Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Briggs Cunningham and the Beginnings of the Sports Car Craze in the US

The source for this post is Roger Butterfield, "Crazy Over Sports Cars," Saturday Evening Post, 226 (November 7, 1953), 34-66.

Between 1949 and 1953 Briggs Cunningham spent over a million dollars in an attempt to win at Le Mans. Described as a "lean and speed-hungry man," Cunningham was a car collector owning such vehicles as a 1911 Underslung, Hispano Suizas, Pierce Arrows, Mercers, Duesenbergs, Buggatis, Alfa Romeos and Rolls Royces. More modern vehicles included Cadillacs, a Lincoln, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Willys Jeep, Mercedes, aston Martin, Porsche, M.G. O.S.C.A., and a  Bentley.

Cunningham was originally from old money Cincinnati (pork processing), but by the 1950s his home base was West Palm Beach, Florida during the winter, and Long Island the other half of the year. His interest in automobiles went back to his youth, and in 1929 he dropped out of Yale after two years. He followed a lifestyle of golfing, sailing, and travel, buying a Alfa Romeo after marrying the daughter of a New York industrialist, Lucie Bedford, and going to England

His interest in auto racing was in part the result of a friendship with the Collier Brothers, Miles and Sam. The Colliers sustained interest in sports car road racing in the US during the Interwar years, inviting devotees to a track at their home in Tarrytown, New York There dedicated amateurs tried new gadgets and and a variety of modified cars.

Interest in sports cars -- light, simple agile and small -- was a reaction to American cars of the 1930s and 1940s -- vehicles that were increasingly build like a home. Detroit iron became comfortable, with soft springing, heaters , radios, and plush interiors. The sports car of the post-War era -- typified by the M.G. T-C and T-D was anything like their American counterparts -- crude, made with plenty of wood, drafty, with side curtains instead of roll-up windows, noisy, and underpowered. After WWII and prior to 1954 some 140,000 foreign cars were imported into the US.

One major event that stimulated sports car racing and ownership in the US was the annual Watkins Glen Grand Prix which began in 1948. Initially a road race that included going through the Village of Watkins Glen, NY, it began as a 6.6 mile course with 16 right-angle turns, several abrupt switches from dirt to concrete and a series of uphill and downhill grades. The popularity of the event was simply explosive between 1948 with tis 10,000 spectators and 1952, when over100,000 watched the race. Because of an accident that took the life of a young boy, the race was held on a loser track beginning in 1953.






Another major stimulus to the growth of the sports car hobby was Briggs Cunningham' assault on  the 24 hour race at Le Mans. It captivated the attention of Americans who no longer were satisfied with playing 2nd fiddle to the Europeans in almost anything! Cunningham's first attempt took place in 1950, when he entered a modified Cadillac that French fans named Le Monstre. That bizarre-looking car finished 11th, and the next year Cunningham took to France his Chrysler V-8 Fire-power engine roadsters. In 1952 Cunningham entered his CR-4s, 600 pounds lighter than the 1951 models. Victory would elude the Cunninghams, but what endured was a powerful sports car movement in the US that lasted for two generations, then last now growing old and gray.

Le Monstre


Cunningham C-3


More on this topic later!




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