Dream Garage – 1960 Briggs Cunningham Le Mans Corvettes

Sexty Sixty 1957 Corvette lead art bBriggs Swift Cunningham II was a man who liked going fast. Born into wealth, the American entrepreneur pursued racing with perhaps even more tenacity than he did his business interests. As a young man he competed in yacht racing, serving as a crew member of the Dorade when it won the Fastnet race in 1931. But siren song of motorsport soon came calling.

Aided by college friends Miles and Samuel Collier, who would go on to found the Automobile Racing Club of America in 1933 (renamed the Sports Car Club of America, or SCCA, in 1944), it wasn’t long before Cunningham was building cars and competing as a driver, first with a Buick-powered car with a Mercedes-Benz SSK body at Watkins Glen shortly after WWII.

By 1950 Cunningham was ready to take things to the next level, entering two Cadillacs in that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race, where they finished 10th and 11th overall. Not bad considering these were Frankenstein’d sports cars campaigned by a privateer team.

After spending a number of years competing in SCCA racing domestically, Cunningham wanted to take his motorsport efforts internationally. His team's first race at Le Mans would be in 1950, campaigning a pair of thoroughly reworked Cadillacs. His team would return to Le Mans throughout the 1950s campaigning various cars, but the 1960 season would be the first time they would use Corvette firepower. Images: Hemmings

In the early 50s Team Cunningham was becoming a bigger and bigger presence in road racing here in the United States. They proved to be a force to be reckoned with in SCCA sports car racing, where they would bring a caravan of mechanics, cars, and equipment to each event, much like a factory team might today. But Le Mans remained the big fish that Cunningham longed to catch, and he wanted to win the 24 Hours outright.

His team would campaign a number of race cars of their own design to various levels of success at Le Mans throughout the decade, but an outright victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe remained elusive.

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Team Cunningham’s trio of Corvettes were all configured identically. #3 seen here was the only one of them to actually finish the event, as the #1 car would spin and crash just a few hours into the endurance race while the #2 car would complete more than 200 laps before succumbing to a mechanical failure.

But for 1960, Cunningham decided his team would bring a new racer to run at Le Mans: Along with a an E-type Jaguar race car, the team would also run three race-prepped 1960 Corvettes in the event. Their success at the race was an achievement which would remain unsurpassed in Corvette racing for more than four decades.

The 1960 Le Mans Corvettes

Three fuel-injected 1960 roadsters were plucked from the assembly line and outfitted for Team Cunningham’s race effort. Prepared by Alfred Momo, the team’s chief mechanic, with the unofficial assistance of Zora Arkus-Duntov, the team set work outfitting the Corvettes to take on the world.

According to Karl Ludvigsen, author of the book Corvette: America’s Star-Spangled Sports Car, the three Cunningham Corvettes were stripped of their grill inserts and chrome trim and their removable hard tops were bolted into place.

In an epic endurance race like Le Mans, the soundness of the mechanical elements of a car are just as important as the pace it can maintain. The hood was modified to improve both aerodynamics and cooling, while the center section of the rear window was carved out to accommodate the aircraft-style fuel filler and tank vent. Other modifications included iron cylinder heads built in the style of the available aluminum units to reap the benefits of their larger valves and improved porting. The light weight Halibrand magnesium knock-off wheels and race slicks replaced the factory setup. Images: Bring A Trailer

Halibrand magnesium knock-off wheels and race slicks replaced the factory rolling stock, while a 37-gallon fuel tank was installed for the long stints of the 24-hour race. Along with race seats and special instrumentation, movable steering columns were installed to provide adjustability to the various drivers who would take turns at the helm.

Under the hood an external oil cooler and pump were installed, and prior to race day, the standard cylinder heads were replaced by new cast-iron versions of the Corvette aluminum heads to yield the benefits of their big valves and improved porting.

Cunningham and co-driver William Kimberley would pilot car #1, Dr. Dick Thompson and Fred Windridge would take turns at the helm of the #2 car, and drivers John Fitch and Bob Grossman would race in #3.

Most tend to associate Carroll Shelby's race-prepped '65 Mustangs with the blue stripes over white paint scheme, similar to what we see here on this Corvette. But considering that the Cunningham team's cars predate those Mustangs by several years, it's clear that Shelby wasn't the first to adopt that look. Images: Bring A Trailer

Inclement weather would take its toll on the #1 car, as it would spin out in the rain and crash end over end just 32 laps, or about three hours, into the 24 hour race. After completing more than 200 laps the #2 would also DNF due to a mechanical failure, leaving the #3 Corvette as the only American model still in contention.

Although the #3 would not win Le Mans outright, it did finish first in the GT Class and eighth overall, marking the first-ever class win by a Corvette at Le Mans, a result that would not be topped for more than 40 years.

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It would take more than forty years for another team campaigning a Corvette at Le Mans to top the first-in-class victory achieved by the #3 Cunningham Corvette. Chevrolet’s own factory-backed effort at 24 Hours of Le Mans wouldn’t start until 2000. Corvette Racing now works in conjunction with the engineering and fabrication gurus at Pratt and Miller and the alliance as proved incredibly successful. Corvette Racing has won their class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans eight times, claimed the overall victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2001, and has won seven straight American Le Mans Series championships.

Legacy

The subsequent history of the three Briggs Cunningham Le Mans Corvettes is even more storied than their racing background.

After the race at Le Mans, the three cars were returned back to road-going configuration and sold off, where they would lost to history for decades. The #2 car turned up in a junkyard in Irwindale, California, in 1980 and would later be acquired by collector Bruce Meyer in 2000. The class-winning #3 car would reappear in 1993 when Kevin Mackay, owner of Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, N.Y., was commissioned to restore it by a private party.

By an incredible twist of fate, the #1 car was posted on Craigslist in 2012 for the paltry sum of $700. Thoroughly in need of restoration, the car was misidentified as a possibly being a 1953 Pontiac prototype. But even that potentially unique pedigree wasn’t even to find a buyer, and even at less than a thousand dollars, it initially could not find a buyer.

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Posted with a poorly worded, somewhat cryptic description, it’s no surprise that this basket case of a Corvette was initially overlooked by enthusiasts scouring Craigslist for solid project cars. Once its truly identity was established as the #1 Cunningham car though, everyone wanted in. This triggered a bizarre three-way legal battle for ownership of the car, and the litigation was eventually settled by a co-ownership agreement among the parties involved, which included the owner of the same company that restored the class-winning #3 car years prior. Image: Hagerty

However, once it was positively identified as the #1 1960 Briggs Cunningham Le Mans Corvette, a years-long legal battle ensued for the car, which had subsequently been valued in the millions of dollars and is considered one of the most sought-after collector cars in Corvette history.

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The #1 car is seen next to the restored #3 car. In the years since the 1960 Le Mans and perhaps due in part to body damage suffered during the crash at the race, the #1 car shares few external features with the #3 as it was discovered in 2012. Note the incorrect front clip for a 1960 Corvette, for instance – it’s easy to see how the mismatched bodywork might throw off collector car hunters.

Eventually the legal battle was settled by an agreement between the parties involved. The car became co-owned by Indiana car dealer and collector Gino Burelli, enthusiast Domenico Idoni, and the third partner’s interest was sold off to Mackay (the owner of Corvette Repair) in 2013. All parties involved agreed to have Mackay’s shop return the car to its former glory based on the half-million dollar restoration they had previously done on the #3 car.

Although a specific value has yet to be established, a clause in the legal agreement between the parties dictates that the car must be insured for no less than $2.5 million. That’s quite a barn find, no?

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
Read My Articles

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