Briggs Cunningham is the most important American racer and sportsman you have never heard of. Not only is he responsible for racing stripes on cars, but he also owned the first Ferrari (166SC) ever raced and sold in the USA. Cunningham—who was tremendously rich—would be seen sweeping his garages at races and doing other menial tasks, insisting the mechanics were too important and he was just a driver and had nothing better to do between shifts. These are just a couple of facts to be found in the fascinating stories featured in Richard Harman's new double-volume whopper of a book, "Cunningham: The Passion, The Cars, The Legacy," which details the life and racing endeavors of the late, great Briggs Cunningham.
"My work began in 2007—although I had collected photos, magazines and books for many years before that," Harman tells CH. "The Dinky Toys model of the Cunningham C-5R was my favorite in a large collection of model cars and remained with me long after the childhood collection had been disposed of. I had seen the obituary for Briggs following his death in 2003, which re-kindled my memories."
These memories were from Harman's youth in England. Cunningham's successes abroad made him better known in Europe, but Harman attributes Cunningham's lost legacy more to the humility of the man. "That he has not been universally recognized and appreciated amazes me and is more a reflection of his unassuming and modest personality." Harman continues, "His heroic exploits at Le Mans—from 1950 to 1963—made him a favorite in France, where he was hailed as a hero each time his white and blue-striped cars appeared. He was the antithesis of [the stereotypical] multi-millionaire; being a shy person who always underestimated his personal contribution."
Cunningham's contribution to the sport was significant. "His quest to win the most prestigious race in the world (Le Mans 24 Hours), with an American-built car and American drivers, had opened the way for many of his compatriots to follow," Harman explains. There probably wouldn't be Cobras, Mustangs, etc if there wasn't Cunningham. He was the first to put a big American V8 in the lightweight chassises of European cars. He also manufactured his own cars for sale, so his team could be classed an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) at Le Mans. Although Cunningham didn't make the necessary 54 cars to be considered a full OEM, the 25 C-3s that he did make and sell have all been recently accounted for and restored—even the once lost 25th car that was found rotting away in Connecticut. Harman's book features every car made, raced and owned by Cunningham (including the Bugatti that sold for over $12 million) securing the new building that now houses the rest of his collection at the Collier Automotive Museum in Naples, FL.
The complete picture of the racing legend has never been recorded until now. Under the good graces of the Cunningham family along with years of work, travel and tracking, Harman's book has completed the Briggs Cunningham story. "The two-volume book was just finished on the last possible day for printing. As it was, copies had to be air-mailed from China to the US in order to be in Connecticut for the Labor Day weekend launch at Lime Rock [Park]," Harman laughs.
The double-volume "Cunningham: The Passion, The Cars, The Legacy" is available from Amazon for $350.
Lead image by Walter Hergt, additional images courtesy of Dalton Watson Fine Books