Briggs Cunningham

December 7, 2015
Roy Wolfgang

  • Briggs Cunningham

Briggs Swift Cunningham II was born in 1907 in Cincinnati and was a famous American gentleman racer and constructor. He was successful not only on race tracks across the world but also in many sailing cups as he was very active as a skipper on racing yachts and one of the founders of a famous marine race – the America’s Cup. Born into a wealthy family, Briggs was always surrounded by sailing boats and by the age of 6 he was already comfortable manning the tiller of a sailboat; by the age of 17, he was a member of the Star Class racing fleet at the Pequot Yacht Club.

Briggs Cunningham, sailing

Briggs Cunningham, sailing

Founding the SCCA

It was only in his teenage years that his uncle introduced him to racing, and young Briggs was fascinated by racing machines. After dropping out of college, Cunningham and his friends went racing in 1930, and in 1933, formed Automobile Racing Club of America (renamed the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) in 1944). In those days, Cunningham was more actively involved in producing racing cars for other drivers than for himself. He became well known for his creations which were hybrids of different makes and models like his Bu-Merc, a modified Buick chassis with a Buick engine and a Mercedes-Benz SSK body. Cunningham spent WWII as a Civil Air Patrol and soon, as the war ended, he returned to racing.

The 1939 Buick - Mercedes, or Bu-Merc

The 1939 Buick – Mercedes, or Bu-Merc

The first ever American Ferrari owner

His first big race was in 1948 when he drove his old Bu-Merc and finished second in the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. It was there and then that he saw a new sports car with an unusual name – Ferrari, and decided to buy it. He became the first American owner of a Ferrari which was sold to him directly by the famous Ferrari North America importer Luigi Chinetti.

Briggs Cunningham in the 166 Ferrari at Bridgehamption, 1953

Briggs Cunningham in the 166 Ferrari at Bridgehamption, 1953

Briggs Cunningham and his ‘Le Monstre’

Owning and racing a Ferrari Barchetta opened up a lot of new opportunities for Cunningham including participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His personal dream was to form an all American Le Mans team and win the famous race. So in 1950, Cunningham entered a pair of Cadillacs in the race, including a stock Coupe de Ville and a custom-bodied, slab-sided roadster (known as Le Monstre by the French) driven by Cunningham and Phil Walters. The ‘Le Monstre’ was, and still is, one of strangest machines ever to race at Le Mans. Though the cars finished in the 10th and 11th place respectively, they proved that an American victory at Le Mans was, potentially, an achievable goal.

Briggs Cunningham's 1950 Cadillac known as Le Monstre

Briggs Cunningham’s 1950 Cadillac known as Le Monstre

Producing new, high-end racing cars

Cunningham returned to USA and established a new company, B.S. Cunningham Inc., to produce high-end racing and sports cars for homologation purposes. The first car was the ’51 Cunningham C-2R racer with a Chrysler Hemi V8 under the hood and high power from this legendary powerplant. However, it did not perform well at the ’51 Le Mans even though it won at the Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake, proving that Cunningham’s vision had big potential.

Apart from the C-2R racing car, Cunningham produced a beautiful C-3 road car, which featured similar technology as the R-version but in a street legal form. The C-3 was very fast and well made but was also very expensive so he managed to produce only 25 of them and each example survived since the owners knew that the car is something special.

1952 Cunningham C-3 Coupe

1952 Cunningham C-3 Coupe

Improving both his designs and his driving

Briggs continued to produce improved variations of his race cars and as a result, the C-4R and C-5R models soon followed. However, his goal of winning the Le Mans in an American car didn’t materialize. He suffered due to mechanical failures and crashes and never seemed to have enough luck to achieve his goal. However, his cars were successful in some smaller races. In the mid ’50s due to his achievements, he became one of biggest American drivers and a true motorsport celebrity.

Cunningham C4R

Cunningham C4R

Away from Le Mans and onto SCCA

However, his lifestyle and lavish habits caught the attention of tax offices and they put an end to Cunningham’s Le Mans hopes. After losing in excess of $50,000 in each of the five successive years, the IRS threatened to reclassify the efforts of B.S. Cunningham, Inc. from business to hobby, meaning that future endeavors would no longer be tax exempt.

However, Briggs did not let that prevent him from racing and turned his attention from Le Mans to SCCA racing in America where he tasted success racing in a Chevrolet Corvette. In 1960, he returned to Le Mans but as a Corvette Team driver and scored a class win, which was a bittersweet achievement.

Cunningham surrounded by a number of his cars

Cunningham scored a class win as a Corvette Team driver at the 1960 Le Mans

End of Cunningham’s racing career

After his racing career ended in the mid ’60s, Cunningham remained active in the motorsport community and was friends with all the important American aces of that period. He also continued to sail his boats and collect cars. He died in 2003 after a long and fantastic life filled with racing and achievements.

Three Cunningham Corvettes at the 1960 Le Mans

Three Cunningham Corvettes at the 1960 Le Mans


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