If you’re a fan of the automobile, chances are you’ve come across names of some very pivotal figures throughout its history, particularly in American motorsports. Names like, Carroll Shelby, John Fitch, and Chip Ganassi, just to name a few. What about a Mr. Briggs Cunningham?
Mr. Cunningham’s name surfaced recently as the main celebration of this year’s Greenwich Concours d’Elegance, replacing last year’s tribute to the historic cars of Bugatti. That meant showcasing all the cars of Briggs Cunningham. Moreover, the celebration made history as the largest display of Cunningham cars ever showcased at one location. Of all 35 cars, only 33 are said to be left in existence but nonetheless, all 33 made their presence at the Roger Sherman Baldwin Park in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Briggs Cunningham created an archetype, living an opulent and victorious life in motorsports, building and racing his own yachts and cars. In 1954, he was on the cover of Time Magazine. Known initially for his storied career in America’s Cup, Briggs also helped prove to the world that Americans can compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, being the first American to compete against the Europeans in 1950. He owned the first Ferrari in America—a 1948 Tipo 166 Spyder Corsa—as well as the first production Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing.
Briggs Swift Cunningham II was born into wealth out of Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was the sole investor in a “floating soap company,” operated by a Mr. William Procter and James Gamble. That almost makes Cunningham as much of a household name in any history lesson on American industrialism as Rockefeller, Mellon, and Carnegie. And while he was a big-time racer, he did make some cars.
Mr. Cunningham didn’t just build his original C2-R and C4-R competition cars, both of which attended this year’s show. In the early 1950s, bouncing off his wins at Road America and Watkins Glen in 1951, and then later at Sebring, Cunningham then went for the true worldly big league: Le Mans. But in order to compete, homologation regulations required participants to produce 25 road-legal production models in order to qualify to compete. So, Mr. Cunningham, known for his go-getter personality, simply went about to make a production vehicle. The result was the Cunningham Continental C3.
Built on modified versions of the original Cunningham C-2R’s ladder-type tubular chassis by a small team of hot rodders in West Palm Beach, the mechanics mounted a 220-horsepower 331 cubic inch OHV Chrysler Hemi V-8 to the frames. The half-completed frames were then shipped across the Atlantic to Turin, Italy, where coachbuilder Vignale fitted either hardtop fastback-style or convertible bodies made of aluminum and steel. In total, Cunningham made 25 examples in total, 20 coupes and five drop-tops.
Because of this long and tedious journey for assembly, with each example taking around two months for completion, they weren’t cheap, costing as much as $15,000 in 1950, or about $160,600 today, making it the most expensive American automobile between 1952 and 1954. That also made the Cunningham roughly two to three times more expensive than the most expensive Cadillac. Some notable owners include Nelson Rockefeller, a Du Pont family member, and more recently Jay Leno.
With a five-speed manual, the C3 is said to be good for a 0-60 mph time of less than seven seconds and a top speed of 150 mph— fast figures then and even today. Altogether, the Cunningham Continental C3 was an iconic gentleman’s GT car of the 1950s immediately upon release.
It was then the IRS stepped in when tax laws came crashing down on Cunningham’s effort producing the C3, bringing production to a halt. Though Cunningham and his team continued racing in Le Mans, later switching to cars from Jaguar, Lister, to the Chevrolet Corvette, and various Porsches. Since then, Cunningham Continental C3s are considered pure automotive royalty in American auto-racing history, with examples today valued at $565,000 in fair condition, to up to $1.2 million in Concours condition, according to Hagerty.
Unfortunately, Cunningham never took home any champion wins from a Le Mans race and instead, placed in the top 10 in every attempt. But his legacy and reputation remain, with Mr. Cunningham passing away in 2003 from complications with Alzheimer’s. More so, Cunningham is immortalized, and his legacy continues with every Continental C3 made, still in existence. Not many automakers can claim that title, no matter the scale and it’s even more hugely impressive when they come together all at once.