Today in Transportation History – 1907: Going Fast Was This Legend’s Life

Briggs Cunningham, an entrepreneur and sportsman who made notable contributions involving both yachts and automobiles, was born in Cincinnati. Early on in life, Cunningham spent summers with his family in the northeastern United States. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Southport, Connecticut. Cunningham was 17 when he joined the Star Class racing fleet at the Pequot Yacht Club in that community, thereby launching his three-decade sailboat racing activities on Long Island Sound.

Cunningham’s other sailing accomplishments included serving as a crew member on the Dorade when that yacht won the Fastnet Race in 1931; this world-renowned competition covers 608 nautical miles (1126 kilometers) starting at the seaport of Cowes on the Isle of Wight in the English Channel and – after traveling westward to Land’s End, crossing the Celtic Sea, and rounding Fastnet Rock off the southwestern coast of Ireland – finishing at the city of Plymouth in southern England.

In 1958, Cunningham skippered the yacht Columbia in the America’s Cup races off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island. He and his crew successfully defended the America’s Cup, the oldest international sporting trophy in the world, against the British yacht Sceptre. “Briggs was like a fine violinist with boats,” said Victor Romagna, who sailed with Cunningham in these races. “He would need someone to do the tuning, as one might with a Stradivarius, but afterward we would hand the boat back to Briggs. Then he would play the instrument absolutely perfectly.”

A Cunningham downhaul on a small sailing vessel

Another indelible part of Cunningham’s maritime legacy was something that he invented for sailboats. The Cunningham downhaul, also known as the Cunningham, is a widely used device that adjusts sail tension and increases the speed of a vessel.

Cunningham’s other longtime transportation-oriented enthusiasm involved automobiles. This enthusiasm was likewise kindled at a young age when his uncle took him to road races. Cunningham began competing in international car races in 1930. He continued to take part in those events, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, over the next 36 years.

By 1940, Cunningham was also creating racecars. One of these was the Cunningham C4-R, which he and Bill Spear drove when they finished fourth overall at Le Mans in 1952. The C4-R, with its hand-hammered aluminum body and a Chrysler V-8 engine, is regarded by many as America’s first sports car. In 1954, Cunningham appeared on a cover of Time magazine with three of the racecars he had designed and built. “Road Racer Briggs Cunningham: Horsepower, Endurance, Sportsmanship,” stated the accompanying caption.

In addition, Cunningham gained a reputation for collecting distinctive cars. He made automotive history in this regard in 1954 when he bought a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing.” The 300 SL had been introduced two years earlier strictly for car races, but the one that Cunningham bought was the first to be sold to somebody as a customer rather than a racer. His purchase of that two-seater vehicle also marked its transition from car racing tracks to dealership showrooms. Cunningham also owned the first Ferrari exported to the United States and one of only six Bugatti Royales.

Cunningham was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1997. In 2003, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He died that same year in Las Vegas at the age of 96.

For more information on Briggs Cunningham, please check out

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