Saturday, June 25, 2011

Motoring Memories: Cunningham – Luxury in Carriages and Cars

Read about the Motoring Memories: Cunningham – Luxury in Carriages and Cars
The Cunningham name has marched across the American automobile landscape twice, and with significantly different vehicles. Both were the products of meticulous entrepreneurs and were built in limited quantities.
The more recent Cunninghams were produced in the 1950s by millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham in his West Palm Beach, Florida factory. The main thrust was sports racing cars but he also built 27 road-going sports cars with Italian bodies. Cunningham’s goal was to produce an American sports-racing car that would win the famous French 24-hour LeMans endurance race.
Almost all of his 1951-1955 racers had Chrysler “Hemi” V8s, and although they would twice finish as high as third at LeMans against the world’s best, they never managed to win. A disappointed Briggs Cunningham began campaigning cars from other manufacturers.
The other Cunningham had a longer and more varied existence tracing to James Cunningham, who left the family farm in Ontario, Canada in the 1830s and moved to New York State. A keen woodworker, he found work in the carriage trade in Rochester.
In addition to being a skilled tradesman, Cunningham was an aspiring businessman. When his employer, Hanford & Whitbeck, became available in 1838, he and two partners bought it. Eventually Cunningham was able to buy out his partners, and through dedication to superb craftsmanship, the company prospered and established a reputation for quality products.
Cunningham’s son Joseph joined the business in 1882, and when James died in 1886, Joseph carried on. By the turn of the century, Cunningham was America’s leading builder of such products as carriages, cutters and sleighs. It was also renowned for elaborately-carved and decorated funeral wagons.
The arrival of the automobile attracted Cunningham, although it would continue to make carriages until 1915. After experimenting with electric power, they developed their first gasoline car in 1908.
Cunningham built only the bodies for its early motor vehicles, purchasing the mechanical components such as Continental engines from outside suppliers. That was temporary, and within a few years they were making their own mechanical parts such as the 1911 four-cylinder, 40-horsepower Cunningham engine.
Cunningham carried over its tradition of high quality coachwork. The cars were hand-built, luxuriously equipped and extensively road tested before delivery. This was reflected in the price, a princely sum of $3,500.
When this model was replaced in 1913, the price had risen to an even more breathtaking $5,000. It was still powered by the four-cylinder engine, but this changed in 1916 when Cunningham introduced its 7.2-litre (442 cu in.), side-valve V8 with a water-heated intake manifold. It was basically two four-cylinder blocks mounted in an aluminum crankcase, and was rated at 90 horsepower when the Cadillac V8 produced only 77. It drove through a four-speed transmission in which third gear was direct and fourth was overdrive.
Although not marketed as a performance car, the Cunningham could demonstrate a good turn of speed. In 1919, famous racing driver Ralph DePalma tested a stock V8 Cunningham boattail roadster at the Sheepshead Bay, New York, race track where he covered 6 miles (10 km) at 98.5 mph (158.6 km/h), 8 miles (13 km) at 92.8 (149.4), and 10 miles (16 km) at 94.3 mph (151.8 km/h). This spawned a brisk market in Cunningham’s $6,000 speedsters.
Cunningham was a conservative company catering to conservative buyers. It didn’t follow annual model years, and didn’t change its cars for the sake of change, but only when improvements could be made, which seemed to suit its clientele just fine. A substantial part of Cunningham’s business continued to be funeral cars and ambulances.
In 1925 the Cunningham got hydraulic brakes, engine displacement was increased to 7.7 litres (471 cu in.) now driving through a three-speed gearbox, and the vacuum tank was replaced by a mechanical fuel pump.
Cunninghams continued to be exclusive and expensive. Prices averaged $8,000 in the 1920s and custom orders could run to twice that. This limited its purchasers to an exclusive market, including newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, chewing gum magnate Philip Wrigley, movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille, actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and actress Mary Pickford.
The stock market crash in 1929 and ensuing Depression ravaged the luxury car market, including Cunningham, who ceased building cars in 1931. It did, however, continue its funeral car and ambulance business. And it returned to its coachbuilding roots by building custom town car bodies for other makes of cars, particularly Ford. This practice would continue until 1936.
Cunningham diversified into such products as diving helmets and belt buckles, and during the Second World War built armoured cars and weapons carriers. After the war they produced such farm and gardening equipment as tractors and rotary tillers. Then in the 1950s Cunningham began producing electronic devices. The Cunningham name continued for many years after the vehicle business was gone.
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