JULY 3, 2003
Briggs Cunningham has died at the age of 96. The son of a wealthy Cincinnati financier who made several fortunes in business, including being the initial backer of Proctor & Gamble. Briggs Jr. inherited the fortune when he was seven and as a result enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing at Yale, where he developed a passion for sailing which would result in his later career as an owner and captain in the America's Cup yacht racing competitions.
Cunningham became interested in automobile racing in the 1930s and formed the Automobile Racing Club of America which promoted events. Cunningham did not himself drive as his mother did not wish him to do so, but in 1940 he began building his own cars, the first being a Buick fitted with a Mercedes body. Cunningham was a founding member of the Sports Car Club of America and in the post-war era began racing himself. After linking up with Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti he mounted his first bid to win Le Mans in 1950 with the unlikely Healy-Cadillac.
After Le Mans the team resumed the American season with Briggs having successes in his Healy Cadillac and Sam Collier campaigning the Ferrari 166. Tragedy struck at Watkins Glen when Collier was killed in the Ferrari in a race in which Briggs finished second in the Healy-Cadillac. In the end Cunningham decided that he had to build his own cars if he wanted to make any impact in Europe and he acquired a company to develop the first Cunningham racers.
Although success in Europe eluded the team the cars did begin winning in America, and in 1952 the company introduced the Cunningham C4R which led at Le Mans. Cunningham Cars continued to be raced at Le Mans until 1955 when the company was closed down for tax reasons. Cunningham became a Jaguar importer and ran a US factory team with a trio of D Types and enjoyed much success with driver Walt Hansgen. In the late 1950s Cunningham embarked on the task of winning the America's Cup for America and in 1958 defeated the British entry to win the Cup for the United States with his yacht Columbia.
Cunningham continued to run cars in both Europe and America, including running F1 drivers Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren in his Jaguars at Laguna Seca and Riverside in 1960. He became a Formula 1 entrant the following year when he entered a Cooper-Climax in the United States Grand Prix. The chassis was later sold to Roger Penske and it became the Zerex Special and ultimately was sold on to Bruce McLaren and was the first car raced by the McLaren team.
Cunningham's Jaguars continued to appear at Le Mans until 1963 when Cunningham effectively retired from the sport. He raced a few more times, his last race being at Sebring in 1966. He then opened the Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, California, to display his personal collection of automobiles. The museum remained open until 1985.
Cunningham's efforts helped to establish American automobiles as credible Le Mans competitors and won the respect of European and American racing enthusiasts.
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