It's an exotic alternative to the hordes of Hemi-powered muscle cars-a 331-ci Hemi wrapped in an Italian body on a Le Mans-inspired chassis
Wealthy American sportsman Briggs Cunningham made a heroic effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1950s-in cars he manufactured himself. Remarkably, he came close several times.
The first Cunningham was the C-1, a low roadster powered by a 331-ci Chrysler Hemi V8. It was followed in 1951 by the C-2R, three of which were built for racing. John Fitch and Phil Walters ran as high as 2nd at Le Mans, before bad fuel burned valves in their engine. Back in the States, the C-2Rs cleaned up, beating Jaguar and Ferrari at Road America and Watkins Glen.
The C-3 coupe was introduced in 1952, ostensibly for both road and track. Cunningham contracted with Alfredo Vignale's Turin coachworks to build a new design by Giovanni Michelotti. The ladder-type tube chassis was similar to the C-2R, but with a simpler Chrysler rear axle. The 235-hp Chrysler Hemi V8 used four Zenith downdraft carburetors and a semi-automatic transmission for sub 7-second 0-60 times.
The 1953 Cunningham C-3 design bears more than a passing resemblance to early Ferrari 212 and 225 models. The dash is dominated by a large speedometer and combination gauge, with a clock and a small tachometer between. Luggage has to be carried in the car, as the spare and fuel tank fill the trunk.
|21 coupes, 5 convertibles approx.
|Original List Price:
|Coupes $9,000, convertibles $11,000
|Tune Up Cost:
|Chassis Number Location:
|Plate on chassis tube on driver side of firewall
|Engine Number Location:
|On machined surface in front of valley cover
This 1953 Cunningham C-3 Continental Coupe sold for $374,000 at RM’s Monterey sale on August 19, 2006. While only 26 of these interesting cars were built between 1952 and 1955, one always seems to be available somewhere.
Based on ever-rising prices, there’s a growing realization among collectors that these Italian-styled, American-powered sports cars are ideal event cars. They combine Chrysler Hemi power, attractive looks, decent handling, and plush accommodations for driver and passenger. Unless you’re on the Colorado Grand or the California Mille, you’ll have the only one around.
The C-3 Continental Coupe was introduced as a 1953 model by the Cunningham Motor Company when they realized their single product strategy-relying on the C-2 for international competition as well as road use-was unworkable. The C-2R (R for racing) had proven too large and slow to be a real contender at Le Mans, which was the whole reason for the creation of the Cunningham in the first place.
After the 1951 Le Mans race, the product line was bifurcated with the introduction of the C-4R-a new generation of pure competition cars for the exclusive use of the Cunningham team-and the C-3, a sophisticated “gentleman’s express.” Costing some $9,000 and intended for cosmopolitan buyers, the C-3 Continental Coupe was one of the most expensive cars available in the U.S. It was never intended to sell in large numbers.
A full range of options was offered, including coupe and convertible coachwork, manual and auto transmissions, Halibrand wheels, several stages of engine tune, and even a full-race setup, though there’s no evidence any were built.
To control costs, Cunningham worked a deal with Vignale whereby completed rolling chassis were shipped to Italy to be bodied with standard coachwork designed by Michelotti. The identical body design clothed at least one 212 Ferrari coupe.
Given the current obsession with Hemi-powered muscle cars, the Cunningham C-3 offers an appealing prospect: exotic and relatively rare 331-ci Hemi power (tuned by Cunningham to generate 210-plus hp, depending on options) wrapped in a handsome Italian body on a Le Mans-inspired chassis.
Handling is assured by front wishbones, and a four-link rear axle equipped with a Panhard rod, which happens to be the same technology Ferrari used into the ’60s. Cornering grip is excellent for a car of this vintage, and substantially better than a lot of the ’60s muscle cars. Front geometry issues lead to steering problems caused by toe-in change with body roll, but it’s relatively easy to get used to. The C-3 is handicapped by its transmission, as options were a column-shift LaSalle three speed or a two-speed Chrysler automatic.
A number of C-3 Continental Coupe owners I know have retrofitted their cars with 4-speed Borg-Warner T-10s. You have to come up with an adaptor for the integral early Hemi bell housing that is cast as part of the block, but the conversion fits under the stock transmission tunnel. To retain full value of your car, however, be sure to keep the original transmission and all the column shift bits. If more power is desired, modern cams, head work, and so forth can really make these cars go. Try keeping up with Bob Lutz’s potent red and black coupe, for example.
Consigned to RM by its British owner, the C-3 featured here is a fairly well restored coupe-a good driver rather than a show car. This car was originally black, and has been fitted with chrome wire wheels instead of the more common steel disc wheels and hubcaps of the period.
Like many Cunninghams, it is missing its bumpers. The massive Vignale-styled versions are roughly bow-tie shaped, but they complement the car’s style. Unfortunately, Cunningham practice was to mount them well off the body for parking protection. Not only does this practice detract from the lines of the car, it accomplishes almost nothing, as the original bumpers were made of brass.
The brightwork that extends from the bonnet trim along the side of the greenhouse is also missing on this car, but would not present a problem to a good fabricator. The 1953 C-3 Continental Coupe is reported to be in good mechanical condition and ready to tour.
Due to their coach-built bodies, high power, and superior handling, these cars are being recognized as one of the notable American cars of the early 1950s. As a stylish, unusual, and capable tour car, I’d say this was a good deal for both parties.