About the 1951 Cunningham Type C-1 Prototype

For Briggs Cunningham, Le Mans 1950 was a trial run “to see what would happen”. What did happen convinced him to return in 1951 with a genuine American sports car. Since no manufacturer in America was building such a car, Briggs determined he would do it himself.

Acquiring Frick-Tappett Motors and moving that operation from Long Island to Florida was Briggs’ first step. Bill Frick had overseen preparation of the Cunningham Cadillacs for Le Mans; Ted Tappett was the pseudonym of Briggs’ co-driver Phil Walters.

This C-1, with Cadillac V-8 engine, was the first product of the B.S. Cunningham Company of West Palm Beach. Just one was built. The reason? G.M. wouldn’t sell Cadillac engines to Briggs direct, and leadership in America’s horsepower race had just been taken by Chrysler’s brand-new hemi.

Le Mans was fast approaching. Briggs insisted on “made in U.S.A.” throughout. Improvising American parts into major league racing equipment was a real chore. Forty men worked eighty-hour weeks for three months to do it. The new C-2 had Chrysler’s hemi, Ford front suspension, Oldsmobile rear springs and Cadillac brakes. Before shipment to France, road testing of the three C-2s consisted of four, five and eleven miles respectively on the back roads of Florida. There was no time for more.

Driving the Le Mans Cunninghams were Briggs with George Huntoon, Phil Walters with John Fitch, and George Rand with Fred Wacker. Mechanical malfunctions aggravated by a rain-soaked course eliminated two of the cars. The official Le Mans fuel – low quality stuff leaded to the required 80 octane – played havoc with the valves of the third Chrysler hemi. But Fitch and Walters were able to nurse that car home to finish 18th. This result was not impressive, but the six hours the car had held second place was. Impressive also was an officially timed 152 mph down the Mulsanne straight. Back in the States that year, Cunningham C-2s finished 1st and 6th at Elkhart Lake; 1st, 2nd and 4th at Watkins Glen.

This C-1 prototype had been used as the practice car at Le Mans. More significantly, it served as the basis for the new Cunningham production car.


Photos – Peter Harholdt