Briggs Cunningham & Bill Kimberly

Briggs Cunningham at the wheel of his Tipo 60 in March of 1961. Bill Kimberly (right) seems to be kicking the left front tire! They finished 18th due to exhaust manifold problems. (photo: Al Bochroch)

Briggs Cunningham dead at 96

July 2nd 2003: Long time Maserati racer, team owner, importer and supporter Briggs Swift Cunningham died on July 2nd in a nursing home in Las Vegas. He was 96 years old.

One of the last of the gentleman racers, he competed in numerous competiton cars during his career, which began as soon as World War II ended. He ran his last race event at Sebring in 1966, retiring the Porsche 904 co-driven with John Fitch.

Cunningham was born in Cincinnati on January 19, 1907. His father, an entrepreneur who ran various businesses and who was on the board of directors of the recently formed Procter & Gamble company, died when Briggs was five. With the benefit of a sizeable trust fund, the young Cunningham discovered his love for competition sports while at Yale University: not yet with cars but with sail boats. This would eventually lead to his victory in the 1958 America's Cup.

Obviously, cars became another strong interest of his. In 1945, while having his V12 Lagonda repaired in New York, Briggs met mechanic Alfred Momo and the two would become close business and racing associates for the next 20 years.

Briggs brought the first Ferrari to the East Coast and in the early fifties, he took his own Chrysler-engined Cunningham cars to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Only the new disc-braked Jaguars prevented him from winning the race. At the same time he produced a production version of the Cunningham sports car in West Palm Beach, Florida, until the IRS disallowed the business after 5 unprofitable years.

Cunningham closed his manufacturing operation in 1955 and began racing other manufacturers' products, 300S Maseratis, D-type Jaguars, Lister/Jaguars and Oscas. His entries won the 12 Hours of Sebring 3 consecutive times: in 1953 with a Cunningham C4R [John Fitch and Phil Walters], in 1954 with an Osca MT4 [Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd] and in 1955 with a D-type Jaguar [Phil Walters and Mike Hawthorn]. From 1956 on the Cunningham team became a dominant force in SCCA racing, with Momo as its chief mechanic and Walt Hansgen as its premier driver. Other top drivers racing for the team around the mid and late fifties were Sherwood Johnston, Bill Spear, Charlie Wallace, Ed Crawford, John Benett, Phil Forno, Russ Boss, Archie Scott-Brown, Ivor Bueb, Dick Thompson, Lake Underwood and Denise McCluggage.

With the arrival of the Birdcage Maseratis in 1960, Cunningham provided rides to a new generation of drivers: Bill Kimberly, Augie Pabst, Bruce McLaren, Roger Penske and Paul Richards. The team's well documented attack for GT honors at Le Mans in 1960, entering 3 Corvettes, included the services of Bob Grossman and Fred Windridge as well. Formula One-stars Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren raced Briggs' ill-fated experimental E-type Jaguar that year.

At the end of 1962 the Birdcage era was over and by then Cunningham had switched to Buick-powered Cooper Monacos, with the E-type Jaguars being the team's selection for GT honors. The 1963 Pacific GP at Laguna Seca would turn out to be the last race in which a Maserati, or any other car, carried the Cunningham racing colors of white-and-blue. After 3 pitstops, Dick Thompson finished 16th in the now Ford V8 powered Tipo 64.

Having married for the second time, Briggs moved to California, his new wife's home state, in 1965. He raced 3 more times at Sebring with a private Porsche 904, finishing a remarkable 9th overall in 1964 with Lake Underwood. Subsequent entries in 1965 and 1966 with John Fitch were less successful. Cunningham opened his Costa Mesa car museum, where he put his private collection on display. Due to poor attendance the museum was closed in 1985 and its contents sold to Miles Collier Jr, whose father had been a good friend of Briggs. Collier started a new museum in Naples, Florida, but it was closed after a couple of years due to high overhead. The old Cunningham car collection is now part of Collier's private museum.

Briggs Cunningham was universally known as a class act, the quintessential gentleman whose rides were always a first-rate assignment. Services will be held on August 8th at 2:30 pm, at Pacific View Cemetary, 3500 Pacific View Drive, Corona Del Mar, California.