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250 E. Baker Street

May 5, 2017 In the News, Museum, Reviews

250 E. Baker Street

By John Lamm

It was our automotive oasis.

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.

When asked which of his automobiles he would prefer to be in for a portrait, Briggs Cunningham didn’t hesitate before saying the 1912 Mercer Raceabout. Here he is behind the monocle windshield.

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.

Another outing for a Cunningham car. Here is the ex-Gary Cooper 1935 Duesenberg Model SSJ. One of only two “Duesies” built on a short 125-inch wheelbase, it is seen here on display at a concours in Newport Beach, California and is now a feature at The Revs Institute.

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 six Type 41 Bugatti Royales were built, gathered together for a one-time show at the 1985 Pebble Beach Concours. Cunningham had owned two of the giant cars, keeping the Kellner-bodied example once owned by Ettore Bugatti’s daughter L’Ébé for display in the museum.

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.

A view up the back wall of the museum, past a Lancia Lambda and the Bugatti Royale with the hood up, displaying its massive 12.7-liter straight-8 engine.

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 The Revs Institute’s Collier Collection.

Last car to be loaded in Costa Mesa, headed for Naples, Florida. On the ramp is the 1923 Mercedes Targa Florio 28/95, first sent to the U.S. as a team support car for 1923 Indianapolis 500. It is still in Naples. Watching the loading on the left are (left to right) Gene Sherman, Briggs Cunningham, Phil Hill and Tommy Milton.

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.

Briggs Cunningham would approve.

Cunningham bought the first Ferrari race car imported to the U.S., a 1948 166 Corsa Spyder. Luigi Chinetti drove this car to a win at Montlhéry and then set speed records with it before it was shipped to the States. It is now shown in Naples.

Cunningham bought the first Ferrari race car imported to the U.S., a 1948 166 Corsa Spyder. Luigi Chinetti drove this car to a win at Montlhéry and then set speed records with it before it was shipped to the States. It is now shown in Naples.

After no longer building his own race cars, Cunningham bought, among other racing machines, a half dozen Maseratis. This is the 1961 Tipo 60 Birdcage with its 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower engine. It is on prominent display at The Revs Institute.

It wasn’t unusual to see cars from the Cunningham museum on display away from Costa Mesa. This is the 1952 Cunningham C-4RK on a demonstration run at the 1981 Monterey Historic Automobile Races, where Briggs Cunningham and his cars were honored at Laguna Seca.

Many of the cars in the Cunningham museum were “exercised” regularly. They often circulated in the large parking lot in front of the museum. Here the 1913 Peugeot that finished 2nd in the 1914 Indianapolis 500 driven by Leon Duray gets a chance to stretch its “legs.” It is just one of many Indy cars on show at The Revs Institute.

Always a shining star in Costa Mesa and now in Naples is this 1834 Alfa Romeo Tipo 8C 2300 Corto with body by Touring.

John Burgess was the curator of the Cunningham museum. Highly knowledgeable–and an excellent artist–Burgess was the perfect person to be looking after Briggs Cunningham’s cars.

Briggs Cunningham getting a chance exercise what many would argue is one of the most wonderfully dramatic-looking race cars of the 1950s: the Cunningham C-4R.

Thanks to Briggs Cunningham’s close association with General Motors’ Zora Arkus Duntov, the museum had two of the CERV (Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle) test cars on display. The open-wheel version–CERV I–was from 1959-1960 with a body designed by Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine. There were hopes the 4-wheel-drive CERV II would go up against the Ford GT40, a plan killed by Chevrolet

This was the program for the museum, a 34-page brochure that, in tiny type, explained not just all the cars, but also the museum’s mission and the art work. Cost to be a museum member was $20 for a single, $25 for a dual. Not only was the amount tax deductible, but you got free museum entry, a 10-percent discount on merchandise and an enameled car badge…which I now have mounted on the rear window of my Porsche 911.

And how many of us left how many dollars behind in this shop? The entry to the museum, it had a temping array of books, models and art. That is Joyce Cox working the counter and notice the entry prices: Adults $4.00, Students, Military and Senior Citizens $2.75, Children 5 to 12 $1.00, Under 5 Free.

Among the most desirable of all race cars in the Cunningham museum was the supercharged 1.5-liter 1927 Delage Grand Prix car.  Now an important part of the Collier Collection, it is currently on tour in Europe.

Among the Cunningham museum cars honored at the 1981 Monterey Historic Automobile races was this 1953 Cunningham C-5R. The driver is none other than a former Cunningham team member, John Fitch, here apparently checking out the competition behind him.

Paying homage to BMW’s 328, which the museum brochure described as, “…the most outstanding 2-litre production car built, until curtailed by WW II.”

Typical of the Brass Era that Cunningham enjoyed is this 1914 Simplex Speed Car. One of Cunningham’s biographers said this car, “…exemplifies Briggs’ approach to car collecting. Powerful, sporty and great to drive.” Which also explains why it is now part of The Revs Museum.

Last portrait for the staff on the day of the Cunningham museum’s closing. Briggs Cunningham in the center in a blazer, Joyce Cox to his left and John Burgess to his right. Sad day for a great group of people.

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John Lamm started his automotive journalism career in 1965 as a racing photographer for Autoweek magazine. After a tour in Vietnam, he joined Motor Trend in 1969, then Road & Track in 1975, where he worked for 37 years. He has also written for Car and Driver and Automobile magazines. Credits include 10 books and Lamm has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor awards for writing. Lamm’s photo archives include hundreds of thousands of images ranging from an 1893 Benz Victoria to many of the latest automobiles. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades. Lamm lives in San Clemente, California with his wife, Scheri.

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9 Responses

  1. Bill Lightfoot

    Mr. Cunningham was an elegant gentleman and a true sportsman. I visited the Costa Mesa museum a couple of times and was lucky enough to have Mr. Cunningham walk around with me and give me some insights into some of the cars. I noticed that he had some cars there that had previously been in the Larz Andersen museum in Brookline, Mass and I commented on that. Mr. Cunningham then said, “Oh, yes, didn’t you know, Mrs. Andersen was my aunt and when Larz passed away she invited me up to Brookline and said ‘Pick out a few cars that you like.’ ” Hmmmm, more of us need family like that!
    Also, don’t forget that Briggs defended the America’s Cup for the US and he had some fantastic models of the America’s cup boats at the Costa Mesa facility. I wonder what ever happened to his son Briggsy who would be about 79 now? Briggsy was always more interested in horses than cars which seemed a shame to some of us … “OK then … let US drive them!” Cheers, Bill L.

  2. Charles Dressing

    Bravo. This summoned very happy memories of my one visit to Baker St in the eighties. Thank you for the technicolor tour — complete with photos.

  3. Rick Raducha

    I was fortunate to meet Mr. Cunningham at Watkins Glen twice – introduced to him and Augie Pabst initially – and was really impressed with his kindness and the time he took for me. It was easy to see the competitive drive and personality that made him successful..

  4. Nic Waller

    Thanks for the story john. And the photos…many I had not seen before. I went to the museum only once with my dad in about 1980. It was the first time dad had seen Briggs since the Le Mans of 1963 I think and it was a very very special day for us. I remember him talking about the Le Mans days with dad as if it had been last week. Briggs was a very special man.

  5. Karl Ludvigsen

    In the early 1950s I was fortunate to be able to make my way along the Connecticut shore to Greens Farms, where the then-collection was in a couple of buildings on the opposite side of the road from the Cunningham residence. The curator then was Joe Rempsen, a former Packard man who was still driving a prototype of a front-drive Packard that never went into production. The packed-in cars were quite a sight but nothing to compare with the California setting. Thanks for the story, John. Good memories.

  6. Richard Collier

    To Bill Lightfoot:
    At last count, Briggsy and Beth were at their ranch in Lancaster (Lexington), KY raising purebred cattle. I have not seen him since the private memorial service for Briggs at the Pequot Yacht Club (Southport, CT), Briggs’ home port. Their son Brian has established himself as a well-respected driver in his own right with a commendable record in all manner of cars and events. Hesitate to say this but Briggsy’s a bit beyond 79 but won’t reveal how much. Both he and Beth were in great shape the last I heard. Perhaps John or Scott has more up-to-date info.

  7. Frank Barrett

    John, thanks for preserving the history of Mr. C’s great collection, a high spot for enthusiasts during the 1960s and 1970s. Visiting it was like going to Mecca. Mr. Cunningham’s office wowed me, with a great library and Montauts stacked against the walls.

    Later, as a nobody-club-magazine-editor, I shot that Targa Florio Mercedes, and both Briggs and John treated me as if I were John Lamm. They knew little about the car, but while researching for the article I found the Indianapolis 500 link. When the cars were sold, they stayed for a couple of months, and Dale Miller, the Collier’s first curator, took a few friends in for a special show. Sitting in the Royale and the D-Type were highlights. Thanks to the Colliers for preserving this great American heritage.

  8. Frank Barrett

    Luckily, and thanks to the Colliers and Fred Simeone, some of the Cunninghams are still exercised on the Colorado Grand (helping us to raise $500K a year for small Colorado charities and towns). One year, Miles was pulling Le Monstre into the park in deepest Lake City, Colorado, for lunch. A local old-timer ran up and excitedly told him, “I know where there’s another car just like that, in a museum in Florida!” Miles just smiled.

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