Like many sportsmen of the 1950s, Briggs Cunningham dreamed of winning at Le Mans. Unlike many of those men, Cunningham, the heir to the Swift meatpacking fortune, had the virtually limitless funds required to enable such efforts. After finding that production American cars, such as Cadillacs, were “close but no cigar,” he turned his bank account and energy towards developing his own all-new automobile, one that could run at Le Mans and emerge victorious, but also be, at its core, American.
Cunningham’s cars were smooth, low-slung designs that had strong tubular chassis, independent coil-spring front suspension, and tuned Chrysler Hemi V-8 power. The racing models evolved throughout the early 1950s, winning at Road America and Watkins Glen in 1951, but the Le Mans organizers threw Cunningham a curve ball when he started his preparations to enter their 1952 event. They specified that at least 25 road going cars had to be built in order to qualify the entrant as an automobile manufacturer. Cunningham gave it some thought and concluded that a road going version of his racing car would not be such a bad idea; in fact, it would actually help to offset the astronomical expenses being incurred by his racing team.
Production of an entire car in Cunningham’s West Palm Beach facility would have been cost-prohibitive, so the maestro contracted Italian coachbuilder Alfredo Vignale to build him coupe and cabriolet bodies, which were based on a design that had been penned by Giovanni Michelotti and had obvious Ferrari influences. The C3, as it was known, was still not cheap, as it was based on a modified racing chassis and still had a Hemi V-8. It was essentially a larger, hotter Ferrari but with American grunt under the hood, and it cost about $9,000. However, no one could argue that the power was not worth the cost, as the C-3 was good for 0–60 mph in around 7 seconds and could hit a top speed of nearly 150 mph.
Cunningham had limited production of the C3 underway by early 1953, but the project was dogged by delays. While his shop could build a chassis every week, it took Vignale, working with time-honored handcraftsmanship, almost two months to complete the rest of a car. Ultimately, C3 production wound to a close with five cabriolets and twenty coupes produced.
Although the Cunningham team never won at Le Mans, he did finish 3rd overall in both 1953 and 1954, and he would continue to race with ever-modified versions of his own design, along with a staggering roster of Jaguars, Listers, Maseratis, and Corvettes, until 1963. The C3 was as close as he ever came to building a true production model, and it was the only Cunningham ever built for the public.
CHASSIS NUMBER 5206: THE PROTOTYPE
According to Richard Harman’s invaluable book, Cunningham: The Passion, The Cars, The Legacy, chassis number 5206 was the first C3 built with Vignale coachwork, which was installed following a costly initial one-off effort of being assembled entirely in West Palm Beach. This particular car is the one referred to by the Cunningham factory as “the prototype,” and it was originally built with numerous unique characteristics, including a unique bumper, no chrome rubbing strip beneath the doors, special Cunningham script on the nose, a chrome windshield surround, and a Chrysler Hemi V-8 with four Zenith single-barrel carburetors and a custom Cunningham intake manifold, as well as additional special performance modifications. Interestingly, the car borrowed numerous Ford interior components, including its radio, heater, and hand brake.
Cunningham used the prototype for publicity photographs, which were taken in July 1952 and widely published by the motoring press, such as a photo of the interior being published in the September issue of Road & Track magazine.
“Spine-jolting acceleration that stems from phenomenal low-speed torque; ridiculous ease of
motion; paralyzing brake power; positive steering…in the best Bugatti tradition; and with all the sort of
lounging comfort one has no right to expect, even from the modern sports machine.” John Bentley was
describing the Cunningham C-3 for readers of The Autocar in 1952. He was not alone in his enthusiasm.
In Road & Track, John Bond said taking the car through his favorite S-bend was a “revelation…no
sway, no squat, no squawl.” Said another road tester: “It’s pretty hard to believe. You’ve never driven
anything like it in your life.” Yet another was more explicit: “Driving this car is not unlike harnessing
Niagara Falls… a suddenly opened throttle parallels the kick of a JATO assist rocket.”
Modifications to Chrysler’s massive hemi had provided the C-3 with about forty more horses than
stock. The Cunningham production car’s easy cruising speed was 107mph. Top speed was about 135.
Depending upon transmission, zero to 60 could be accomplished in 6.9 seconds (Cadillac three-speed) or 8.5
seconds (Chrysler Fluid-Torque).
To qualify his cars for Le Mans, Briggs Cunningham had no choice but to become an automobile
manufacturer. Initially, he planned to build 25 cars in 1952 (the Le Mans minimum), followed by 50 in
1953. Total actual production turned out to be only 18 coupes and 9 convertibles. Consequently, though
priced in the $10,000 range, very expensive for the times, the cars cost Briggs yet more to build.
Unquestionably, the Cunningham was the most exciting American sports car of its era and one of
the most handsome sports cars anywhere. Giovanni Michelotti styled the body; Vignale built it in Turin,
Italy. In 1953 the Cunningham Continental Coupe was one of just two American cars (the Studebaker
Starliner from Raymond Loewy’s studio
the other) selected by Arthur Drexler of New York’s Museum of
Modern Art for landmark status among the world’s 10 best contemporary automobile designs.