Cunningham reluctantly closed the West Palm Beach production facility
in 1955 after the IRS changed the operation’s tax classification
from business to hobby, rendering it financially unviable.
At the same time, Jaguar’s VP in America and Team Cunningham
driver Gordon Benett was orchestrating a courtship between
Briggs and Jaguar’s head, Sir William Lyons. Sir William had
let it be known during a visit by Benett to Coventry that
he would offer to Briggs three D-Type Jaguars if he would
halt his own production of race cars. Bennett subsequently
arranged two meetings between the two men, first at Le Mans
and then at Watkins Glen, after which Sir William appointed
Briggs as Jaguar’s distributor in the Northeastern U.S.
The team returned from the disastrous 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours to
begin campaigning the first of the Cunningham D-Types, with
Sherwood Johnston at the wheel. They began winning immediately,
even without benefit of the latest engines from Coventry.
Johnston, who had started the 1955 season driving a Ferrari,
finished the year as champion of the SCCA’s hot new C/Sports
Racing class after a number of exciting clashes with young
Californian Phil Hill and his Ferrari Monza.
By this time it was no surprise to see the Cunningham caravan
pull into a venue and set up an impressive camp, but it must
have been a sight when, on May 20, 1956, the team showed up
at Maryland’s Cumberland circuit with an assortment of vehicles
that included three pristine white-and-blue D-Type Jaguars
for drivers John Fitch, Gordon Benett and Sherwood Johnston.
A fourth D-Type, to be driven by New Jersey amateur Walt Hansgen,
was entered by Boston Jaguar dealer Hanson McFee.
At the start of the C/Sports race, Hansgen jack-rabbited away
and left the field behind for the duration. John Fitch managed
to finish third, while Benett spun out of the running and
Johnston failed to complete the race. Surveying the day’s
disappointing results, Cunningham and Momo had spotted a nugget,
and two weeks later they hired Walt Hansgen. It was the beginning
of one of racing’s great partnerships; Briggs Cunningham,
Alfred Momo and Walt Hansgen would dominate road racing on
the East Coast for the next seven years.