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Cunningham Race Cars - 1950’s


edinmass
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I took the 1933 Rolls Phantom II for a spin out to breakfast today, and drove buy the old Cunningham factory in West Palm Beach. The building  has remained virtually the same since the fifties when they were building cars for Le Mans. Recently major renovations have begun, and from the looks of things all the “historic” aspects of the building are being altered to a modern look. When I was in there last year, not much had changed on the inside , including the offices and bathrooms. Another small piece of American car history lost forever.........

Edited by edinmass (see edit history)
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The question is : Just how affluent is that particular corner of West Palm ? WEST Palm is not PALM, and has changed beyond recognition since the '50s. I still remember how Florida West Coast was back in Feb. of '52. Parents yanked me out of school, and took me and my little brothers from the Chicago Winter down to Sanibel Island to camp out of a '50 Willys Jeep station wagon for a month. Changed beyond recognition ? I'm here to tell you !!!!!!       -    Carl 

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How changed is West Palm? Like night and day in the last five years. Most of the Generation X’s with money don’t want to live on the island........West Palm in many places looks just like the island...........and home prices in my neighborhood have tripled in the last six years.

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I recall it just being another machining shop (albeit a big one) in WEST Palm near the tracks. Was just a place where things got built. One of many. Personally was more interested in what Norm Latham was doing not far away.

 

Have to remember that the ARCF was founded in the area to run Sebring after the flight of Pierre had the AAA pull out. Sports cars abounded and were cheap on the used market (wanted a TR#, Jag XK was cheaper, found out why, still have whitworth wrenches. Brigg's place was just one of several places building cars for Sebring and Nassau and later the Daytona Continental). Was the start of my multi-car fetish (had the XK and a MGA RHD - last car with a crank- then a Devin Jag before getting serious about autocrossing with my Camaro)

 

Believe it or don't but for years the rear sway bard from ADCO for an early Camaro went through the transverse muffler. I had side pipes.

 

ps back then Military Highway (441) was a mostly straight shell aggregate road out in the middle of nowhere (so far inland that the U-boats sitting off the coast could not count truck headlights) and often echoed with the sounds of racing engines being tested. Pete Revson's GT-40 was said to be the first to record 200 mph. FHP knew to stay away. (Jenny's mother had a Rolls Royce that was the easiest car I ever saw to hotwire...)

 

If I ever write an autobiography it will have to be fiction.

Edited by padgett (see edit history)
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1 hour ago, TTR said:

Pictures or video or it didn’t happen...🤔 😉

 

 

Our cars are camera shy.........that why I usually only post photos looking through the windshield. He is a shot from the car while driving through the Italian Alps two years ago at the Lake Como Concours at Villa De Est.

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Padgett- you are correct......it was a run down area of old 1920’s buildings......now its a playground for the rich and famous. In the same complex is a Brewery, a Distillery, 8 restaurants, a squash club, a yoga club, ect.........all the change has taken place in the last three years.........the large vacant lot to the south is getting 100 luxury condos........ 

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It is interesting how things become legends. Personally find many of todays thoughts on what was has been a bit blown out of proportions. The Cunningham shop was smaller than I see on Motor Trend today, the biggest was a guy whose name I can't remember but was building mainly Willis dragsters. (was into road racing so didn't pay much attention). One thing I do remember was that he was on a constant hunt for LaSalle transmissions (evidently very strong).

 

Briggs then was mainly an assembler who made semi and full custom bodies but it was a passion. What I remember most was lotsa carburetors. Was the time when I was learning how to use a Unisyn to tune triple SUs.

 

But back then best to think of West Palm as many many men in sheds doing strange things with race cars. Of course that was before the tire revolution so that was the limiting factor. And every year someone would hit the one tree at Sebring.

 

Anyone remember '65 when all you saw of the Sebring Sprite was a moving mound of water ? (Lake Mirror Concours poster reminded me)

 

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Edited by padgett (see edit history)
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In the late '50s - early '60s, tire choice for track condition was critical at the SCCA races I attended back then. One of my favorite cars I witnessed then was an early '52 well prepared XK120 MC. Toby would spin it out, wave to us and get back on course. I bought the car in '65. Replaced the 3.89 Thornton Power Lock with a standard 3.54 out of a 140. Drove it in plenty of Seattle rain. Less prone to spin out with a standard diff, it handled very differently on Michelin X compared to Blue Streaks.   -   Carl 

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Back in those days Blue Streaks had a bit of tread didn't they ? Probably a lot softer compound than X's. Best all round tires I had in the 1980's were Michelin XWX's. Too pricy new for my pocket, but the guy at the tire store the shop I worked at did quite a bit of business with used to put any used ones that came in aside for me.

 The only Blue Streaks I have experience with are the final generation. Pure race slicks, completely useless in the wet. Just before the name change to Goodyear Eagle.

I can't imagine how deep your pockets would have to be these days in order to race an XK 120. My little 4 Cyl. car is bad enough, a fraction of the cost to buy. And way lower costs in every other regard as well. Far easier on tires, and engines are less than 1/2 the price. Faster as well in the right hands.

Greg in Canada

Edited by 1912Staver (see edit history)
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Hi Greg,

Cost is relative. Racing a 120 these days is peanuts and Cracker Jacks against the cost of this thing. I have posted before, but in case you missed it, this is a 450S. Owned by an old high school drinking pal of mine, he drives all his wheels. And he is very good at it. I let him drive my Maserati over 50 years ago, and he was better at it than I was. Hmmmmmm............... 

 

Now a little more about my old 120. I returned it to a more sensible road car as per earlier posting. But the thing had some expensive machine work done on it. From the snap throttle response, I figure it had been balanced and blueprinted. Probably lightened the flywheel too. I took it slightly further by boring out a 140 manifold and putting on 2" SUs in place of the 1 3/4s. You had to mind the tach. Plenty of useful go power up to and over red line, which came quickly. 

 

Yes "bit of tread" on the 'Streaks would be an accurate statement. Softer than the Xs for sure. But also, by comparison relative to the X,  the 'Streak was a slick. As a road tire, the 'Streak was a gentler, more predictable handling skin. But show great restraint in the rain. They were a dry pavement tire. The X had a rather sudden breakaway. But never caused me an anxious nanosecond in the rain. I had way to much sense to do anything stupid in that Jag. I was young and hardy, and my little girlfriend younger yet. She and I ran that thing top down all 4 seasons. We couldn't have put the top up anyway for the roll bar. We dressed for the weather, and took it very easy in the snow. You could kind of "outrun" the snow even at relatively low speed with the windshield fitted. Had to go a little faster to do so in the rain. Often took the easy to pull windshield out for at least part of the Summer. It had a quick- change exhaust system, so wide open was always an option. I don't really know if youth is wasted on the young. I don't think I wasted mine, but I sure wish I still had that XK120. Doesn't everyone who had one and sold it wish the same.?     -    Carl 

 

 

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Amazing car ! We can all dream at least.   And your 120 sounds like a blast. Affordable definitely means different things to different people. Drove my MGA for several years with no top so I can definitely relate. I always parked it from November to March to save it from the salt. Unlike Washington B.C. uses lots of salt in the winter. Thank goodness for old Toyota's , cheap winter transport. 

 One of my all time favorite cars is a XK 120 factory lightweight that lived in the Vancouver area for 20 or so years. Gone back to England quite a few years ago. D type engine and lots more besides the special alloy body . I believe 4 were built as  back up cars for le Mans in case the C types had trouble. But only 3 were finished at the time. The 4 th body was eventually built up as a club racer by a Jag apprentice some time in the 1960's. In the early 70's it made its way over here. MWK 120  { also known as LT1 }is its plate number , there should be information on the web if you are curious. Stunning in real life. More subdued than your friends Maserati but surely one of the ultimate XK series cars.

 

Greg in Canada

Edited by 1912Staver (see edit history)
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As a strictly pre war guy, and younger than most of the gang here, I can’t comment on exactly how Briggs built the cars. He was very wealthy........at the time think like Bill Gates numbers.......thus he could have run his shop in any manner he desired. The area was definitely just a bunch of old machine shops, light manufacturing operations, and a bunch of tiny homes mixed in. Certainly the building was chosen because of convenience more than anything else, as it was in the same town where he lived. Interestingly he chose Florida instead of the northeast............back at that time it speaks volumes about his style and image. I have worked on the earlier Cunningham cars from New York, but there is no relation to the Florida operation. Three years ago, I serviced one of the Briggs coupe cars overseas, and I must admit that while I “knew what it was” in the aspects of racing history and local lore, I wasn’t that impressed. Jay Leno has a similar car to the one I serviced and did a decent video explaining the cars and the history of Briggs. Definitely worth any true car guys time to watch. I don’t know how to post a link to it........can someone provide it for the thread. Thanks, Ed

Edited by edinmass (see edit history)
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It's all relative. Back in the early '70s was very successful in club racing with my $1k FI SplitWindow I later found out was a "tanker". Was a GMI student on the GI Bill which helped. Built the engine in a friend's barn using a broomstick for the cam bearings. A FI/tach drive distributer was $60 at the employee sales. Got Blue Streaks at Gratiot Auto supply and 15x8 steel wheels were $15. Have always sat waaay back.

 

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6 hours ago, edinmass said:

As a strictly pre war guy, and younger than most of the gang here, I can’t comment on exactly how Briggs built the cars. He was very wealthy........at the time think like Bill Gates numbers.......thus he could have run his shop in any manner he desired. The area was definitely just a bunch of old machine shops, light manufacturing operations, and a bunch of tiny homes mixed in. Certainly the building was chosen because of convenience more than anything else, as it was in the same town where he lived. Interestingly he chose Florida instead of the northeast............back at that time it speaks volumes about his style and image. I have worked on the earlier Cunningham cars from New York, but there is no relation to the Florida operation. Three years ago, I serviced one of the Briggs coupe cars overseas, and I must admit that while I “knew what it was” in the aspects of racing history and local lore, I wasn’t that impressed. Jay Leno has a similar car to the one I serviced and did a decent video explaining the cars and the history of Briggs. Definitely worth any true car guys time to watch. I don’t know how to post a link to it........can someone provide it for the thread. Thanks, Ed


In the '50's, I had the honor and pleasure of knowing one of Cunningham's employees, Bob Blake of Arlington, Va.  Bob was the uncle of a neighborhood teenage pal, and became associated with Briggs when his "Le Monster" (correct me if that name isn't quite right) which was a '50 Cadillac re bodied crudely as an open car in aluminum, which was being tweeked for LeMans and crashed before the race.  Bob already had a reputation for being a gifted metal man, especially in aluminum, gas welding it yet, specializing in building race car bodies.  Briggs called upon Bob and he packed up his tools, flew over and made repairs to the crunched car.  That started  the relationship, Bob was involved building the Cunningham cars afterwards, and later Jaguar got wind of him and hired him away to England, where he did prototype design and metal work, reporting right to the top.   Briggs could afford the best, and Bob exemplified that.  Instrumental in Bob leaving Briggs employment was not so much the money but the fact that his wife, whom he met overseas as a G.I. was British, and she was said to be homesick.   

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AFAIR "Le Monstre" , a  rebodied 50 Caddy. I always thought it was quite crude compared to the later ones but then you could get a Caddy with a manual transmission (and can get one again...)

 

Back then Palm Beach was where the 400 had their winter homes and went from a population of 35,000 in the winter to 5,000 in the summer. My high school had a 2 hour lunch break so we could go to the beach. Lunch was from Perna's over on Royal Palm about 2 blocks from the school. There were still vacant lots there then and hedges were low.

 

Were three distict cultures then - old money was mostly south & mid-north & went to the Everglades (once asked Bunny to park a 38 Mack dump truck - whole 'nother story) and the B&T, neveau riche was mostly in the middle and had the Sailfish Club. Gamblers went to the Coral Beach (which had a great grilled liver, bacon, and onions but the B&T had the best creamed spinach).

 

Car testing was on the bridges which was the province of the FHP who never appeared, could see the cars with the brakes cherry red slowing down before the town line when coming back from the Hut (which had a great shrimp basket)

 

Don't get me started. Can say that Briggs, Jim Kimberly, and the Collier brothers usually had the most interesting cars.

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On 9/29/2019 at 2:17 PM, padgett said:

AFAIR "Le Monstre" , a  rebodied 50 Caddy. I always thought it was quite crude compared to the later ones but then you could get a Caddy with a manual transmission (and can get one again...)

 

Back then Palm Beach was where the 400 had their winter homes and went from a population of 35,000 in the winter to 5,000 in the summer. My high school had a 2 hour lunch break so we could go to the beach. Lunch was from Perna's over on Royal Palm about 2 blocks from the school. There were still vacant lots there then and hedges were low.

 

Were three distict cultures then - old money was mostly south & mid-north & went to the Everglades (once asked Bunny to park a 38 Mack dump truck - whole 'nother story) and the B&T, neveau riche was mostly in the middle and had the Sailfish Club. Gamblers went to the Coral Beach (which had a great grilled liver, bacon, and onions but the B&T had the best creamed spinach).

 

Car testing was on the bridges which was the province of the FHP who never appeared, could see the cars with the brakes cherry red slowing down before the town line when coming back from the Hut (which had a great shrimp basket)

 

Don't get me started. Can say that Briggs, Jim Kimberly, and the Collier brothers usually had the most interesting cars.

 
An old postcard from the Long Island Auto Museum, Southampton, N. Y.   Caption on the back says;
                               "1936 Duesenberg Roadster
                  From the collection of Briggs S. Cunningham".  
Is there any doubt this ex-Gable (or is it Cooper's, don't have time to look it up)  SSJ qualified as a most interesting car? 

MVC-026S.JPG

Edited by Dave Henderson (see edit history)
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Great car, but you need to be 5’4” or smaller to drive it. I couldn’t even get in it. Driving it wasn’t an option. 

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Wonder if he got it from the Melton Autorama down around Delray (just remember it was "not far south". He died in the early '60s and the collection was sold off. He could have ordered a SSJ.

 

ps back in the 50's most great road race drivers were short. Probably grew up when food was same.  Recently figured out my laid back, arms out driving position was originally for aerodynamics, not comfort.

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Just now, A. Ballard 35R said:

This one supposedly was acquired by Cunningham from Cameron Peck.

The Cunningham SSJ was painted by Gus Reuter in the Bronx, saw photos of it a few months ago with the fenders off. Gus was the go to guy in the early 1950's and did cars for all the early collectors. Bob 

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"Collier prominently displayed the car at the Revs Institute in Naples, Florida for 32 years"

 

Might mention that Naples is in Collier County Florida. Barron bough most of the west coast back when it was cheap. Sam and Miles I remember from when I was a kid.

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4 hours ago, A. Ballard 35R said:

This one supposedly was acquired by Cunningham from Cameron Peck.


The closest classic to an SSJ Duesenberg that I can conjure up is the ca. '32 Stutz DV32 Super Bearcat.  When I was at U. Va. in 1949 a fellow student, Hank Cone, owned one, in good "survivor" condition.  I remember it having a huge battery behind its seat, which was usually dead.  We pushed it frequently.  Later I heard that it was sold to someone in Chicago, for $400.  D. Cameron Peck?   Ah, for a time machine.

MVC-027S.JPG

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In case you've never seen a Cunningham. This is an exact copy of C4RK made by Panel Beaters of Stratford, CT for the Cunningham family. The original was run through a 3D scanning machine, and the bucks made by CNC. Then the panels were hand beaten.

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On 10/1/2019 at 3:20 PM, Dave Henderson said:


The closest classic to an SSJ Duesenberg that I can conjure up is the ca. '32 Stutz DV32 Super Bearcat.  When I was at U. Va. in 1949 a fellow student, Hank Cone, owned one, in good "survivor" condition.  I remember it having a huge battery behind its seat, which was usually dead.  We pushed it frequently.  Later I heard that it was sold to someone in Chicago, for $400.  D. Cameron Peck?   Ah, for a time machine.

MVC-027S.JPG

 

 

No need for a time machine to find it............It's parked in Michigan............there are two of them side by side...............

 

 

 

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On 10/4/2019 at 8:34 AM, edinmass said:

 

 

No need for a time machine to find it............It's parked in Michigan............there are two of them side by side...............

 

Pretty darn good survival rate, I can't find production figures but there couldn't have been many produced.  Body was by Weyman I believe, but not of fabric.  The one owned by Hank Cone had no front bumper on it in the time period when I was familiar with it.  So, I wonder, do both of the Michigan ones have the same type bumper?  A clue like one having a different, incorrect one might link one of the cars to Cone.  Of course someone may have the trail already.  
I saw one at the Winchester, Va. show years ago. Unfortunately I couldn't find the owner to chat with.  

 

 

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On 10/3/2019 at 9:04 PM, padgett said:

I remember seeing coupes but thought only the LeMonstre had slab sides and the 4/5 was more rounded in the back. That back end just doe not look right.

 

There was only one C4RK. The oddly shaped  rear was for aerodynamics, not to be pretty. The aerodynamicist was none other than Wunibald Kamm himself. I believe it ran the fastest lap at Le Mans in 1951, but succumbed to engine trouble and DNF.

 

Cunningham had to make 50 road cars in order to homologate as a manufacturer, and that's the only reason he built the company.  It never made money, and for that reason, it was closed by the IRS.

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Mfrank you beat me to it. The Cunningham coupe was a Kamm design. His experiments in aerodynamics in the 30s, proved that for least air resistance you needed a long tapered tail. If this was not practical, second best was a 10 degree taper then a quick chop at the back. Steeper angles did not work as well.

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