Briggs Swift Cunningham II
Horsepower, Endurance, Sportsmanship
Briggs Cunningham II, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 19 January 1907, was the epitome of the millionaire American sportsman: a victorious was the epitome of the millionaire American sportsman: a victorious America's Cup skipper and a respected motor racing personality, esteemed as a driver, owner and manufacturer.
The Cunningham family could trace their origins back to the beginning of English colonisation in North America. By the end of the 18th century they had settled around present day Cincinnati and with the country growing, the Cunningham's made their fortune by supplying provisions to settlers moving west. Briggs Swift Cunningham I, a 19th century patriarch, pursued a career as a banker and enlarged the family wealth by investing in railways, telecommunications, meat packing and commercial real estate. The daring entrepreneur was also the chief financier of two young men who had developed a bath soap that floated: William Cooper Procter, Briggs junior's godfather, and James Norris Gamble, founders of what was to become the multinational giant Procter & Gamble.
Briggs Cunningham II spent his summers in the Northeast and learned to sail at the early age of 6. When he was a teenager his family moved to Southport, Connecticut, where the 17 year old joined the Star Class racing fleet at the Pequot Yacht Club, the beginning of 30 years of sailboat racing. Cunningham was educated at Groton, the Hill School, Pottstown, followed by Yale where he studied Engineering and Technical Drawing and captained the football team.
In 1930, Briggs Cunningham II married Lucy Bedford, the daughter of the Standard Oil heir Fred Bedford; rumour has it that their combined fortune made them the richest couple in American history. On honeymoon in Europe they attended regattas, Cunningham saw his first motor race, the 1930 Monaco Grand Prix, and learned to toboggan while practicing with the Swiss National Team. For the next 32 years the couple lived on Long Island Sound, dealing with the family businesses and philanthropies. In their spare time, they participated at various competitions such as yachting and car concours, the wealthy gentlemen's sport in the 1930s. In 1937, Cunningham crewed for the tycoon Harold Stirling Vanderbilt on his yacht "Vim", 20 years later his talent at the helm would prove fortuitous for the "Columbia" campaign: as skipper of the 12-meter sloop in the 1958 Cup races off Newport, R.I., Cunningham successfully defended the America's Cup against the British challenger, the 12-meter yacht Sceptre. A member of the New York Yacht Club, Briggs Cunningham II continued to sail the "Columbia" in club races through the 1960s. Always thinking of ways to make boats (and later cars) go faster, he invented a tackle for adjusting mainsail luff tension, called "Cunningham", which became a common device on sailboats. The famous sailor Victor Romagna once said "Briggs was like a fine violinist with boats. He would need someone to do the tuning, as one might with a Stradivarius, but afterwards, we would hand the boat back to Briggs. Then he would play the instrument absolutely perfectly". Having acquired a taste for auto racing as a boy when his uncle had taken him street racing in a Dodge touring car powered by a Hispano Suiza aircraft engine, he began to build his own cars and enter them into races as of 1940, interrupted by World War II: Airman Briggs Cunningham, who like many other of his generation had learned to fly airplanes, flew antisubmarine patrols for the Coast Guard (after being turned down as over age by the Air Force).
Near the end of the 1950 season he bought an automobile manufacturing and development business from Phil Walters and Bill Frick and moved it to Palm Beach, Florida near where he spent his winter seasons. The purpose was to build a sports car that would be competitive with the best that Europe had to offer and to use American components.
The first American manufacturer after the war to compete seriously in the classic Le Mans 24-Hours endurance race, Cunningham always arrived lavishly equipped and accompanied by a team made up of similarly gentlemanly East Coast drivers as well as experienced professionals; they had cars built around Cadillac or Chrysler V8 engines, plus an enormous team transporter, fitted with every luxury. In 1951, Cunningham presented the "Cunningham C-4R", a race car designed and built by him. Made with a sleek, hand-hammered aluminium body and Chrysler's newly introduced V8 engine, the "Cunningham" is known as America's first sports car. A year later, Cunningham and his partner Bill Spear placed fourth with the car at Le Mans, averaging 88 miles an hour. ''Cunningham himself was never particularly interested in short races'', Road and Track magazine said in 1979. ''What he liked to do was get out and drive and drive and drive, which was why Le Mans was so fascinating to him''.
By 1956 the Cunningham team had become a dominant force in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) sanctioned sports car racing-a distinction they retained for the next decade. In addition to automobiles built by Cunningham, they raced Ferraris, Jaguars, Jaguar D-types, Maseratis, OSCAs, Porsches and other brands in GT (Gran Turismo) and Formula One competitions. A record set in 1954 by one of these cars still exists today: Sterling Moss and Bill Lloyd drove Briggs Cunningham's 1.5-liter OSCA MT4 (Maserati Tipo 4) at the famous 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race, held at Sebring International Raceway, a former Air Force base in Sebring, Florida, and became the smallest engine ever to win at Sebring despite many high-powered competitors. The same racecar also earned the distinction of being the first equipped with wire-wheels to win the race. The following year, two other drivers of Cunningham's team won Sebring in a Jaguar D-type.
To honor Briggs Cunningham and his team, the "Cunningham Corner", a portion of the Sebring International Raceway, was named after him. Cunningham was also the first to apply racing stripes to his high performance racecars, usually two parallel blue stripes running from front to rear in the center of the white body so that spectators could identify the team's automobiles easily during races. This tradition was soon adapted by other racing teams and became common on race and road cars.
In 1955, Cunningham began competing on a Jaguar team and became a Jaguar distributor in New England. In his last ever Le Mans competition in 1963, Briggs raced in British historical Jaguar E-type "Le Mans 1963" slot car. Only 12 examples of this lightweight E-type were ever produced, out of which Briggs Cunningham owned no less than three. He used them all at Le Mans in 1963, featuring the iconic Cunningham team colors white and blue. In a remarkable end to an even more remarkable career, Cunningham and his racing partner Bob Grossman still managed to bring their car over the finish line despite an accident - after a frantic pit stop to replace the steering, front suspension, wheels and tyres, bonnet and lights, Briggs and Bob truly merited their place of honor amongst the legends of Le Mans!
In 1962, Cunningham moved his car collection from Connecticut to California, and opened the "Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum" in Costa Mesa. He settled into a comfortable late philanthropist and curator life but with increasing age he decided to sell the collection to Miles Collier for his private automotive museum in Florida in 1985. In 1993, he was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, RI, earlier the same year into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame.
Gentleman racer Briggs Cunningham II passed away on 2 July 2003 at the age of 96.