After unsuccessfully campaigning two Cadillac's at Le Mans in 1950, wealthy American sportsman Briggs Cunningham constructed two purpose-built sports cars to race the following year: the C-1 and C-2. One C-1 and three C-2s were built. Both models competed in the 1951 Le Mans race, but retired because of mechanical problems. The C4-R, his next pure race car, weighed 1000 pounds less than the C-2 and its Chrysler Hemi V-8 produced even more horsepower. Cunningham built two C4-R roadsters and one coupe. Though he raced the cars successfully in America, Cunningham never won at Le Mans and did not compete again after 1957. This example, a C4-R 'continuation' model, is one of the three recently built replicas. Like other continuation cars, the C4-R was designed to look and drive like the original, yet could be purchased at fraction of the price of a genuine C4-R.
Few events in motorsports have legends to equal The 24 Hours Le Mans Grand Prix of Endurance: from its signature 'Le Mans Start,' to its more than 8.2 mile circuit over public roads, to its incredibly fast four-mile Mulsanne straight, to all the phenomenal cars which have competed, to its 'everyone who was anyone' roster of drives, to the extraordinary feats which have occurred and, yes, to Le Mans' tragic toll of drivers and spectators.
One of Le Mans' greatest legends is Briggs Cunningham and his 1950s effort to win the 24-hour race with an American car driven by Americans. 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cunningham team's 1954 success: a first-in-class and third overall finish. It was my privilege to bring the same Cunningham C4R back to the Circuit Permanent de la Sarthe for the Le Mans Classic as part of the ongoing commitment to celebrate Briggs Cunningham's landmark contribution to motorsports and the very special qualities he manifested as an individual.Source - Petersen Museum
In the 1950's Briggs began focusing on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a grueling and very prestigious race. The way he wanted to conquer this race was with a formula that had never been done before - using an all-American racing team. American drivers and American cars had won races in Europe before, but the combination of American car and American driver had never been successful at Le Mans.
Unfortunately, Briggs was never able to ascertain this goal, but he and his racing team did accumulate many successful finishes at Sebring, Elkhart Lake, Bridgehampton and more.
For the 1950 Le Mans, two Cadillac's were prepared for the race. The first Cadillac was custom built and dubbed 'Le Monstre' by the French. This car was very large and not very visually appealing. It was built in the 'off-hours' by a group of engineers from Grumman Aircraft. The other Cadillac that was entered was basically a stock Coupe de Ville with minor modifications. To finish the race is considered a major accomplishment; the duo finished 10th and 11th.
His best finish at the race was a 3rd place finish in 1953 and 1954. In 1952 he managed a fourth place finished and in 1954 a 5th place finish.
The Le Mans had homologation rules meaning that a certain number of street versions of vehicles being raced needed to be produced. Cunningham satisfied this requirement by producing vehicle out of a factory located in West Palm Beach, Florida. The vehicles were expensive; $9,000 for the coupe and $10,000 for the roadster. In turn, less than 30 vehicles were purchased and produced soon ended.
To prepare for the 1951 Le Mans, a prototype was built and designated the name 'C-1'. This vehicle featured a Cadillac engine but the relationship between Cunningham and Cadillac did not last due to insufficient financial support on behalf of Cadillac.
Cunningham approached Chrysler who in-turn gave him their full support. Cunningham was able to purchase the Chrysler engines at a 40 percent discount.
A second prototype, the C-2R, was developed using a Chrysler built Hemi engine that was capable of producing 180 hp stock. The compression was modified from 7.5 to 8.6, four downdraft Zenith carburetors were fitted and the result was a 220 horsepower. After additional testing and modifications, exhaust and intake porting, the output was further increased to 270.
The chassis for the C-1 and the C-2R were identical. They featured Cadillac drum brakes, Chrysler's worm-and-sector steering, and Oriflow shock absorbers provided by Chrysler. The C-2R had a top speed of around 152.
The vehicles Cunningham built were very fast but they were also very heavy. The drum brakes were large, but the weight and the speed of the vehicle were some times too much. A combination he was never able to perfect.
In 1952, the C-45 and C-4RK coupe came into existence. They were lighter and smaller than the previous designs. Horsepower output had been increased to 325. Cunningham entered the Le Mans with three cars and six drivers. Two car were unable to finish and were retired from the race. The other car Briggs drove for nearly 20 hours. Bill Spears finished the final four hours. They finished the race in a very impressive fourth place.
In the 1953 Le Mans race, the C-4R finished seventh and C-4RK finished tenth. The C-5R finished third being only forty-two miles behind the second place vehicle. The first place vehicles were Jaguars fitted with disc brakes. If the Cunningham vehicles had been outfitted with disc brakes as well, the race may have finished differently.
In 1954, the two C-4Rs produced a third and fifth place finish.
The C-5R featured a narrow tube frame and an aluminum body. By using a straight-axle, torsion-bar, front suspension, thirty pounds was able to be shaved from the weight of the vehicle. The rear of the vehicle featured a live rear axle with torsion bar suspension.
During a 12-hour endurance race in Reims, the C-5R and driver, John Fitch, endured a wreck that caused the vehicle to go end-over-end. Fitch survived and the vehicle was returned to the U.S. and rebuilt.By Daniel Vaughan | Feb 2008
A total of thirty-six Cunningham cars were built including eight racing cars and of the racing cars, the two C4R Roadsters and the C4RK Coupe were the most successful and pioneered the concept of American engines successfully powering lightweight road-racing chassis.
This Cunningham C-4R is one of the two C4R roadsters, the other one (5216), is in the Collier Collection. Interestingly, each car has the other one's original engine, something that probably happened during routine rebuilds. Cunningham's goal was to win the 24 Hour race at Le Mans and 5217 first ran there in 1952 driven by John Fitch and George Rice. After several races in the USA and Europe, it arrived at the French circuit again in 1954 driven by Sherwood Johnston and Bill Spear who finished 3rd overall and 1st in class with this car driven by Briggs himself finishing 5th. This was one of the Cunningham team's best result at Le Mans.