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Cunningham – C-3 Vignale


Vehicle Overview

Like many sportsmen of the 1950s, Briggs Cunningham dreamed of winning at Le Mans. Unlike many of those men, Cunningham, the heir to the Swift meatpacking fortune, had the virtually limitless funds required to enable such efforts. After finding that production American cars, such as Cadillacs, were “close but no cigar,” he turned his bank account and energy towards developing his own all-new automobile, one that could run at Le Mans and emerge victorious, but also be, at its core, American.

Cunningham’s cars were smooth, low-slung designs that had strong tubular chassis, independent coil-spring front suspension, and tuned Chrysler Hemi V-8 power. The racing models evolved throughout the early 1950s, winning at Road America and Watkins Glen in 1951, but the Le Mans organizers threw Cunningham a curve ball when he started his preparations to enter their 1952 event. They specified that at least 25 road going cars had to be built in order to qualify the entrant as an automobile manufacturer. Cunningham gave it some thought and concluded that a road going version of his racing car would not be such a bad idea; in fact, it would actually help to offset the astronomical expenses being incurred by his racing team.

Production of an entire car in Cunningham’s West Palm Beach facility would have been cost-prohibitive, so the maestro contracted Italian coachbuilder Alfredo Vignale to build him coupe and cabriolet bodies, which were based on a design that had been penned by Giovanni Michelotti and had obvious Ferrari influences. The C3, as it was known, was still not cheap, as it was based on a modified racing chassis and still had a Hemi V-8. It was essentially a larger, hotter Ferrari but with American grunt under the hood, and it cost about $9,000. However, no one could argue that the power was not worth the cost, as the C-3 was good for 0-60 mph in around 7 seconds and could hit a top speed of nearly 150 mph.

Cunningham had limited production of the C3 underway by early 1953, but the project was dogged by delays. While his shop could build a chassis every week, it took Vignale, working with time-honored handcraftsmanship, almost two months to complete the rest of a car. Ultimately, C3 production wound to a close with five cabriolets and twenty coupes produced.

Although the Cunningham team never won at Le Mans, he did finish 3rd overall in both 1953 and 1954, and he would continue to race with ever-modified versions of his own design, along with a staggering roster of Jaguars, Listers, Maseratis, and Corvettes, until 1963. The C3 was as close as he ever came to building a true production model, and it was the only Cunningham ever built for the public.

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  • Photo credits
    Erik Fuller
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