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Automotive Features

BRIGGS CUNNINGHAM: ONE OF PALM BEACH’S OWN

Long before they ever considered Briggs Cunningham vehicles as “collector cars,” there were a group of designers, engineers and sportsmen dabbling in motorsports. They created vehicles so innovative, that other competitors beat a path to their doors hoping to gain just a bit of the stardust associated with their magic. Few were more successful than Briggs Cunningham, Jr.

Cunningham lived in Green Farm, Connecticut, where he became an expert sailor, learning that skill in the Long Island Sound. He was also a part-time resident of Palm Beach, FL, which is the home of Napleton News and Napleton Auto Group’s satellite corporate offices.

Briggs Cunningham stands with his competitors before shipping off to France.  Creative Commons

It wasn’t just the automobile that struck Cunningham’s fancy. He also excelled in competitive yachting, piloting the 18-meter Columbia to victory in the 1958 America’s Cup yacht race.

Motorsports: It’s a dangerous game.

With apologies to Ray Wylie Hubbard, who sang “Rock and Roll is a vicious game,” Motorsports in the 1950s and 1960s was a dangerous game. It wasn’t uncommon for a driver of the time to lose his life in his race car, whether by crashing, a fire or some other incident. Tragedy struck so frequently there was a racing death almost every weekend. Safety cells, roll bars, halos and HANS devices were just fanciful ideas whose time had not come – yet.

Briggs Cunningham on Time Magazine.

Despite this era, Cunningham survived and thrived, becoming one of the most widely recognized endurance racing drivers, owners and builders in North America. So well-known was he that he appeared with three of his Cunningham racing cars on a 1954 cover of Time Magazine. The headline read “Road Racer Briggs Cunningham: Horsepower, Endurance, Sportsmanship.”

Cunningham was born with firm financial footing to keep him upright. He came from a family of bankers and business people who long ago invested in a company that would later form Procter & Gamble, makers of Crest toothpaste, Tide detergent and Bounty paper towels, among others. Along the way, he and others founded the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).

The Briggs Cunningham Company in Palm Beach County.

The Cunningham Series 61 Petit Pataud leans into the turn at Le Mans.  Creative Commons
The 1950 Cadillac Petit Pataud at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.  Creative Commons

Cunningham hired driver Phil Walters who raced under the name Ted Tappet. Together with partner Bill Frick, they built what were called “Fordillacs,” which were essentially Cadillac V8 engines mounted in 1949 Ford chassis. Cunningham bought one of the Fordillacs to compete in the 1950 24 hours of Le Mans race in Le Sarthe, France. Due to the transplant of the Cadillac engine into the Ford chassis, Cunningham received notice that his entry was rejected. He wasn’t too discouraged, though, and brought two racers based on the Cadillac Series 61 instead.

The first was basically stock in appearance and dubbed “Le Petit Pataud,” as a reference for a dog in a popular French children’s book. While engine swaps were illegal according to the rules, bodies could be modified in the extreme. That’s exactly what race organizers got when Cunningham and crew arrived with the other Cadillac. This second Caddy featured a custom body that was lower and narrower than the stock body. Designed and built by Grumman Aircraft engineer Howard Weinmann, it was fabricated entirely of aluminum. So ungainly in appearance, the French newspapers and radio reporters dubbed it “Le Monstre.”

The Cunningham 1950 Cadillac also known as “Le Monstre.” (The Monster)  Creative Commons

Famous Floridian race drivers and car collectors Miles and Sam Collier partnered to drive the relatively stock Petit Pataud Cadillac. Cunningham and Walters took the wheel of Le Monstre. The Colliers took tenth place, while Cunningham and Walters took 11th.

In preparing for the following year’s Le Mans race, Cunningham bought the Frick-Tappet Motors company of Long Island, NY. Soon after his purchase, he moved the company and several of its employees to West Palm Beach, Florida.

Sunshine and Sports Cars

Cunningham C1. Photo by Mr Choppers

Work for the following years of sports car and endurance racing continued for the newly named B.S. Cunningham Company at its Florida location. At this time, Cunningham announced plans to campaign his own brand of sports cars starting with the Cunningham C2-R. A 331-cubic inch Chrysler HEMI V8 engine powered the car. The car was shipped to Turin, Italy, after the engine was installed in the chassis. There, bodywork was shaped and attached. From there, the car was shipped back to West Palm Beach for final assembly. Sure, the cars should have had a frequent flyer number to earn some miles. Sadly, in those days, that didn’t happen.

Briggs Cunningham C3 with Brooks Stevens body modifications. Photo by Mr. Choppers.

The team confirmed Cunningham’s commitment to building a team of American cars driven by American drivers. The first year with these newly built racers saw one of them, finish 18th overall out of 60 entrants. The other car, driven by Fred Wacker, Jr. and George Rand racked up a DNF (Did not finish).

In 1952, a successor, the Cunningham CR-4, finished 4th overall.

1953 Cunningham C3 Cabriolet. Photo by Mr. Choppers.

The B.S. Cunningham Company discontinued making the Cunningham marque of cars in 1955. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) restricted low-volume manufacturers to show a profit within five years of startup. The IRS would consider the firm a hobby, otherwise. Rules like that shut down many small manufacturers of the time.

Through the years, Cunningham acquired many rare and valuable automobiles, and opened the Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa, California. Eventually, the collection was sold to the son of his longtime friend Miles Collier and are now housed at the Revs Institute in Naples, FL.

The Cunningham Petit Pataud Cadillac Series 61 at Le Mans. Creative Commons

 

This post was published on March 9, 2023

Mark Elias

I've loved everything on wheels: Trains, Planes and definitely Automobiles. I am constantly in search of the latest in new technology, which makes our lives better each day, but will always respect the classics. You can't continue forward without first taking a look back at where you've been.

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