SPEED, GRACE, POWER, BEAUTY. Revs Institute's new exhibition celebrates the elegance of the iconic Spirit of Ecstacy Rolls-Royce mascots. More information about the exhibition can be found here. For information on ticket purchase, click here.
Southern California freeways were crowded. The national speed limit was 55 mph. You want to talk smog? We could.
Yet, in this small corner of Costa Mesa, California–250 E. Baker Street–we had our refuge: Briggs Cunningham’s Museum. Not far from the busy freeways was a chance to stroll up and down quiet rows of Bentleys, Jaguars, Duesenbergs plus, of course, Cunningham race cars. And to learn.
Though a classic East Coaster, Briggs Cunningham moved to California in 1963, remarried to Laura Cramer Elmer. He shipped his car collection west and stored the automobiles in a warehouse. Before long it was apparent a museum was in the offing.
The Cunninghams found a property with a 40,000-square-foot building for the gallery. The grand opening took place on February 5, 1966, Stan Kenton’s band providing the music. Suggested evening wear was Black Tie or Carriage Costume. No Beach Boys and Bermuda shorts for the Cunninghams.
For the next 21 years, Briggs Cunningham’s museum would be a refuge for those of us who loved automobiles. Could be as old as the 1911 Rauch & Lang electric car or 1912 Mercer 32 Raceabout. As grand as the pair of 1930s Duesenbergs. Or as relatively contemporary as the 1961 Type 60 Birdcage Maserati and the 1968 Lamborghini Miura. Plus, of course, all the Cunningham race cars. Oh, and the 1929 Cretors popcorn wagon.
We didn’t necessarily have to visit the museum to see the cars. Cunningham was very generous in loaning out his automobiles for auto shows and concours. When Steve Earle honored Cunningham at the 1981 Monterey Historic Automobile Races, virtually the entire team was there, cars and drivers.
Those of us who worked nearby in Newport Beach with Road & Track were frequent visitors. We were also able to photograph and write stories about the museum cars. The Eddie Hall Bentley, Type 35 Bugatti, 1912 Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII and 1931 Duesenberg Indy car among others.
Only once did “Mr. C,” as we called him, deny a request. It was for the very famous 1914 Mercedes Grand Prix car. We’d found what looked to be a vintage French road and wanted to take the car there for a photo shoot. Mr. C said, “No,” it had to be photographed in the museum parking lot. I recall explaining that we would insure the car so that even if the worst possible happened, it would be restored back to perfect condition. He paused and said, “It might be perfect, but it wouldn’t be the same, would it?”
No argument against that.
We heard in late 1986 that impending capital gains tax laws might convince the Cunninghams to close the museum. It was none of our business, of course, but many of us fretted that the collection would be broken up car by car.
Never happened. Miles Collier, whose family had long time ties with Briggs Cunningham, bought the entire collection. All 72 Cunningham cars were trucked to Naples, Florida and what is now Revs Institute’s Collier Collection.
Not all the Cunningham cars are at Revs, but a majority remain. They provide such special stops in the museum as the 1935 Duesenberg SSJ and its Hollywood theme. The 1913 Peugeot Indy car. The 1927 Vauxhall Type 30/98 Quick Silver. Plus the display of white Cunningham-raced cars in the Vitesse hall.