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Hagerty Employee

The Founding Fathers of Car Collecting: Briggs Cunningham

Welcome to "The Founding Fathers of Car Collecting," a new Hagerty Insider series about the titans at the forefront of establishing and defining the culture and trends of the collector car world. Our first spotlight is on the great race car driver and (team owner) Briggs Swift Cunningham Jr.
Pit Crew

...another rich kid spending grandpa's money makes you a "legend"?
Advanced Driver

Unlike many "rich" kids, he made something of himself, didn't use dad's name and money to buy opportunities (or political seats).
Pit Crew

It’s sad that you have to denigrate people when you have never met or talked with them. He was a gentleman.

What he did with it makes him a legend. As opposed to sitting in mummies basement taking potshots at people who have accomplished something with their lives.
Pit Crew

No, what makes you a legend is inventing a method of trimming a mainsail on a sailboat that’s still in use and bears your name. Hth. 

Advanced Driver

A Legend because of his many and varied accomplishments. And personality.

Just being "rich" doesn't make you anything.....
Pit Crew

I had the privilege of being a member of the Cunningham Automotive Museum when it was in Costa Mesa, CA. In 1983 I was going to take my 1957 Corvette to Sebring for the Historic races and asked the front desk if Mr Cunningham might have a suggestion on what rear end gear would be appropriate. He came out of his office and invited me in. He did not remember what gear his Corvettes used but he gave me a phone number to call the next day. He would call and tell them to expect my call. You can imagine my surprise when the number turned out to be Zora Duntov's home number. I was so sorry to see the museum close.
Pit Crew

Love your story!
I had a similar story back in the late 80's when I was experimenting with 4.3 GM V6's for a dirt track modified. Before the age of internet, sourcing information was all VIA phone. Through many many phone calls trying to find parts and information had had two amazing conversations. One was with a guy (wish I could remember his name) that was the chief engine engineer for a CART/INDY team that at first was extremely PO'd that I "somehow" got his number and was bothering him...He went from "Don't ever call this number you SOB" to "That sounds cool, here's my suggestions and here's the number of a guy that has some aluminum heads for sale" The phone number he dished out was was Dale Earnhardt. When I called the number Dale himself answered and we talked for a while and he did have a set of heads for sale but they had left on the hauler so he said he would call me back and let me know if they were still available when he got to the track. Yup, he called a couple of days later from the track and, they were gone. Won't ever forget that memory. Everything I know about Mr. Cunningham is that he was an amazing individual. His passion of preserving classic race cars is now our benefit to be able to view and appreciate his legacy.
New Driver

Briggs is famous for saying "To earn a small fortune in car racing its best to start out with a big one"
Lived in West Palm Beach, the beach picture in the article was taken in the early 1950's on Singer Island. His son, same name, had an engine shop in West Palm Beach for years. He should still be alive-a good engine builder.
Have and/or had friends who knew him well.
Briggs built a shop on Bunker Rd to build his cars that later became the first BMW dealership in that area. BMW moved on years ago and now its or was the location of an awning manuf or at least was last time I looked.
Another rich kid spending family money, no doubt but a legend none the less and liked & respected in the West Palm Beach car community. Back in the 50's with Harley Earl on 8th St, Bill Mitchel up in LTV, and the Fords on Palm Beach Island & Hobe Sound, Briggs was in fine company. Come Christmas time these car people all used to show up at the Everglades Club on Palm Beach to show off and attempt to up stage each other with their latest creation such as Harley Earl with his Buick-Y job or Edsel Ford with another custom Lincoln. That was a great time and place in America, rich or Poor.
Intermediate Driver

It is worth the effort to visit the Revs Institute in Naples (limited hours, reservations only, etc) There is a 'die for' for everyone. Mine is the Mk1 Cooper S.... Btw sailor Cunningham lives on in the form of a 'Cunningham' - still used on many mainsails. Simply larger than life.
Intermediate Driver

My mechanic back when I lived in Boston was J geils of the J Geils band , he had a Vitage race shop & had a Cunningham hemi powered beast in there for quite a while during the 80's
Intermediate Driver

sounds like a real "whammer jammer"!!
Advanced Driver

I was going to say, " Now that's a story worthy of a Centerfold." But had second thoughts about how silly that was, so I'll just keep it to myself.
Intermediate Driver

Great article for what looks like will be a very interesting series! Fortunately, people like this saved these very historically significant machines. The Revs Institute sees that same vision. Looking forward to the next in the series!
New Driver

During the first "gas crisis" I heard he drove the 19teens Baker Electric from his collection to and from work. Since it's so many years ago I'm not sure how I heard this but I did visit the museum several times and remember it was well worth it.

I don't see how anyone can begrudge Mr. Cunningham his wealth; he used it, along with sizable personal risk, and apparently a noble style, towards his accomplishments. Contrast that with so many of the celebrities, the instantly-wealthy, and the media darlings of today...
Advanced Driver

I believe he also had a white 1912-13 Mercer Raceabout, he was one of the first collectors to appreciate the marque.

Maybe show a picture of his collection.....

Would he have been able to do the things he did, including collecting cars, without his and his family's personal fortunes? Of course not. Money allows you to do many things. Some good, some evil. Just because some northeastern real estate moguls and other wealthy types of late have used their money and influence for evil alone, means they grab more headlines than someone who uses it for something positive.

This collection alone just on his cars is great but add all the others it is amazing.

It is not a sin to have money if it was made legally but it is a sin to be envious of what others have.

Just be please as cars like this are only preserved by those who can afford them. Other wise many of these would be lost and never seen again.

Pit Crew

For my 10th wedding anniversary in 1982, I was able to convince my wife to go to the Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa. The flip side was I had to go with my wife to South Coast Plaza to shop after the museum. We never made it to shopping. The museum was great - from the 1912 Mercer Raceabout to Le Monster ‘53 Cadillac, the Bugatti Royalle, desmodromic valve engines from Lance Reventlow’s Scarrabs, the 1963 “Moon Eyes”dragster that took drag racing to England. We went into the shop where the cars were being worked. We talked with people who worked there - calling them “employees” would give the wrong impression, they LOVED coming to the shop. I came back with the photographer from the newspaper I worked for to do a story on the museum. When we arrived, there was a 1920’s Ford Frontenac wailing around the parking lot in a four-wheel drift. Shop personnel were encouraged to drive cars from the collection in a manner for which they had been built. We met the curator - Mr. Burgess ( I believe) - who told us more about the collection. He showed us the Indy cars from the 20’s and 30’s - one supercharged Dusenberg dirt & pavement car that he had raced against. He recounted racing on fairground dirt tracks that were also horse tracks. He showed us the scars where his scalp had been sewed back when he stuffed his car under the inside fence at a dirt track. As you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed the museum and was saddened to hear about the sale four years later. Man, what memories.
New Driver

My dad was an avid sailor with no sailboat. Living in CT he somehow managed to meet Briggs and, to his joy, take a sail with him on Long Island Sound. He told the story that Briggs had arranged to have one of his yachts meet him at his private dock to pick Briggs and my dad up. Well, that is evidently exactly what happened. At 10:28 he and my dad nonchalantly crossed the lawn, walked to the end of the dock, and without missing a beat placed his foot on his yacht which was SAILING BY at precisely 10:30 as requested. The pilot relinquished the wheel and Brigs and my dad sailed went out for a sail.
Pit Crew

I have a "small" collection of 16 cars. No, they're not racers or dragsters, but "survivors". Many are low miles but not all. From 63 Lincoln to 2019 Mustang Bullitt. Caddys, Lincolns, Nissan 300 ZXs, a Saturn Ion Redline, 2 Toyota Celicas, Chevys. Briggs may have started it but its far from over. I collect them 'cause I like them. If they appreciate nicely, great. If not I just enjoy them.

The Saturn in your collection does not surprise me at all. I bought a 1996 SC1 when my kids were in their teens to function as their car. The amount of engineering that went into Saturns was greatly unappreciated. Want traction control? Just add a few lines of code to the ABS module. Enduraflex body panels saved the car from several fender benders as well as trees falling on the car during two separate storms. As evidenced from the samples that I scavenged at the local boneyard, those plastic body panels were supported by an egg shaped metal subframe that protected the occupants in a crash. The transmission even had a spin on canister filter for easy maintenance. It got 38 mpg on the freeway keeping up with traffic. Why can't they make cars like this anymore? It was fun, safe, easy to fix and I miss it.

New Driver

I was one of the lucky ones who visited the museum in Costa Mesa on many occasions. I still have one of the museum 33 page catalogs showing pictures and techinical data on the cars. I used to marvel at the 1927 Bugatti "Royale" Type 41 that was often parked outside and occationally a ride would be given to some lucky guest. There was the Miura, the 1914 Rolls, a Type 35 B Bugatti, and of course Le Monster and the other Cunningham cars. Too many special cars to list and I feel so fortunate that I could see the collection when I wanted to and I have those memories.
Intermediate Driver

I remember going to the Briggs Cunningham Museum in Newport Beach in the 80's. It was not a big show kind of place, just a building by the airport that had an amazing collection of cars. Back then most cars were not of insane values of today, it was just a personal collection of great cars. I never knew what became of the collection, He died and the collection was sold, it was supposed to have moved to San Diego, but I never found out who or where the collection went.
Is it on public display now?
New Driver

Yes, it is part of the Revs Institute (Miles Collier’s collection) in Naples, Florida.

If you want to complain about rich kids becoming successful off of grandpa's money, try Hollywood. An amazing number of actors come from old money - Chevy Chase is heir to the Crane Plumbing fortune, for example.

wow! great story. Thank you.