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Photo credit: Revs Institute, Wheelsage

The name Cunningham is synonymous with a love for motorsports and the ambition of its founder to emerge victorious at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with both American cars and drivers. This fervour played an integral role in the life of Briggs Swift Cunningham II, who hailed from a wealthy family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cunningham’s passion for racing prompted him to not only become a skilled driver but also briefly dabble in the art of automobile construction.

Briggs Swift Cunningham II with the first car he constructed: the 1950 C-1, featuring a 5,400cc Cadillac V8 engine. Only one example of this vehicle was ever produced

Briggs Swift Cunningham II was a firm believer in American pride, a value that was deeply reflected in his racing career. He championed the use of cars that were exclusively blue and white, and fearlessly took on the European powerhouses on the track. Following a noteworthy, albeit unsuccessful outing at Le Mans in 1950, where he competed with two Cadillacs – one of which was so uniquely reconfigured that it was famously dubbed “Le Monstre” – Cunningham decided to construct his own vehicles and race them under his own name. 

The three examples of the C2-R, just prior to their debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1951. This model was equipped with a Chrysler engine

The first to emerge was the C-1 in 1950 fitted with a Cadillac powerplant. Only one was built and it was used in practice sessions in the run-up to the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans. Subsequently, three variants of the C-2R were constructed, all of which were fitted with Chrysler engines. Unfortunately, the C-2R failed to perform up to expectations and lagged behind its rivals. 

After a disappointing showing in 1951, Cunningham returned to Le Mans the following year and placed an impressive 4th overall driving his own C4-R, on the day that Mercedes emerged victorious

However, the team’s fortunes turned for the better in subsequent years. In 1952, the C-4R model managed to secure a commendable 4th place overall, while the C-5R, which was launched in 1953, finally claimed a spot on the podium. 

The joy at the result of the 24 Hours was joined by the obligation to become a manufacturer in order to pursue his dream of producing cars under his own name and achieving homologation at Le Mans. 

The Cunningham C-3 Continental, designed by Giovanni Michelotti and bodied by the Italian Vignale. This model was the only Cunningham that was marketed to the public, but its high cost resulted in just 25 units being produced

In 1953 the C-3 Continental was launched, of which 25 examples were built (18 coupes and 9 convertibles), the minimum number required by the regulations, and was the only Cunningham model to be sold to the general public. Based on the C-2 platform, the vehicle was equipped with a Chrysler Hemi V8 engine that boasted a displacement of 5,400cc and produced an impressive 220hp. Notably, its production process was split across two continents, with the chassis being manufactured in Florida, while the bodywork was crafted in Italy by Vignale, designed by Giovanni Michelotti.

The beautiful version of the C-3 Continental equipped with a 5,400cc Chrysler V8 engine capable of producing 220 hp

As a result of its high price tag, which was nearly five times the cost of a fully optioned Cadillac at the time, the car failed to achieve commercial success. Nevertheless, production lasted until 1955, after which Cunningham abandoned the idea of building automobiles, while continuing to participate in racing events. This continued until 1965, when he ultimately decided to retire permanently at the age of 58. 

Cunningham finally secured a spot on the podium at the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans with the C-5R, finishing in third place. This achievement was repeated the following year, behind the Jaguars that were already equipped with disc brakes

In 1986, all the vehicles were sold to Miles Collier Jr. and were subsequently incorporated into the Collier Museum, which in turn became part of the Revs Institute. Briggs Cunningham, who had since distanced himself from racing and the public eye, passed away in 2003 at the age of 96.

The C-6R was the last vehicle produced by the brave American builder. Despite being fitted with a winning Jaguar engine and heavily inspired by the renowned D-Type, it was unable to secure a victory at Le Mans, bringing Cunningham’s last hope of success at the prestigious event to a close in 1955