by Mike Frank , Jaguar Touring Club of New Jersey
On July 2, 2003, Briggs S Cunningham II passed away at the age of 97 at his home in Las Vegas, from the complications of Alzheimer's disease. I thought it might be appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the life of the greatest car guy of them all.
The Cunningham and Swift family stories are the story of America. They trace their family trees back to the beginnings of English colonization in this continent. By the end of the 18th century, they had settled around present day Cincinnati. As the country grew, the families made their fortunes by operating fleets of riverboats, and by supplying provisions to settlers moving westward. The 19th century patriarch, Briggs Swift Cunningham I, was born into a family that was already quite well off. Pursuing a career as a banker and sometime entrepreneur, he enlarged the family fortune by investing in such budding young enterprises as Proctor and Gamble, Cincinnati Bell, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the time the junior Briggs S Cunningham arrived, they were more than comfortable.
The elder Briggs Cunningham died while Cunningham junior was just a tyke. The family businesses were operated by his remarkable mother, who was by all telling, quite astute at business. But Briggs and his sister were both encouraged to make something of themselves, rather than relying on the family wealth. The hope was that he would become a lawyer or banker, and follow in his father's footsteps. But Briggs had different ideas. He studied engineering, to the dismay of his family and friends.
It was rumored that when Briggs married Lucie, his first wife, in 1929, they were the wealthiest couple in history. Both of them came from well to do families. And both had a flair for sports. While on honeymoon in Switzerland, Briggs took the opportunity to learn how to toboggan. When he came back from the slopes, Lucie asked how he had done...he said not too well, he was only third fastest. It turned out that he had been practicing with the Swiss national toboggan team. For her part, Lucie was an avid yacht racer, the first successful woman in the sport.
They settled in Greens Farms, CT (near Westport), in a big house on the Sound. How does a wealthy couple spend their time? They raised a family, and dealt with their respective family businesses and philanthropies. But in their spare time they took part in competition of all sorts. Briggs wasn't quite as successful as Lucie at yachting, at least not at first. But together they won the Bermuda's Cup in 1936. Their involvement with automobiles began as an interest in concours events...Now, if you've been to an automobile concours recently, that may not sound too special. But in the 30's concours was the sport of wealthy gentleman. Today, we may prepare cars for concours, in those days the cars were built expressly for concours. The cars were usually displayed in the context of haute couture fashion, with Lucie doing the modeling.
But Briggs sought something more dynamic. His friend Miles Collier would invite Briggs and a few other friends to his estate in Briarcliff Manor, and would hold car races on the property. Thus was formed the Automobile Racing Club of America. In 1940, ARCA sponsored the first and last New York Grand Prix, held on the World's Fair grounds in Flushing. Briggs entered a Buick-engined Mercedes, driven by Miles Collier. It didn't win, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The die was cast, although war would interfere.
When war broke out, Cunningham immediately volunteered for the Air Corps. But at 33, he was too old. So he did the next best thing...he helped form the Civilian Air Patrol, along with other interested but disqualified aviators. Using his own seaplane, he spent the war patrolling the East Coast, spotting submarines, and coordinating sea rescues. After the war, Briggs took up racing again, scoring a second place in the first post war run at Watkins Glen. But all of this was just prelude to a remarkable career.
In 1949, Alec Ulmann, the entrepreneur who brought road racing to Sebring, attended the first post war running of Le Mans. This was a big thing to the Europeans. Le Mans had been used as an airfield by the Luftwaffe, and had been thoroughly destroyed by Allied bombers. Restoring the track was hardly a priority in 1945. But now, just four years later, it was a symbolic rising from the ashes. Ullman had an idealistic notion that in the future, nations would defend their valor in the sports arena rather than the battlefield. Auto racing was important to national prestige and world peace....but how to get America involved?
Ullman approached Cunningham, and the rest is history. Taking on the task, Cunningham contacted his college friends, who had risen to important positions at GM and Chrysler, and spent some time touring showrooms and factories. He concluded that there were no cars being built in America capable of winning Le Mans. He had found his life calling: he intended to change that.
Working with Frick Motors on Long Island, he came up with the idea of dropping a Cadillac engine into a light Studebaker body. The authorities at Le Mans were horrified, and refused to homologate the car. Back to the drawing board, it was clear that the best motor made in America was the Cadillac V8, but what to about the body? More careful this time, he purchased two Coupe De Ville's. One, nicknamed Clumsy Puppy, was given the most basic race preparation...at least that one would be up to Hoyle. For the other, he disposed of the body. In it's place he had a light weight framework built up, and clothed it in an aerodynamic aluminum skin. The body was designed and built by Grumman engineers, working in their spare time. A unique five five carburetor manifold was installed. The result was a huge car, nichknamed Le Monstre, that lit up the night by spitting flaming fuel from it's tailpipes. They were just barely ready in time for the 1950 race. In the event, the "stock" Coupe De Ville placed tenth. The aluminum bodied special came in eleventh, because it had been involved in a minor accident. Cunningham had done well enough to know that victory was possible, but it would take a new car.
So it came to pass that in 1950, at the age of 43, Briggs S. Cunningham II took the first job of his life...President of Cunningham Motors. The company was formed with one purpose in mind....to build a car capable of winning Le Mans for the US. Now, in order to run at Le Mans, a car has to be made by a bona fide manufacturer, one who makes a certain minimum number of cars each year. Cunningham obliged by turning out both the C2R sports car and the C3 Vignale coupe, and selling them to the general public...just enough to meet the rules. Today, those cars are among the most collectible US production vehicles.
By 1951, Cunningham had begun to assemble a collection of champion race drivers to pilot his cars, they attacked Le Mans in high dudgeon. The cars themselves, C2R's in that first year, were also superb. The power was provided by a Chrysler Hemi...Cunningham had pulled all the strings to get the best engines out of Chrysler development. The chassis was excellent, although too heavy. Cunningham introduced a little innovation: by Le Mans rules, each car was supposed to display a national roundel, similar to the markings on war planes. But Cunningham did something much bolder: he painted the wheels red, the cars white, and finished them with a blue stripe from nose to tail...the first racing stripe. It was a sensation. But 1951 was to be Jaguar's year. Although the Cunninghams made for great theater, they simply didn't have enough of the right stuff to win.
For the next four years, they tried, coming close each time. Despite an Herculean effort, which included the development of a new car every year, Cunningham just couldn't best Jaguar, Ferrari, or Mercedes. The best showing would be 1953, when the unflappable John Fitch would drive a C4R Cunningham to third place.
The end of the beginning came in 1956. The IRS noted that Cunningham Motors had consistently failed not only to win Le Mans, but to make profits. They declared it a hobby rather than a business, and closed it down. Just as this was playing out, Sir William Lyons of Jaguar, sensing that he could eliminate a nagging challenge, invited Cunningham to close shop and join Jaguar. A combination of pull and push left Cunningham with little choice but to become the Jaguar distributor for the US East Coast.
And so he became a car dealer, and can be credited with much of Jaguar's marketing success in this area during the 50's and 60's. As a reward, Jaguar gave him the newest and best D-Types for his racing stable. By this time the team included master mechanic Alfred Momo and a who's who of 1950's race drivers, including the fast and furious Walt Hansgen. The Cunningham team travelled up and down the East coast, showing them how it was done.
For Cunningham, all this must have been a confusing time. He had set out on a mission, and he now was employed by the opposition. His own cars had dominated racing everywhere, except for the one venue that counted. Now he had capitulated, and was driving D-Types, someone else's....some other country's car. What's more, Jaguar's factory fire in 1956 killed the D-Type (indeed, it nearly killed Jaguar), which meant that his agreement with Lyons left him without a supply of new racers. The Cunningham team turned to Lister, as the most credible supplier of Jaguar powered race cars.
But the whole XK concept was aging. So in 1958, he took a little hiatus, and returned to yacht racing. At the invitation of the NY Yacht Club, he served as the skipper of the America's Cup challenger, Columbia. There must have been some satisfaction in beating the English team in the final race. As he stepped out onto the dock, and the reporters crowded around, he ducked out for a telephone. He called his Jaguar team, which was running at Watkins Glen. They had just won. As he got off the phone, a reporter spotted him, and said, "Great race, Mr. Cunningham." With his mind still on Watkins Glen, he replied, "I know, I wish I could have been there.", leaving the reporter quite puzzled.
Returning to auto racing, Cunningham put heavy pressure on Jaguar to produce a winning car. Whatever the actual technical contribution of Cunningham and his engineering team, the E-Type was forced into the world by his relentless pressure. In 1960, he was finally allowed to run the E2A prototype at Le Mans. The car put in the fastest lap time in practice, and with the team of Walt Hansgen and Dan Gurney at the wheel, seemed to be destined to greatness. But the motor fell apart mid race. Setting aside the recriminations, it was Jaguar's last real chance to win Le Mans for many years.
That same year, Cunningham ran a team of three Corvettes alongside E2A. How does the US Jaguar distributor come to be running Corvettes? Well, who was going to stop him? He still held the hope that an American car with an American driver would someday win Le Mans. But in 1960, only one car crossed the finish, in eighth place, driven by Bob Grossman. This is the subject of another story, so we'll skip the details here.
It must have been a very hard defeat for Cunningham. The next couple of years seem to have been pretty difficult. He ran Maserati's in 1961, which proved fast but unreliable. His personal life became difficult, as well: he divorced and remarried. But in 1962, it was back to Jaguars, and a solid fourth place Le Mans showing. The team at the wheel was British ace Roy Salvadori and Cunningham himself.
For 1963, he was once again stoked for a win. He had pressured Jaguar into building three all-aluminum E-Types. Weighing just 2100lbs, and powered by a true 317HP aluminum block XK, these were simply the best of the breed. Unfortunately, the whole E-Type concept was no longer good enough to beat a flock of V12 powered Ferrari's. Again, the details are another story, so I'll skip them here. But another eighth place showing, ironically with Grossman again at the wheel, was the best they could muster.
In the following years, Cunningham briefly flirted with Porsche and Cobra, but now pushing 60, his racing days were really over. Jaguar bought out his distribution network in the mid 1960's. We can only speculate on his real feelings when Walt Hansgen, by then driving for Holman and Moody, was killed in a GT40 during Le Mans practice in 1966. Just two months later, Bruce McLaren won Le Mans for Ford.
Cunningham moved his car collection from Connecticut to California, and opened a museum to share them with the world. The collection had many notable cars, including not one, but two Bugatti Royale's, purchased from Bugatti's daughter after the war. He settled into a comfortable late life as a philanthropist and a curator. But as age overtook him, he sold the collection to Miles Collier in 1985.
He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Laura (nee Cramer) of Las Vegas, son Briggs S. Cunningham III of Danville, Ky., daughters Lucie McKinney of Greens Farms, Conn., and Cythlen Maddock of Palm Beach, Fla., and step-sons Bill Elmer and Joe Elmer, 19 grandchildren, and 31 Great grandchildren
Send donations to Alzheimer's
© 2003 JAGUAR CLUBS OF NORTH AMERICA, INC.