The Incredible Watches (And Cars) Of Briggs Cunningham
Written by Benjamin Clymer in Hodinkee
April 26, 2016
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One of the countless reasons why any given person may have an interest in timepieces is that these little machines, bound to the wrists of their owners, may in fact be witness to greatness. In the ever-growing list of heroes and their watches, today’s subject is not near the top for his contributions to exploration – like, say, a Neil Armstrong might be with his Omega Speedmaster – nor for his importance in the macro-level collecting world, like Paul Newman might be with his Daytona. No, Briggs Cunningham is an American hero of a different sort. His name means little to those outside the highest echelons of motorsport and aquatic racing, or classic timepiece and vehicle collecting. But, to those in the know, Briggs Cunningham and his collection of bespoke wristwatches and sports cars are downright legendary. Today, I’ll break them down for you.
Who Is Briggs Cunningham, And Why Do We Care?
Cunningham was born into a great Cincinnati industrial family that had built a fortune in railways, utilities, and real estate – the type of fortune that could only be amassed in the United States in the late 19th century. Cunningham’s father, Briggs Sr., would use this fortune to invest in the earliest stages of a small “floating soap” company started by two men who claimed their product would revolutionize the act of bathing – their names were William Procter and James Gamble. So yes, Cunningham was born wealthy, but that doesn’t mean he was born lazy.
In fact, I would say that Cunningham dedicated his life to the pursuit of motion – something that neither he, nor his equally privileged bride (she was the daughter of a Standard Oil executive) had any need to be associated with. But they were both avid athletes, and though, by some accounts, the couple, when married, was one of the wealthiest couples in history, they feared not for life or legacy in anything they did, and that is why we are talking about them today.
Cunningham skippered the 1958 America’s Cup team, and won. He invented a system of rigging for sailboats, still used today, and still named after him. He built his own yachts and power boats. He was the owner of the first Ferrari in America, and the first Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, ever. He built his own Le Mans qualifying cars, which I’ll run through below. And he happened to have been a very serious watch buyer, commissioning two of the most beautiful and functional watches to come out of the 1950s. Let’s get into it.
The Stainless Steel Patek Philippes Of Briggs Cunningham
One could argue that while Cunningham knew exactly what he was doing with sailing and automobiles, his legendary status in horology was purely happenstance. Even today, the name Cunningham means little to watch collectors – unlike the names Graves or Packard, two of his contemporaries. In fact, even die-hard fans of the vintage watch game today may be unfamiliar with the watch legacy of Cunningham, simply because his two most special watches have not appeared publicly in almost a decade. The least valuable, but indeed the wristwatch first worn by Cunningham, we’ve seen more recently.
Reference 565 Breguet – 100,000 CHF At Phillips Geneva, Ca. 2015
Cunningham is known for owning three Patek Philippe watches – all of them in stainless steel. Two of them are unique commissions designed specifically for the sportsman, while one of them is simply a standard production model. However, this standard production model is a 565 “Calatrava” in stainless steel with Breguet numerals – a watch that to many of us is anything but standard. The watch was built and sold in 1949, before either of his other two watches.
What is so interesting about this piece is that while steel watches were the rage during the war-time years, this watch came later, and is still in mint condition. Further, steel watches were not desired, as they are today, and a man of his means certainly had no reason to choose a steel watch over a gold one – unless, of course, you were Briggs Cunningham and a highly active, top-tier athlete. Then, of course, steel would make sense over gold. This watch has remained in remarkable condition since its birth in 1949, and the watch sold in Phillips’ first Geneva auction last may for 100,000 CHF.
While this watch is certainly world-class in terms or rarity, quality, and indeed provenance, its importance also very much lies in the fact that it would set the stage for Cunningham’s next two purchases from Patek Philippe.
Reference 1463 Chronograph With Black Luminous Dial – Currently On Offer For $1.5 Million
The next watch in Cunningham’s steel Patek collection was certainly a direct commission – a reference 1463 chronograph, made unique by its black dial with luminous markers and hands. The watch, again in stainless steel, has achieved mythical status since first appearing on the market, and remains one of just two black dial 1463s ever to be discovered.
What makes this watch so interesting, besides its obvious rarity, is that it appears to be the watch that Cunningham wore the most. This makes sense; it is highly legible with its radium dial and hands, robust in its steel waterproof case, and functional for his lifestyle, with a chronograph mechanism. If you look at photos of Cunningham through the 1950s, you’ll often see a black dial chronograph on his wrist, as you do in the image of him with driver Phil Hill above, ca. 1955. That 300 SL is actually the first Gullwing ever delivered commercially – and the watch, a unique steel black dial 1463. To say Cunningham was doing it right would be a slight understatement, and it’s this type of combination that has long made him an icon to me.
The last time the Cunningham 1463 sold publicly, it did so via Christie’s in June of 1996, in New York. The watch went to a very significant collector, who lent the watch to John Goldberger for publishing in his Stainless Steel Patek book (from which the above illustrations are taken; available here) – you can see it on pages 298-299. Recently, the owner consigned the watch to vintage mega-dealer Davide Parmegiani, who has it on offer for $1.5 million.
Reference 1526 Perpetual Calendar – $3,956,159 At Christie’s Geneva, Ca. 2008
It would take a lot to trump a steel 1463 with black military dial, wouldn’t it? Cunningham did it, though, with a watch he took delivery of in 1951. This is a reference 1526, otherwise known as Patek’s first serially produced perpetual (remember?), but it’s steel! And what’s more is that this 1526 is different from other 1526′s, with a larger, thicker case, and wider lugs. It is just one of just two perpetual calendars to be made in steel, and the Arabic markers are covered in black lacquer. How incredible is that?
This 1526 is certainly one of the most beautiful watches made by Patek Philippe (IMHO) and when it came up for sale via Christie’s in 2008, boy did it fly. It sold for 4,137,000 CHF, which was equivalent to a mind-blowing $3,956,159 at the time. The buyer? No one short of Patek Philippe itself – and you can now see this watch on display in the Patek Philippe Museum (at times).
The Many, Many Cars Of Briggs Cunningham
Now consider this, if a man owned the three Patek Philippe watches mentioned above, with little to no actual interest in timepieces or the collecting of them, imagine what he’d do in a category to which he dedicated the best years of his life – automobiles.
1948 Ferrari Tipo 166 Spyder Corsa – The First Ferrari In America
This 1948 Ferrari Tipo 166 Spyder Corsa came into Mr. Cunningham’s possession again, not by choice, but by necessity. The millionaire was set on racing at Bridgehampton in 1949, and he intended to do so in a Jaguar XK120. As the race approached, he was told by Jaguar his car would not be ready in time to run and he looked for a replacement – any replacement. Luckily Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti was there to help and he sold Cunningham this already race-winning Ferrari, what many people believe to be the very first Ferrari imported to the U.S. The car would go on to take the life of one of Cunningham’s friends, Sam Collier, who was killed in 1950 at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, and the car was retired from competition. The car now lives in the Collier collection, and you can see it here.
The 1950 Cadillac Le Monstre – The First American Car At Le Mans
Cunningham had a world-renowned fascination with the 24 hours race at Le Mans, and in 1950, he competed there as the first American entry with American-made car. He did it in the car affectionately known as “Le Monstre” – a wedge-shaped, Cadillac-powered monster of a car. He finished 11th over all, behind his friend Collier, after hitting a sand bank, but the big, loud, brash car was a fan favorite. The car ran at Le Mans classic in 2012, and again sits in the Collier collection.
The Cunningham C-1 And C-2(R)
Cunningham’s first foray at Le Mans was moderately successful, but he wanted to push things further. He wanted to build a car from the ground up, under his own name, and race, and win. The C-1 and C-2(R) were Cunningham’s first design-to-drive projects and these are true legends of American motorsports. The prototype cars were powered by Cadillac engines, but they were quickly replaced by Chrysler Hemis putting out 180 horsepower. By the time Watkins Glen came around in 1951, the engines had been tweaked up to a whopping 250 hp, in 1951! Five of these cars made the trip to Le Mans, where one clocked in at a record setting 152 mph on the Mulsanne straight, and reached as high as second at one point. Ultimately, Cunningham finished in 15th after a connecting rod failed, but the program was considered a success. Below, I’ll tell you about my personal experience with a C-2.
The Cunningham C-3 – The Peak Of Luxury And Performance In 1953
While Cunningham had his sights set on victory at Le Mans, he also dreamt of the day when an American-made consumer sports car would rival Ferrari and Maserati. The C-3 was his idea of such a concept, and though it was based on the chassis of the race cars that were C-1 and C-2, C-3 featured body work by coach builder Vignale, and an interior that “oozed luxury.” The only downside was the $15,000 price tag, a truly monstrous cost back then, and part of that was due to the fact that the chassis was shipped from the Palm Beach factory of Cunningham Motors, to Turin for the body work, then back to Palm Beach for final finishing. Only 30 cars were made, and it was this low production volume that caused the IRS to revoke Cunningham’s “manufacturer” status, which in turn damaged funding. The cars remain prizes collectibles and are almost never seen for sale.
The Cunningham C-4, C-5, & C-6 – Regular Le Mans Contenders
The C-4, C-5, and C-6 Cunninghams continued Briggs’ pursuit of victory at Le Mans for an American manufacturer. In 1953, driving the C-5R, Cunningham was among the pre-race favorites. After all, he had placed fourth in 1952 behind only the 300 SL Mercedes and a lone Nash-Healey. Cunningham had produced a car that he was sure could compete, and he was right. What he could not imagine, however, was how Jaguar’s use of disc brakes would impact the race. He, and the rest of the field, could not compete with the C-Types by virtue of stopping power alone, though a C-4R did come in third and prevented a clean sweep by Jaguar.
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL – The First Gullwing, Ever
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL as we know it today is an icon of design and engineering – also of collecting. Owning a Gullwing places you into the upper echelons of automotive connoisseurship, but that was not always the case. In fact, when early importer Max Hoffman convinced the Germans to make the car, he had promised that the very first example would go to a celebrity of sorts. That celebrity happened to be a multi-millionaire, America’s Cup-winning professional driver by the name of Briggs Cunningham. What makes the fact that chassis number 003 (001 and 002 actually left the factory after 003) went to Cunningham so interesting is that first, he was in the process of building his own street and race cars at the time (see above) and we know that Cunningham was well versed in the power and balance of the W194 Benz (on which the 300SL is built), having lost to them at Le Mans in 1952.
This first 300SL is actually a very different car than most, featuring a truly hand-formed body, many parts made out of magnesium instead of aluminum, a slightly shorter chassis, a shorter vertical shifter, and a fixed (instead of tilting) steering wheel. Some of these traits were requested by Cunningham in pursuit of the best car to drive on the track, while others were simple Mercedes-Benz pre-run production traits.
While the immense importance of the first 300SL is obvious today – hell, it’s on the National Historic Vehicle Register – it wasn’t so clear back then. Cunningham was more interested in racing his own cars, and the occasional Jag rather than this big Mercedes. One of his team drivers, Phil Hill, did drive the 300SL competitively, but without much success. By 1956, the car had already been sold to a friend of Cunningham’s, who did do quite well with it. The car traded hands a few more times before coming to Mr. Dennis Nicotra, who still owns the car today. He did place it up for auction in 2014, but bidding failed to reach the $3.5 million reserve, which, by rough estimates, is about double the value of your average 300SL at auction. Again, while the car did not live with Cunningham for more than two years, it is amazing to see the foresight he had in ordering such an important car – just like the 166 Ferrari.
The 1960 Le Mans Corvettes
Nineteen fifty-five was the last year Cunningham would race Le Mans using one of his own cars. It was also the year that a catastrophic crash – killing 80 people – almost brought an end to all of European racing – though Cunningham claimed they were not related. After spending the second half of the decade racing successfully in the U.S. using Jaguars, OSCAs, and Porsches, a rule change at Le Mans would allow for a larger engine and more “GT” style cars – such as what had since become the great American sports car – the Corvette. In 1960, Cunningham outfitted a team of Corvettes for Le Mans, and was moderately successful, finishing in eighth place overall. The Corvettes in Cunningham’s livery have become icons in their own right, and though Chevrolet was not officially involved, they did commission a 34 minute mini-documentary on the run (viewable here). The cars, in recent years, are perhaps most famous for a years-long lawsuit over the ownership of a long-lost example.
Cunningham And His Legacy
Cunningham returned to Le Mans in 1961 driving a Maserati, and he placed fourth. In 1962, he drove a lightweight Jaguar and placed fourth behind three Ferraris (two of them being 250 GTOs). In 1963, Cunningham would make his final attempt at winning Le Mans, again in a Jaguar. He placed ninth, and that would be the end of his long European racing career. Upon completing the 1963 race, Cunningham was granted honorary citizenship of Le Mans for his years of fierce competition and gentlemanly demeanor. He would go on to establish a museum of motorsports in California, before eventually merging it with his friend Sam Collier’s collection, now at the Revs Institute. Cunningham died at the age of 96 in 2003.
What I have always found so appealing about the Briggs Cunningham story is two-fold. The first is that he’s an American sportsman, who set out to do things his own way. In the world of high end collectible watches and cars, we are so often enthralled by the beauty of great Italian designers and Swiss entrepreneurs – myself no less than anyone – so it’s remarkable to see this type of effort put forth by someone from a great American family. What he was able to accomplish during the early years of racing was nothing short of remarkable, and his influence over motorsports in this country is monumental – even if we just look at the first Ferrari and 300SL in the country, two cars that were essentially inconsequential to Cunningham himself. Then you have his contributions with the Cunningham racing team, arguably the most important effort put forth by any American in the 20th century. Without Cunningham, you don’t have Shelby, or the GT40. You don’t have Corvette at Le Mans.
Finally, in regards to Cunningham’s watches – it’s clear that he was a man of wealth and taste, but again, the most fascinating thing is that these watches – all steel Pateks, two of them unique and in the seven-figure range – were nothing more than watches to him. So often, when we come into contact with the original owners of what we deem to be mega-watches, they are surprised by how much regard we have for them – as if we’re crazy for thinking so much of a watch. And we are, certainly, for Cunningham surely did not purchase any of his Pateks thinking they would be some treasure sitting in a Swiss museum some day; he bought them because they suited his lifestyle, and because he liked them. And that you have to respect.
Driving 1,000 Miles In A Cunningham C-2R
Briggs Cunningham has long been someone I’d wanted to write about, but never did I think I’d have the chance to experience one of his cars in real life. And then, as you know, I attended the amazing Copperstate 1000. One of the participating cars? Yes, a Le Mans-running Cunningham C-2R!
The car ran as high as second place in the 1951 Le Mans, and this particular car even won its class at the Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance. What’s more, the owner – Mr. T.G. Mittler – could not have been more friendly and sharing of his knowledge of this car. It was purchased by his father in the 1980s, and has been with the family since.
Did I mention the C-2R ran the full 1,000 miles and worked like a charm? That is the most amazing thing about it – this car lives a double-life, winning the world’s most important car show one weekend, then slamming through the desert the next.
Here is the 1951 Cunningham C-2R at speed in the desert of Arizona. I have to say, of all the cars in the Copperstate 1000, this was easily the most interesting to me. I’m sure you can understand why.
Did You Know There Was ANOTHER American Car And Watch Builder?
While Cunningham’s cars and watches are effectively peerless for the period, he was not alone in his pursuit of motorsport and horological heaven back then in post-War America. Another gentleman, by the name of S.H. Arnolt, who was a distributor for foreign cars in Chicago, also built his own race-spec cars for the American market.
Not only did he build and sell cars, but he also constructed his own oversized chronographs to go with them. Did I mention they were 52 mm in diameter and featured a 14-ligne Valjoux movement? The watches are exceedingly rare, and the last one to come up for sale was in 2011 at Antiquorum, and that one had been converted into a pocket watch!
Obviously, these chronographs were meant to be worn on the outside of the jacket, and I just love the “Warsaw, Indiana” signature on the dial. The cars were discontinued by 1960 after a fatal accident, and Arnolt never had the wide-held acclaim of Cunningham. Still, it’s pretty cool to know that there was another crazy American out there in the 1950s making cars and watches.
This story and the information within would not have been possible without the help of the Briggs Cunningham Foundation, Lawrence Berman of BriggsCunningham.com, the Revs Institute, and most importantly, Mr. John Goldberger.