The Cunningham Museum
Text by Kane Rogers
 
 

Briggs disbanded Team Cunningham after the 1963 Le Mans 24 Hours.
Some team members went on to continued racing success, some
retired to quieter lives. Briggs, who was not quite done behind
the wheel, would race again at Sebring; in 1964 he joined
New Jersey Porsche dealer Lake Underwood to drive a new factory-backed
904, finishing ninth overall and first in the under-2-litre
prototype class. Then, after purchasing the car, Briggs teamed
with old friend John Fitch for the ’65 race, which they failed
to finish. Afterwards, at the age of fifty-eight, Briggs finally
decided to retire from racing.

Briggs had kept almost all of the significant cars he had owned over
the years, a fact that was common knowledge amongst his friends,
many of whom had toured the collection at Greens Farms with
Briggs as their guide. After quitting racing in Europe
in 1963, Briggs married Laura Cramer Elmer and moved
his household to California, where Laura had grown up. Then,
using his own transporter and a trailer provided by his friend
Bill Harrah, he moved the entire collection of cars from Greens
Farms to a Costa Mesa warehouse. Word spread, and visitors
soon started showing up to see the cars, which were barely
viewable in their cramped surroundings.

The new Mrs. Cunningham, a product of California’s car culture,
began poring over the books in Briggs’ extensive library in
order to learn more about the treasures gathered in the warehouse.
She soon came to believe that the collection needed a proper
home, one that would welcome the public. Briggs agreed: “The
museum came into being because I needed something to replace
the racing,” he said.

The Cunninghams first considered a location in Anaheim as, in
1965, there was still acreage available near Disneyland. In
a decision they later came to regret (Laura and Briggs both
saw in hindsight that proximity to the park would have helped
attendance at the museum), they opted instead for a parcel
of land owned by the Irvine Corporation, the largest landholder
in Orange County. After some legal wrangling that saw the
deal go from two-and-a-half acres to five, a 40,000 square-foot
concrete building was erected. A store and offices were partitioned
in the front of the building and maintenance and restoration
shops located at the rear, leaving 30,000 sq. ft. for the
display area.

The schedule for delivering the cars to the museum was nearly
disrupted when a rare deluge hit the area, washing out the
still-unpaved parking lot. Friends in the right places came
to the museum’s assistance, in the form of a rescue mission
mounted by the U.S. Marine Air Corps, which laid sections
of perforated landing strips to facilitate the movement of
vehicles over the mud and into the building.

The Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum opened with a black-tie
gala affair for 650 invited guests on February 5, 1966. The
proceeds benefitted the South Coast Child Guidance Clinic.
Guests dined on Salad d’endive-Sebring, Chateaubriand-Le
Mans, Pâte de tamale-Spa, Courgettes a la
rembourrage
-Monza, Petit pain-Montlhéry,
Cerises jubilé-Watkins Glen, and café-Mille
Miglia, after which they danced to the music of Stan Kenton’s
Band.



The Museum was very much a labor of love for Briggs, as it came
to be for the many people whose passion for cars somehow led
them to contribute their time and skills to the dream. Briggs
first hired Chuck Stanley, an old-school mechanic and machinist
who graced the collection with his craftsmanship for twenty
years. Dick Ford, a USAF mechanic from Edwards AFB, had just
retired when he visited Briggs with a reference from Road&Track’s
Dean Batchelor, becoming the Museum’s second employee.

It took Dick several tries before he was able to convince his
friend and former Edwards co-worker John Burgess to pay a
visit to the warehouse (the Museum building was still in the
planning stages). Burgess met with Briggs and, joining him
for a tour, realized that he had seen many of the cars during
his days in New England. In fact, he had worked on more than
a few of them in his own shop, including the 1927 Grand Prix
Delage raced at the New York World’s Fair twenty-six years
earlier by Hugh Bancroft. The two found an instant rapport,
and for years worked closely on the direction of the Museum.
That these two men, who had met briefly during the 1940 World’s
Fair, should come together again to share the purpose of preserving
this marvellous collection seemed no less than preordained.

Joyce Cox, who knew nothing about automobiles when she was hired
as secretary, dove in to her duties right away, asking John
Burgess to recommend a list of books from the Cunningham library.
It was not long before Joyce was sufficiently knowledgable
about the Museum to be able to conduct tours as well as handling
secretarial work and holding down the storefront, which she
did for twenty-two years.

Laura Cunningham was the dynamo. She worked as the Museum’s secretary-treasurer
but also in many other capacities, from researcher to government
liason to legal advocate, always defending the standing and
reputation of their beloved undertaking. Stories abound of
Laura’s battles with local and state authorities trying to
impose arcane regulations or grab taxes, most such tales ending
with said authorities exiting with their tails between their
legs. The few times the state was able to dig into someone’s
pockets were cases in which cars loaned to the collection
were taxed as unlicensed race cars; sometimes the owner wrote
a cheque to the California treasury in order to allow the
car in question to remain at the Museum; other times the object
of the levy simply disappeared across the line to Harrah’s
in Las Vegas.

The museum’s doors remained open from February 8, 1966 to December
31, 1986. Throughout that time both Briggs and Laura devoted
the vast majority of their time to the Museum’s daily affairs,
which involved not only regular maintenance and frequent restorations,
but also the transport and display of cars to such outside
venues as car shows, vintage races and concours d’elegance.

Such endeavors not only consumed the Cunninghams’ time, but huge
amounts of cashflow as well. The Museum’s income over the
years never did match its expenses, and finally Briggs and
Laura decided to sell one of his prized possessions, the Kellner-bodied
Bugatti Royale, reasoning that its sale would keep the Museum
going at least for the rest of Briggs’ days. As it happened,
a friend of the Cunninghams had been encouraging Miles Collier
to purchase some of the Museum’s collection, and Collier flew
to California to discuss the matter with Briggs and Laura.
At first, Collier was interested in only the Cunningham cars
and the Ferrari 166 in which his uncle Sam had been killed
at Watkins Glen. By the time he left to return to Florida,
he had purchased the entire collection.

It was not an easy thing for Briggs to see his collection go
to another owner, but he was pleased that it would be transferred
to the stewardship of the Collier family. Collier’s father,
C. Miles, and uncles Sam and Barron, Jr., had been close friends
of Briggs and indeed had gotten him started in sports car
racing all those years ago.

 
  Briggs Swift Cunningham  

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Credit to Kane Rogers for his important contributions to this website's creation.