1952 Cunningham C3 Vignale
8-cyl. 331ci/310hp 4x2bbl
With an experienced team and a lot of data.
Although Cunningham as a manufacturer is mostly associated with Briggs Cunningham’s admirable but ultimately unsuccessful effort to win at Le Mans with an American car, a handful of automobiles rolled out of his West Palm Beach, Florida factory intended for street use. New rules in 1952 dictated that Cunningham had to build at least 25 cars in order to enter Le Mans as a manufacturer, and a road-going product could in theory actually bring in some money for the company, which was being financed by Cunningham himself.
The resulting road car would be dubbed the Cunningham C3. The very first car called C3 was built entirely at the shop in West Palm Beach and was essentially a C1 competition car with a hard top. The car lacked the refinement that Briggs Cunningham wanted for a road car, it wasn’t particularly attractive, and it cost $15,000 to build. In the early 1950s, even the well-heeled would balk at such a price tag. What Cunningham then decided to do was make an arrangement with Carrozzeria Vignale in Turin to fit bodywork onto ladder-type tubular chassis derived from the C2. A period advertisement described the pairing as “combining American engineering with Italian artistry,” and the C3 was indeed beautiful in both coupe and Cabriolet forms penned by Giovanni Michelotti.
Underneath the 2+2 bodywork, the C3 featured a coil-sprung Chrysler live rear axle with parallel trailing arms, 11-inch Mercury drum brakes and a 331-cid Chrysler V-8 fitted with four Zenith carburetors and coupled to either a three-speed manual transmission or a Chrysler Torqueflite automatic. Cunningham completed about one chassis per week before sending it off to Italy, where Vignale would fit the bodywork and send a completed car back to the States. Despite all the travel the cars had to do before completion, they were still able to sell for less than the $15,000 of the very first C3. At around $11,400, however, the C3 was still extremely expensive. One could buy three new Cadillacs in the early 1950s for the price of a single Cunningham.
Around 30 examples of the C3 were built, with two-thirds of them coupes and one-third of them Cabriolets. The number was enough to allow Cunningham to keep running at Le Mans, but it also caught the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. At the time, the IRS allowed companies like Cunningham a period of five years to become profitable or it would be taxed as a non-deductible hobby. Given the low volume and high price of the C3 as well as the lack of other real products for sale, there was no way Cunningham would be a profitable carmaker.
A Cunningham C4-R finished fourth at Le Mans in 1952, and in 1953 C4-Rs won at Sebring and took third at Le Mans. After 1955, though, the Cunningham team switched to campaigning other manufacturers’ cars like Jaguars, Listers, Corvettes, and Porsches. Many of these efforts were successful, but Cunningham’s existence as a manufacturer was unfortunately cut short. That said, the Cunningham name is royalty in the world of American racing, and the C3 stands out as the only real production car to come out of the marque’s brief existence. With its Vignale coachwork, it is also arguably the prettiest as well.
Because of its rarity, high initial price and the general respect for the Cunningham name, C3s have typically led lives without serious neglect. Following the general rule, open cars are worth more than the coupes, but any one of these cars is a find. And with its Chrysler underpinnings, a C3 would be easier to maintain than other cars that share its Italian good looks, although certain trim and interior parts would create headaches for restorers. Most Cunningham C3s have seen at least some level of restoration, however, and at this point are destined for careful ownership in big-dollar collections, occasional drives, and concours events.