“Spine-jolting acceleration that stems from phenomenal low-speed torque; ridiculous ease of motion; paralyzing brake power; positive steering…in the best Bugatti tradition; and with all the sort of lounging comfort one has no right to expect, even from the modern sports machine.” John Bentley was describing the Cunningham C-3 for readers of The Autocar in 1952. He was not alone in his enthusiasm.
In Road & Track, John Bond said taking the car through his favorite S-bend was a “revelation…no sway, no squat, no squawl.” Said another road tester: “It’s pretty hard to believe. You’ve never driven anything like it in your life.” Yet another was more explicit: “Driving this car is not unlike harnessing Niagara Falls… a suddenly opened throttle parallels the kick of a JATO assist rocket.”
Modifications to Chrysler’s massive hemi had provided the C-3 with about forty more horses than stock. The Cunningham production car’s easy cruising speed was 107mph. Top speed was about 135. Depending upon transmission, zero to 60 could be accomplished in 6.9 seconds (Cadillac three-speed) or 8.5 seconds (Chrysler Fluid-Torque).
To qualify his cars for Le Mans, Briggs Cunningham had no choice but to become an automobile manufacturer. Initially, he planned to build 25 cars in 1952 (the Le Mans minimum), followed by 50 in 1953. Total actual production turned out to be only 18 coupes and 9 convertibles. Consequently, though priced in the $10,000 range, very expensive for the times, the cars cost Briggs yet more to build.
Unquestionably, the Cunningham was the most exciting American sports car of its era and one of the most handsome sports cars anywhere. Giovanni Michelotti styled the body; Vignale built it in Turin, Italy. In 1953 the Cunningham Continental Coupe was one of just two American cars (the Studebaker Starliner from Raymond Loewy’s studio the other) selected by Arthur Drexler of New York’s Museum of Modern Art for landmark status among the world’s 10 best contemporary automobile designs.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Most race cars were non-competitive after their first campaign — the 1927 Vauxhall was competitive for 23 years (1927–1950) and you can see it in person. Learn more