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Wealthy American sportsman Briggs Cunningham repeatedly tried winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans throughout the 1950s, and well into the 1960s. That in itself is not so unusual, until one considers that he made these attempts in racing cars of his own manufacture. In retrospect, his personally financed, all-American entries remain quite extraordinary, especially since he came tantalizingly close to winning the legendary event several times.
The first Cunningham, logically named C-1, was a smooth, low-slung roadster with a 331 cubic inch Chrysler Hemi V8, mounted in a strong tubular chassis with an independent coil spring front suspension and a De Dion-type rear arrangement. Only one C-1 was completed, and it was equipped for road use. In 1951, the evolutionary C-2 appeared, actually named C-2R, of which three were built for serious racing. At Le Mans, a C-2R with John Fitch and Phil Walters sharing driving duties ran as high as second overall until poor-quality fuel began to burn their engine's valves. Upon their return stateside, the C-2Rs cleaned up, winning at both Road America and Watkins Glen, beating Allard, Jaguar and Ferrari in the two main sports car races of 1951.
However, a more competitive car for the 1952 Le Mans race was still a priority, in fact some say an obsession, for Cunningham. New rules by the Le Mans organizers specified that at least 25 cars had to be built in order to qualify an entrant as an automobile manufacturer, and it was hoped that production of the resulting C-3, suitable for both road and track, would help offset the astronomical racing expenses that Briggs had personally financed.
The C-3 prototype was constructed in Cunningham's West Palm Beach, Florida facility, but by the time of its completion, it was calculated that each one would cost $15,000 to build! Since a sale price of $8,000 to $9,000 had been announced earlier, another plan was required. In early 1952, Cunningham contracted with Alfredo Vignale's Turin, Italy coachworks to build C-3 bodies to a new design penned by Giovanni Michelotti. With this arrangement, the projected base price dropped back down to $9,000, and the result was an American Gran Turismo as elegant and exciting as anything from Europe.
The C-3's ladder-type tubular chassis was almost identical to that of the C-2, but the complex De Dion rear end gave way to a far simpler and more reliable coil-sprung Chrysler live axle located by parallel trailing arms. Brakes were a combination of 11-inch diameter Mercury drums, with Delco actuating mechanisms. Wheelbase remained at 105 inches on the prototype coupe, but was later stretched two inches for more proper 2 + 2 seating. The V8 engine was as supplied by Chrysler Industrial, except for Cunningham's own log-type intake manifold with a quartet of Zenith downdraft carburetors. Fitted with either a three-speed manual or a semi-automatic transmission, the C-3 was good for zero to 60 mile per hour runs in the seven-second range, with top speeds approaching 150 miles per hour.
Inside and out, the C-3 bore more than a passing resemblance to other Vignale-bodied Michelotti designs of the period, particularly the early Ferrari 212 and 225 models of the era. The bodywork was distinctly Vignale, and remains one of the coachbuilder's better efforts. Pleated leather seats graced the cockpit, while the dash was dominated by a large speedometer with a small tachometer mounted between and slightly above the main dials. Luggage had to be carried inside the passenger compartment, as the spare tire and fuel tank occupied most of the normal trunk space.
The first C-3 coupe, named Continental, was finished in time for the Cunningham team to drive to Watkins Glen in September 1952. It then toured U.S. auto shows while a second car was displayed at the Paris Salon that October, and limited production was underway by early 1953. Unfortunately, while the Palm Beach works could build a chassis weekly, Vignale required almost two months to complete the rest of the car. A planned cabriolet derivative was shown at Geneva in March but assembly continued at a snail's pace. Ultimately, an estimated nine cabriolets and 18 coupes were completed, the former carrying a delivered price of exactly $11,422.50. While the Cunningham team achieved third overall at Le Mans in both 1953 and 1954, the C-3 was as close as Briggs ever got to a true production model. His ongoing international racing efforts would be made with variants of his original theme: the C-4R, C-4RK, C-5R and C-6R, as well as a staggering list of Jaguars, Listers, Maseratis and Corvettes, continuing through 1963.
The C-3 was svelte and compact next to most contemporary American cars, and it was a styling tour de force. Arthur Drexler, then-director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, put the C-3 coupe on his list of the world's 10 best designs. For a discerning, wealthy few, the C-3 was actually an excellent buy and it sold as quickly as the Cunningham Company could build it. The C-3 was regarded as the equal of contemporary Ferrari models and perhaps better in some respects.