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Collector Car News

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1953 cunningham c 3 coupe

Millionaire American sportsman Briggs Swift Cunningham II was determined to win the Le Mans 24-hour race in an American car. In 1950 he entered two Cadillacs, one of which finished tenth. This motivated Cunningham to develop the C-2R sports car with a Chrysler V8 engine, tubular frame, De Dion axle and full independent suspension. The cars ran at Le Mans in 1951, with one finishing eighteenth, and he continued to campaign the cars in road races throughout the United States.

Cunningham determined that the C-2R was better suited as a road car, and therefore a more competitive race car, the C-3, was developed. Offered as a coupe as well as a roadster, they were intended to have base prices of $9,000 and $8,000, respectively. Cunningham quickly realized that his cost per finished car would be over $15,000, an approach to business that may work for Amazon.com but not for Cunningham. As a cost-cutting measure, he contracted with Carrozzeria Vignale Coachworks in Turin, Italy to construct the C-3 bodies.

The first C-3 coupe, named the Continental, was finished in time for the Cunningham team to race at Watkins Glen in September 1952. The car toured the country on the auto show circuit and a second car was displayed at the Paris Salon in October 1952.

Cunningham's West Palm Beach factory was able to produce a chassis per week, however, Carrozzeria Vignale Coachworks was unable to match that production. Even with Vignale's participation, the price of a C-3 increased to nearly $12,000, drastically limiting its market.

The car pictured here was first purchased by a Georgia doctor, Floyd W. McRae, who ordered the Continental coupe directly from Cunningham in the spring of 1953. It is recorded as being the fourth C-3 produced. He kept the vehicle until 1970 when, with 21,188 miles recorded, it was sold to the Harrah Collection. It was later sold to a noted sports car collector, Dr. Frederick Simeone, of Pennsylvania.

This Cunningham Continental coupe was stated to be in proper running order and in overall presentable condition. It is thoroughly race prepared and is eligible for historic racing and rallies.

{analysis}{auto}384{/auto} The 1953 Cunningham C-3 Continental coupe, C53-8-1086, sold for $77,300 (including buyer's premium) at the Christie's Pebble Beach Auction held on August 29, 1999.

Briggs Swift Cunningham was the consummate sportsman who, with almost unlimited resources, won the America's Cup with his yacht Columbia and was determined to win the 24 hours of Le Mans with an American-made machine. His first effort was with two 1950 Cadillac 62 Series sedans. One was stock, with the exception of twin carburetors, and the other was given a five-carburetor manifold and an aerodynamic body. The French called it "Le Monstre" and it finished eleventh with the stock Cadillac, dubbed "The Clumsy Puppy," one position ahead.

In September of 1950, in West Palm Beach, Florida, Cunningham formed the B. S. Cunningham Company and produced a race car prototype called the C-1. The C-2 quickly evolved and was equipped with Chrysler's new Hemi V8 that, with four Zenith carburetors, created 220 horsepower. Only a handful were constructed when arrangements were made with Alfredo Vignale to construct the C-3 with a wider fastback body.

C-4s, C-4RKs, C-5s and the C-6 followed, but they could not keep up with the new disc-braked C-type Jaguars. The closest Cunningham came to his objective of winning Le Mans was in 1953 when three of his cars finished in the top ten. Realizing that he would have to develop his own engine in order to be competitive with the European offerings, he sold his facility and directed his sporting activities elsewhere.

Cunningham's cars served as inspiration for the Corvette and the Cobra as he beat both Zora Arkus-Duntov, father of the Corvette, and Carroll Shelby at Le Mans. He was recognized by Time magazine with a cover appearance on April 26, 1954, photographed with his automobiles.

One unusual feature of the Vignale-bodied C-3 is its 55\" wide pleated-leather front bench seat with twin fold-down arm rests. In an era of stark, noisy, uncomfortable competition cars, the C-3 provided comfort for touring, as well as a strong competitive presence for racing. The team colors of white body and blue racing stripes were used by Cunningham and the racing stripes are often duplicated to this day. Cunningham's objective of producing a car that was adaptable for touring and racing, coupled with the fact that Chrysler Hemi engine parts are still readily available, make this a sweet machine. The main drawback is the Chrysler semi-automatic transmission. Rated a condition 3 in an earlier SCM auction report (November 1999, page 33), a few dollars could easily be justified to spruce up the trim and interior. You would still be bucks ahead of what a comparable Allard or Hudson Italia would cost.

Briggs Swift Cunningham III, following in his father's footsteps, is making a continuation of C-4Rs with a handmade body, early '50s Chrysler Hemi engine, and a title signed by Briggs Cunningham that dates from the '50s. Priced at $159,000, it indicates that the new owner of the vintage C-3 offered by Christie's made a shrewd buy that will continue to appreciate.-Carl Bomstead{/analysis}

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