July 5, 2003 by

Briggs Cunningham


Categories: Sports

Briggs Swift Cunningham Jr. was a millionaire with a penchant for racing.

His father was founder and president of the Citizens’ National Bank, and a director of the Pennsylvania Railroad. When Briggs was five, his father died and left his son and daughter half of his estate, a considerable inheritance they couldn’t touch until their 40th birthdays.

In 1930, Cunningham married Lucie Bedford, the granddaughter of a cofounder of Standard Oil. It was during their honeymoon in Europe that Cunningham saw his first motor race, the Monaco Grand Prix. It made a huge impression on him.

Cunningham joined two friends in creating The Automobile Racing Club of America. He learned how to race cars and began competing internationally in 1950. Two years later, he placed fourth overall at Le Mans when his co-driver Bill Spear got sick and he had to drive 20 of the 24 hours without relief.

He raced boats as well, and in 1958, he skippered the American 12-meter yacht, Columbia, to win the America’s Cup.

After he retired, Cunningham built the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, Calif., to house all of the racing cars he collected during his lifetime. It remained open for more than two decades before changing ownership and moving to Florida.

He was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

Cunningham died Wednesday. Cause of death was not released. He was 96.

18 Responses to Briggs Cunningham

  1. Brian Goldman

    A few years ago I was researching a mid engine Formula Junior and sent a letter to Briggs to see if he knew the car. My wife almost fainted one afternoon when the phone rang and the voice on the other end said. “This is Briggs Cunningham” What a sweet man he was and he did help me discover that my car had been Augie Pabst’s. I’ll never forget him telling me how hard it was for him as all of his friends had passed on and how Momo would have known the answer right away. A true gentleman always, todays sports heros could learn a lot from him.

  2. nelson

    In year 1986,my friend Nestor Sierralta and I,arrived to Costa Mesa ,by land with a Chevrolet 1933 from our country:Venezuela in way to participate in Great american race.It was our most desired stoping after a travel of three month.Our first intention was to know Brigss Cunninghams`cars an his museum.We arrived later,the museum have been closed his doors and selling his cars.We spy throught closed door of building and can see the cars inside.At moment of let the place,frustrated in our intent of appreciate this collection,a solid old white hair man whit worker cloths,an overoll,present himself as Mr Cunningham,extend to us his big hands ,and apologized the fact that the collections don`t belong to him , its have been sold some time ago.But this incredible person said to us that if we wanted,he could get for us an special permision from news owners for to see cars inside building.This was impossible because we need arrived to Anaheim,place of star GAR of 1986 at following day.Instead Mr Cunningham signes for me a Souvennir calendar ,whit hand draws of his cars.This are today one of my appreciate possesions.

  3. Chuck Crawford

    Briggs’ son Bill Elmer and I became good friends while in the Marine Corps. Bill lived in Newport Beach and I lived in Costa Mesa so we hung out alot after we were discharged fom the service. Back in ’69 Bill took me to his Dad’s museum & introduced me to Mr. Cunningham, who was very nice to me. Bill showed me a Ferrari on the show room floor and told me his mom raced her Lamborghini against that Ferrari which Briggs Cunningham drove and she won the race! Mr. Cunningham parked the Ferrari in the museum and never drove it again! I’ll never forget that story!

  4. Timothy Barton

    In the early 1970s I developed an aluminum bodied T51 Bugatti recreation in Pasadena California known as the Molsheim II Bugatti. I was a member of the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum during those years. Mr. Cunningham allowed me to take dimensions from a T35B Bugatti he had on the floor. At the annual membership party he invited me to display the vehicle at the museum. We spoke often, and he was always a gentleman, and a generous soul. He will be remembered and missed.

  5. Jim Hyde

    Back in 1968, I visited my brother, Steve, who was in helicopter training near San Diego. I was in graduate school, and we were both Porsche enthusiasts. One Saturday morning, while he was in training, I took his Super 90 and just drove around until I saw the sign, Briggs Cunningham Museum. I stopped, of course, paid my entrance fee of $2 to a nice, elderly lady, and went in. The lady and I were apparently the only two persons there. As an antique and sports car enthusiast, my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw the gorgeous cars, such as the spectacular Mercer Raceabout. I had been there all alone for about 2 hours, wondering why I was the only visitor in that wonderful place, and congratulating myself that blind fate had brought me there, when in walked an old mechanic in dirty, once-white dungarees. He passed the time of day with me, and began to raise hoods and start the engines of the old cars – with me peering over his shoulder, of course. He asked me about my interest in antique and classic cars, and I told him that I was president of the Mississippi Model A Ford Restorer’s Club, and owned a Model A as well as a 1929 Buick Master Coupe, which I often drove back and forth to the Medical Center in Jackson, where I had just gotten my Ph.D. He held out a greasy hand, which I eagerly shook, and said, “I’m Briggs Cunningham. I’m glad you are here, because you can help me start some of these cars. Many haven’t been started in a while, and it will take two of us. Like this one, for example.” It was Gary Cooper’s Duesenberg SJ-S – a specially souped-up model for him. “Will you get in the car and hit the starter (etc.) when I say?” You know my answer. Any self-respecting car buff would have thought he was in heaven, especially a near-destitute grad. student, who was still paying on a $600 bank loan used to buy a Ford Model AR with 34,000 miles on it. When the Duesenberg started, all sorts of crud was coughed out the exhaust pipe, and he said, “now put your head down next the engine and tell me what you hear.” A slight rubbing of the fan belt was all. As we walked around and worked, he related the personal history of each car, as well as jewels of information about the marque and the car’s manufacture. I was struck by what a truly nice, caring man Briggs Cunningham was. He asked me about as many questions as I asked him. I stayed several hours longer.
    I had heard of Briggs Cunningham, of course, but knew little about his truly great accomplishments. I did know that I was in the presence of a great, but humble man. I left with sadness, because of my unbelievable day, and the knowledge that I would almost certainly never see him or that museum again. I was about to go to a postdoctoral fellowship in Hamburg, Germany. I stayed 3 years, then in Stockholm for two more. I can still picture the placement of a number of those cars, and would like to be in that picture, myself. Now I am 68, instead of 30, and am excited about a Model A Phaeton that is about arrive from New York. He made a strong, lasting impression on that young man, that the old man has never gotten over.
    Jim Hyde

  6. Brian S Cunningham

    I have read all of the tributes above and am as touched by them as I was by my grandfather. I did not have the chance to know him as many of you. His memory was not as sharp when I knew him the best. Also as a result of his modesty I rarely heard all the wonderful stories. Please keep them coming I’d love to learn more!!

  7. Naomi Elmer

    Briggs Cunningham was one of the most loving, kind gentlemen I ever met in my life. While he wasn’t my biological Grandfather, he was “Grandpa C” to me when I growing up. (He married my grandmother, Laura.) I spent my younger years living near the musuem in Costa Mesa. He would let me rollerskate in his museum and ride in the vehicles when they were exercised. It was really exciting for me!
    Never in my life have I met such an accomplished gentleman who was so humble and loving. The world suffered a great loss when Briggs died. He had a heart of pure gold and he will always be missed.

  8. lee

    Feel ought to say good on you for living a life.
    Got to know all about you as I own a car which was once owned by Bob Blake , who I understand built most of your cars.

  9. Victor Packham

    I was a member of the museum and close to several
    of the employees there. Chris Doug Jean Joyce John and Dick. The museum has been gone a long time now but I still think of what a great guy Briggs Cunningham was. I think one could write a book just about his kindness to those around him.
    I was back in the shop one day and noticed a nice wood-rimed Jaguar steering wheel hanging up on the wall and I asked Mr C if I could buy I from him, He asked me what I wanted it for and I told him I wanted it for my car. He took it down
    and said I could have it. I will allways remember
    this great man.
    You could tell that those that knew him well had a lot of respect for him.

  10. Frank Lamb

    The very first sports car race I ever saw was won by Briggs Cunningham. His cars finished first second and third.
    I had read about Mr. Cunningham and was thrilled by the idea that an American had set his heart on winning the LeMans 24 hour race with American drivers in an American car. I follwed his efforts as long as he tried. I also thrilled at his defense of the Americs Cup.
    I was honored by the chance to go through his museum and see Le Monster and the C4’s.
    Just by living the life he did and by being who he was he inspired a whole generation of young people.
    He ranks as one of the greatest American sportsmen who ever existed.

  11. john edwardes

    I met Briggs Cunningham at his motor museum in 1982 and found him to be a very down to earth gentleman. We spoke about his Le Mans years and the model of the Cunningham which was produced by Dinkey Toys in England and which I had bought when a school boy in 1954. I’m so glad I saw the museum and met the Man himself, an important part of American Racing History.

  12. Shannon L. McKinney

    Briggs was my biological great grandfather. As I might not have known him as well as you all have, he has always been an inspiration to me. I love that man with all my heart and it brings me to tears to hear of all the lives he has touched so deaply. Along with Brian I would love to hear more, so keep them coming. I am Brigg’s daughter Lucie McKinneys granddaughter. Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren is my Great Grandmother and is still with us to this day. I am honored to be apart of the Cunningham family and always will be. Feel free to email me if you have any personal stories, for they will help me know more about the man I call my hero. Briggs Swift Cunningham, a man who will NEVER be forgotten.
    God Bless you all
    Shannon McKinney

  13. Richard Harman

    I just found this forum, during many months of research into the man and his machines – Briggs Cunningham. After a long search, I managed to get a personal invite to the Collier Collection in Florida; I was there this November. I was allowed to spend 2 days there and was moved to tears when I finally saw the Cunninghams. The remainder of his collection, together with the outstanding Collier cars was a truly memorable occasion for me.
    May I add my own personal tribute to Mr.C, and give thanks for the inspiration and strength I have gained through his exploits, dedication and utter selflessness that he demonstrated throughout his life. The personal tributes and memories of others are a wonderful testimony to the great man.
    Richard Harman. England December 2007

  14. Sahrina Giammatteo

    My father Eugene Sherman worked at the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum for 20 years. Mr. Cunningham (Briggs) always made my sister and I feel welcome when we would visit the Museum. He even allowed us to shine the chrome his beautiful collection of cars. To this very day I think of Briggs often. I am sorry to say that I lost my father on November 10, 2007. I am happy that he worked for such a wonderful man who gave him the opportunity to do what he loved.

  15. Lucie McKinney

    My Wonderful Wonderful Dad !! How I miss you. Mom was 100 this past February and I wish you could have been here.There are too many stories-too many memories so all I will say is how very much I love you and always will.Lulu.

  16. David Groskind

    Readers of this page may be interested to read the Reuter’s story (http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSL0989854920080512?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true) about the sale of Mr. Cunningham’s wrist watch at Christie’s. It brought $4 million, the second highest amount ever paid for a watch. It was purchased by a Swiss museum.
    The Christie’s watch description (http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?from=searchresults&intObjectID=5065258) has some interesting biographical information. The watch was one-of-a-kind so it is hard to say if the high price resulted in part from the association with Mr. Cunningham.

  17. Julia Evans Bishop

    I knew Mr Cunningham and his family when I was a young sailor at the Pequot Yacht Club in Southport, CT. His generosity was legend up and down the Sound, as was his great racing skill. In those days he sailed an Atlantic, a fine deep keeled 31′ boat that originated in Germany. Pequot had the largest fleet of these and Mr C was a fine skipper, who often won, though he didn’t race in the series regularly. His launch ESCORT accompanied the junior sailors of the club to series up and down the Sound and when I won the Girls Championship of Western L. I Sound in 1954, I was sailing one of Mr C’s Lightnings, which was painted his signature Endeavor Blue. — I also attended The Bolton School, a most important step in my education , which was the precursor of today’s Greens Farms Academy, the school that is what it is today through the foresight and generosity of Mrs Warren. – Julia Evans Bishop

  18. Louis Marecek

    I was just a young boy about 8 or 9 years old, which would have been about 1971/72, and I was with my father and the Orange Empire Studebaker Drivers Club of Orange County and we toured the museum. It was wonderful place full or out classics and race cars, a giant toy box for a kid! We got to the last isle and about half way up roped of was this beautiful low slung white car I had ever seen! I walked around it straining to see every detail, to look down the lines, it was almost as low as I was tall. When suddenly I reallized I was the only one there except this rather tall slender gray haired lady with a cowl neck sweater standing there looking at me. She asked me if I liked the car. I could bearly get it out quick enough, Ma’am, that is the most beautiful car I have ever seen! She told me to stay right there, and she turned and walk down the isle to a door, stepped thru it and right back out. She walked right back towards me but to my suprize stepped right over the rope, unlocked the car, and got in it. She reached over and pushed the passenger door open and patted the seat and asked me to sit down in it. I was in SHOCK! Then she fired it up, OMG I nearly soiled my self. about this time my father realizes a car just fired up and I am nowhere to be seen! She final shut the car off and the Dosen brought the rest of the Club back and intraduced them to Mrs Briggs Cunningham. One of the sweetest people to have ever lived. Great People who love there sport and loved sharing it with whomever.

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