Looking Back: Cunninghams at Le Mans

Leigh Dorrington

Looking Back: Cunninghams at Le Mans

Insights

Looking Back: Cunninghams at Le Mans

By

American Briggs Swift Cunningham’s ambition to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been told and retold. Cunningham’s efforts landed him on the cover of TIME magazine in April 1954. But the range of automobiles the B.S. Cunningham Co. designed and built for Le Mans was extraordinary, in a very short period of time.

Cunningham’s first attempt at Le Mans in 1950 began with a pair of stock Series 61 Cadillac coupes. Both cars were prepared on Long Island, New York by Bill Frick and Phil Walters, one with the stock body and the other with an aerodynamic body developed with engineers at nearby Grumman Aircraft. Both Cadillacs finished the race, but it was quickly determined that in order to win Le Mans overall the team would need to design and build their own cars.

1950 – Photo: Doug Nye

The B.S. Cunningham Co. was established in West Palm Beach, Florida with Walters as the general manager and chief tester. Walters designed the Cunningham’C-2R (C-1 was a production prototype) with a tubular chassis, Chrysler 331 cu.in. Hemi engine, independent front suspension and a de Dion rear axle arrangement in a sturdy, attractive two-seat roadster. Three cars raced at Le Mans in 1951. One car was running 2nd o.a. into Sunday morning and finished 1st in class.

1951 – Photo: Leigh Dorrington

But, in spite of that success, the cars were overweight and handled poorly. All three were sold and development of a successor, the C-4R, began (C-3 being reserved for production cars). The new cars were smaller, lighter and more nimble, still utilizing a tubular frame and Hemi engines but with live rear axles in place of the heavy de Dion assembly. Two C-4R roadsters and one C-4RK coupe raced at Le Mans in 1952. The C-4RK coupe led the first lap and the first two-and-a-half hours of the race, and one C-4R roadster driven by Cunningham and Bill Spear finished 4th o.a. winning the class again.

One C-5R was constructed for 1953 and very nearly won Le Mans overall. The C-5R was designed by Walters and George Weaver, again with a tubular frame and Hemi engine but now with a one piece front axle and gigantic 17” drum brakes addressing the team’s ongoing brake issues at the La Sarthe circuit. Driven by Fitch and Walters, the C-5R proved to be the fastest car in the field, but fell behind the winning C-type Jaguars in the turns and finishing 3rd o.a.

1953 – Photo: Leigh Dorrington

The progress was very real. One more car—the C-6R—was designed in hopes of an overall victory, although that car didn’t race until 1955. In the meantime, two of the now three-years-old C-4R roadsters finished 3rd and 5th o.a. in 1954. When it arrived 1955, the C-6R was the best looking but most disappointing of all the Cunningham competition cars. Weaver again designed a tubular frame structure designed for a Ferrari 375 MM engine, then a four-cylinder Meyer-Drake Offenhauser. The engine, designed to run on alcohol, could never be made to run cool enough on gasoline for Le Mans and finally succumbed to a burned piston in the 18th hour.

1955 – Photo: Leigh Dorrington

By then the end had already come. IRS regulations required businesses structured like the B.S. Cunningham Co. to show a profit within five years, or to be reclassified as a hobby. Without the expected sales of the Cunningham C-3 customer cars, production ceased.

More Vintage Motorsport