The status of “legend” can be attained in many different ways in the automotive world. The tag can be hung on a car or an engine whose design is a timeless one, or it can go deeper to the person who created the object in question. Sometimes this process comes after years of diligence and hard work with a singular goal in mind, and then again, it can simply be the right person in the right place at the right time.
When it comes to cars and engines, the list of legends is very long and everyone has their favorites, but some remain as standouts despite the passage of time. Chrysler’s Hemi engine was an innovation in the beginning and it has never looked back. Despite being out of production for many years, the Hemi design continues to be the dominate force behind every Top Fuel and Funny Car racer that thunders down the quarter mile. While this is easily its most visible achievement, the Hemi’s roots and influence go far beyond.
Virtually everyone even mildly associated with automotive sport knows the name Carroll Shelby. His Cobra and Mustang cars have borne his name for decades and are some of the most coveted vehicles in the world. He has added his name and influence to cars for both Chrysler and his well known Fords. Yet, it was interesting to find that even legends like Carroll Shelby were inspired by those who came before him.
Many know that in his youth Shelby was a race car driver, but his promising career was cut short after only two seasons due to his bad heart. During this time, he was impressed by another racer and sportsman extraordinaire, Briggs Cunningham.
Cunningham truly had the blood of competition in his veins, racing not only cars but yachts as well. He was the skipper of the Columbia, which won the America’s Cup in 1958; quite a departure from auto racing but fiercely competitive nonetheless.
I must admit at this point a strange fascination with twelve meter yacht racing, as it certainly has to be one of the slowest forms of racing on the planet. Yet these graceful giants require a staggering level of teamwork, endurance, and skill to win a Cup race. There is something amazing about watching their hulls cut the waves, and with all of the spray and splashing one might think they were blasting through the water a frightful pace. In reality, you could probably ride a bicycle faster than they run at top speed. All of that aside, when they race an upwind leg and tack against each other for wind and position, they do so with the fury of a NASCAR pit stop, and I find myself wishing I could be pulling ropes or twisting cranks.
Back on point, Briggs Cunningham had a true passion for cars and racing. He was the first man to import a Ferrari into this country, one of the founding members of the Sports Car Club of America, as well as building various hybrid cars for racing. Cunningham may not have invented the concept of putting potent engines in lighter cars but he certainly excelled at it. He built such cars that he dubbed “Bu-Merc” and “Fordillac” and in 1950 was invited to mount a team for Le Mans. Luigi Chinetti was the man who sold the Ferrari to Cunningham and offered to put in a word for him to join Team Ferrari for the race.
Briggs already had a game plan in mind and put together the first all American effort for the 24 hour event. The Le Mans organizing committee shunned the idea of Cunningham’s hybrid hot rods, so Cadillac came forward with two Series 61 coupes, one of which he would re-body as a roadster with the help of engineers from Grumman aircraft. This purpose built creation was dubbed “Le Monstre” by the French and was the first American sports car to wear the white with blue racing stripe paint scheme which would later become Cunningham’s signature.
The Cadillacs finished 10th and 11th overall and were crowd favorites with their big, noisy engines. Cunningham was so encouraged that he set up shop in West Palm Beach, Florida and began working on prototype machines based on Healy roadsters. The initial testing went very well but late in 1950, Cadillac pulled its support to supply engines for Briggs new racing machines. Then came a pivotal moment, when Cunningham contacted an old college friend and arranged to replace the Cadillac engines with the new Chrysler Firepower Hemi V8.
Cunningham built two street prototypes called the C-1 and then prepped three cars for the 1951 race. The C-2R made a strong showing, clocking the fastest speed on the Mulsanne straight at 152mph and the fastest average lap speed of 99mph. The years that followed saw his potent C-4R contend for the podium at Le Mans, while it dominated sports car racing here in America.
Carroll Shelby had just begun his short-lived racing career when Briggs Cunningham stepped out of building his own cars in 1955. However, the impact of Cunningham on sports car racing continued and obviously influenced Shelby to a great degree. When you look at Shelby’s first Cobra, a lightweight British sports car body with a screaming American V8 engine, the tip of the iceberg shows. The 427 Cobra comes full circle, with its hand built body and chassis, its bellowing Ford engine and its blue and white racing stripe paint scheme. Shelby also went on to tame Le Mans with his cars and American racing folklore to boot.
I take nothing away from Shelby; he has been a force in American automotive culture. However in retrospect, it seems as though Briggs Cunningham passed a torch that Shelby carried all the way to victory lane. You could even say that Shelby himself came full circle when he collaborated with Chrysler to bring us the Viper, born in the spirit of his Cobra sports car.
Now, when I look at all Shelby has given to the gearhead world, I catch myself wearing a slight grin as I gaze into the past to see his inspiration. Through the mists of time and history, I see an All American sportsman, a man respected by his peers and man who built the forerunner to the legendary Cobra. The Cunningham C-4R, a hand built, high performance machine that challenged the world…powered by a Chrysler Hemi.
Every legend has its inspiration.
– T. August Green