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Briggs S. Cunningham II

Briggs Swift Cunningham II (1907-2003), an heir to the Proctor & Gamble fortune, co-founded the Automobile Racing Club of America, which became the Sports Car Club of America (SCCAA) in 1944. Starting after World War II, Cunningham competed worldwide in the new sport of road racing. In 1950 and ’51, he raced at Palm Beach Shores on Singer Island, where wet sand could affect the outcome, and at Boca Raton Air Field. Spectator injuries and fatalities ended public road racing by 1952, when the trend moved toward using paved airport and road circuits.

In 1950 Cunningham bought Frick-Tappet Motors of Long Island, renamed it the Briggs S.

Cunningham Company, and moved it to to a building in West Palm Beach. His goal was to build an American sports car that would beat European cars at 24 Hours of Le Mans, with an American driver; Cunningham’s drivers were the best in America.

Cunningham installed the best American motor, the Cadillac V8, into a light Studebaker body; authorities at Le Mans were horrified. Work continued at the new facility through late 1950, but Cadillac withdrew its supply of engines. Through a friend whose father was head of engineering at Chrysler, Cunningham obtained the brand-new Chrysler Firepower Hemi V-8.

The Cunningham has been called America's first sports car. He introduced racing stripes, using blue stripes on his white cars. From 1951 to 1955, they came close to winning Le Mans, developing a new car each year. Briggs contracted with Carrozzeria Vignale in Italy to build bodies on his C2 chassis and return them to Florida for finishing; one such car won the 1951 SCCA National Championship. A C6 model remains the design parameter for the Corvette, Viper, Cobra, and limited specials.

The Cunningham team raced Ferraris, Jaguars, Maseratis, Porsches, and others; one set a record in 1954 that still exists. Although he never achieved his goal of winning 24 Hours of LeMans with a Cunningham, his team amassed an impressive list of wins at other venues.

To satisfy Le Mans rules, small numbers of street versions of the Cunningham C3 Vignale coupe and C2R sports car were produced at the West Palm Beach factory. But in 1953, few Americans had $9,000 to $10,000; about 30 C3s were built. By 1956, low production and five profitless years prompted the Internal Revenue Service to reclassify Cunningham’s business as a hobby, making it financially unviable; he closed the West Palm Beach facility and went to work for Jaguar.

Four of Cunningham’s cars were displayed at the first annual Palm Beach International in 2005, including a Vignale C3 road car, a 1960 Corvette, and the modified Cadillac, dubbed ‘Le Monstre’ by the French when Cunningham took it to Le Mans in 1950.

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