrate instead on maximising the corners as best I can. Usually the team at Goodwood might discourage drivers from romping away on the rare occasion that such a luxury is afforded, but I am nervous of the misfire reappearing and, frankly, I’m having too much fun. Attacking a fast circuit like Goodwood in the Cunningham is an all-consuming affair, visibly all arms and elbows at the wheel, contrasting with a delicate teasing of that most potent throttle pedal. Never quite brave enough to take the Fordwater kink absolutely flat, I nonetheless enjoyed trying as the sky grew a deeper, more theatrical red with each passing lap. With just eight laps completed the chequered flag falls, the mighty Cunningham winning by 26sec and setting the fastest lap of the race.

A lovely quirk of the Members’ Meeting is that winners are presented with medals, akin to those that might adorn the breast of a decorated soldier. Passing mine to Ben as I recall how this car’s great story began, I can’t think of a more fitting reward for his efforts.

With thanks to Ben Shuckburgh, CKL Developments and Goodwood. Sam Hancock is a professional racing driver and historic car consultant. A former Le Mans Series champion (LMP2) and Aston Martin works driver (LMP1 & GTE), Sam has raced at Le Mans seven times and competes regularly in major historic events. Visit www.samhancock.com

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