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Cunningham Book Review

by PETE on OCTOBER 10, 2013

Before me there are two massive volumes totaling 844 pages, with over 1500 rarely-seen color and black and white photos. It is a classic body of work that can’t be easily categorized, classified, analyzed, compartmentalized, or even at times, comprehended. Unlike many books today, it covers not just one serial number or marque, but multiple cars, events, and drivers; the length, breadth, depth, and detail that define this opus are a credit to both the subject matter and the author.

It would seem that such a huge work is necessary to reflect the life and times of Briggs S. Cunningham II, and it is entitled, Cunningham: The Passion, The Cars, The Legacy (aka CPCL). Hold that thought for now.

The Cunningham C-1 prototype in Palm Beach. Few men had the passion, will and resources of Briggs S. Cunningham.

The Passion
To get this out of the way: If you are wondering if such an expensive ($350) two volume set is a worthwhile purchase, consider that Richard Harman’s seven year wonder is a massive work, encyclopedic in scope, and a thoroughly well-researched foray into the history of the cars and events involved with Briggs S. Cunningham II. Harman lists, explains, and details the ownership of 198 Cunningham-associated cars by serial number including all those which were part of the Cunningham car collection. In addition to the Cunningham cars themselves, Harman tells us about every car that Cunningham even breathed upon or thought to purchase or allowed to be displayed in his museum in Costa Mesa; every car that was handled by Momo or Team Cunningham, whether or not actually owned by Briggs; every car that could conceivably be associated with the team (such as a 3.4 Jag raced in England by Walt Hansgen, simply because he was on a trip with Cunningham to the U.K.); virtually every car that Briggs bought on a whim, and every car that he himself saved because he actually drove them; every rare Italian car that caught Brigg’s eye, every Stanguellini, every Abarth, every Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia, Alfa (pre and post war) and even a Fiat-powered Formula Jr. Cooper (seems the BMC engines were unreliable and replaced by a trusty Fiat 1100); even a Lancia Fulvia HF which he bought for his second wife Laura to drive.

Momo's crew put a Fiat engine in a F Jr. Cooper and a Maserati engine into a Lotus. Chapman didn't laugh.

In addition, the book covers every race event that a Cunningham-owned or operated car took part in from 1938 to 1965.

There is a long chapter consisting of 67 briefs of various lengths on every driver who ever drove for Cunningham, even if only once. These short bios highlight a large number of drivers who are not widely known, as well as the greats such as Moss and Gurney.

The structure of the book is somewhat clumsy but it works. The problem is that since the author provides in-depth race reports in one section, then follows that up with an in-depth history on each of the race cars that participated in the event previously detailed, there is a certain amount of repetition.

The Cars
CPCL is a huge work primarily because over a period of more than a half century, Briggs Cunningham was able to buy whatever he pleased and did. Bruce McLaren noted this habit firsthand while testing cars in Italy in 1962: “Briggs really had a buying spree. Besides the T64 Maserati and the Cooper Monaco Maserati, he bought a beautiful silver gray Maserati 5000 coupe. He also took delivery of three 1000cc GT Abarths for the 3 hour race at Sebring and to top up his shopping basket, added three special bodied Fiat 1500s ‘because he liked the looks of them.’” (Ironically Harman does not mention the three Fiats in the list of cars touched by Briggs.).

Harman of course has built much of his work on research already done by Dalton Watson authors Willem Oosthoek, Walter Bäumer, and Terry O’Neil, ferretting out the Cunningham race results, serial numbers, and drivers. That in itself is amazing; Cunningham bought and raced MGs, Jags, Mercedes, OSCAs, Listers, Jag D – Types and XKEs, Lotus, Coopers, Stanguellinis, Abarths, Porsches, Maseratis, Ferraris, Cunninghams, Cadillacs, Corvettes; a Siata, Healey Silverstone, Austin Healey, Aston Martin, Chrysler Saratoga, Cooper Norton, and a Frazer-Nash from 1938 to 1965.

But what is also amazing is that Harman takes on tracking the Jaguars, Porsches, Listers, and a host of other non-Italian marques by serial numbers, including marque history and owners with equal ability and, seemingly, accuracy. On the other hand he leaves himself open to corrections from busy fact checkers who track everything from Abarth to Wills St. Claire. All we can do is to peruse the French and Italian cars mentioned and as it is, we found no serious errors, aside from labeling an Alfa Zagato as an Abarth 750 Zagato. Alas, we were too busy reading to do much fact checking.

The man who could have been Enzo: Cunningham poses with the awesome C4R and behind, a C-3 Vignale Gran Turismo coupe.

Aside from the huge amount of cars associated with the Cunningham team and museum, there are the 47 actual Cunningham cars, each type of which warrants its own chapter. From the C-1 to the last C6R, to the 25 odd C-3 Vignale-bodied coupes and convertibles, each car is carefully investigated and ownership and condition brought up to date. It was perhaps the most interesting, and most vital part of the entire two volumes, and is worth a book in itself. The Vignale bodies echoed the Ferraris of the same era, and were very similar, as off the same buck. In fact, in 1968, someone had removed the Cunningham badges from s/n 5224, replaced them with Ferrari badges and put it up for auction; apparently it was the Cunningham that thought it was a Ferrari! Briggs himself got involved, bid on the car successfully and had it restored and shown at the Costa Mesa museum.

Briggs in the OSCA that won at Sebring in 1954; his favorite car.

Briggs Cunningham owned, built, raced, drove or collected the greatest cars of the 20th century. When asked which was his favorite car to drive, he said, “Well, I always liked Ferraris, but I think the OSCA was my favorite….it was beautifully finished, you know, nicely made.” That ought to give our OSCA friends a bit of a boost!

The Legacy
We who basically grew up during the era of the Cunningham legend tend to take him for granted, and perhaps that is why Harman, a Brit, was able to perceive and record the tremendous influence Cunningham had on American racing. It was huge, and in turn influenced British and European racing and constructors, if only by funneling huge amounts of US dollars into the Jaguar and Maserati factories after his own factory was closed in 1955.

The two major drivers of the Cunningham C series, John Fitch and Phil Walters celebrate victory at Sebring in 1953.

Which brings us to assess Cunningham from another perspective. Almost single handedly, Cunningham created a world-class team of cars capable of winning Le Mans. Cunningham never received any money from Chrysler or any other American manufacturer, all tied up with the AAA ban on racing and clearly uncomfortable with advertising racing victories. In this gracious host, team player, race driver, gentleman, over-achiever, car constructor, flag waver, America had a winner, and factory support (similar to that which Jaguar offered Cunningham in the post 1955 era) would have perhaps changed the course of American involvement in European racing. As it is, ten years, more or less, went by before Ford finally decided to back a race team with the GT40 and achieved Cunningham’s goal of winning at Le Mans. It took the extremely deep pockets of the number 2 automaker to make this happen. Briggs was rich, but not Ford-rich. Yet it was Briggs, not Ford, who deserved the win that would never come his way.

Le Mans, 1955. The last true Cunningham, the C6R, next to the Cunningham entered D-Type Jag. It was the end of one era
and the beginning of another. But think of what could have been.

We ponder what might have been, had Briggs not tossed in the towel in 1955, at a time when international victories (he had won everything Stateside) was just on the horizon. But Cunningham realized that the new 3 liter limit would hinder the effort as no American V8 was that small, and the Offy, try as it might, just wasn’t cutting it. His cars weren’t selling that well and cost too much to produce. Finally, the tax boondoggle came along; Cunningham became a Jaguar distributor (Hoffman had had enough of the Jag’s unreliability) establishing a profitable business, and began racing the D-Type Jags. It was a successful partnership, but meant the end of an all-American race team. One might wonder what would have been possible if instead of Jaguar, it was GM and the new Corvette that came to the aid of the then beleaguered Cunningham company.

Cunningham would continue to race at Le Mans and all over the U.S., in a wide variety of classes from F Jr. to even running a Ford Fairlane 500 in NASCAR events for Walt Hansgen. The team officially retired in 1963, but entered a few events until 1965. It was of course magnificently, almost boringly, successful in U.S. racing.

1913 Peugeot which placed second at Indy in 1914 was one of the stars of the Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa.
Author Richard Harman chronicles the history and ownership of the Peugeot, as well as 198 others in this his massive work.

By then Cunningham was 57, and was eager to open his new museum in Costa Mesa, which came about in 1966. That lasted for twenty years, until the majority of the Cunningham collection, some 77 cars, were purchased by the Colliers in 1986 and moved to Naples, Florida, now the home of the REVS institute as well.

For the Le Mans record; Briggs entered cars ten times, placing cars in third twice, three fourth places, and one 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th place. Briggs drove (Briggs was a superb long distance driver) in all ten races and completed the full 24 hours in seven of them.

The Man
Back to that title, Cunningham: The Passion, The Cars, The Legacy. Notice the lack of the normal “the man” in the subhead. Take it seriously. Harman is not writing a biography here. Cunningham’s adventurous life until 1945 is summed up in three pages. His post-1945 years become part and parcel of the cars, racing, and collection that occupies the rest of the volumes. Personal information is scarce. When Cunningham and his wife of 32 years parted, the event is tersely put in one sentence: “During the year 1961, Briggs and his wife Lucie were divorced.”

Usually photographed with a huge grin, Cunningham looks worried during testing of the Maserati T64.

Through Harman’s chronicles, we learn a lot about the man himself. But make no mistake; the biography of Briggs S. Cunningham has yet to be written (and may never be). That does not mean to discredit the book or by any means stop one from buying this magnificent opus…but it’s nice to know beforehand.

The Book
The book has a great layout, clear with excellent photo reproduction and the 1500 photos are arranged nicely with the text. Par for the course for Dalton Watson, recent books have had wonderful and totally complete indexes, so necessary for a long work like this. There are many appendices, acknowledgements and photo credits; a triple-A rating for the indexes and appendices. On the downside, in the intro, Harman says there are credits for websites in the acknowledgements but none are actually listed. There are photos that should have been acknowledged but were not. The paper is glossy and of a heavy weight, the binding is stitched and sturdy. Both volumes have dust jackets, but there is no embossing on the cover. The slip cover is included and the entire set is nicely boxed for shipping.