HomeCar CultureA Cache of Cunninghams

A Cache of Cunninghams

There were only 25 C-3 grand tourers made, and Charlie Schoendorf has five of them in his garage


The garage door, somewhere in Connecticut, opens on the largest collection of Cunningham C-3 cars in the world. Chuck Schoendorf stores four Italian-bodied, American-engined sports sedans (one as custodian) in an unassuming warehouse, where they keep company with a Cunningham C4RK racer replica, an Arnolt-Bristol, a one-of-one Lancia, and the doors from his 1952 Chrysler Saratoga coupe project.

One of the C-3s (of just 25 made) stands out because of its barn-find looks. But it was actually not found in a barn. Instead, it was behind the barn. It’s a long story, and an interesting one. So is the whole Cunningham C-3 saga. It helps if you’ve heard of infinitely wealthy Briggs Swift Cunningham, Jr., a larger-than-life Connecticut sportsman who excelled at both yacht racing and automotive competition, and had the money to indulge his interest in both.

Cunningham was obsessed with winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the rules required him to build at least 25 production cars—a process called “homologation.” To that end, circa 1950, Cunningham relocated Frick-Tappet Motors, a Long Island team of experienced drivers and race builders, to West Palm Beach, Florida. After the first four cars (one C1 and three C-2s) were built in-house, an international partnership was formed for the C-3.

The Americans developed the chassis and powertrain, but the aluminum-and-steel bodies were designed by the renowned Giovanni Michelotti (with a nod to the Ferrari 212) and built by Vignale in Italy. The air bridge made the cars prohibitively expensive—$15,000 in 1953, when $4,000 bought a very nice Cadillac—so there were few takers. Five cabriolets (one in Schoendorf’s garage) joined 20 coupes before the plug was pulled.

The outside-the-barn-find Cunningham C-3, running strong on the Connecticut shoreline. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Cunningham C-3 was a grand tourer, not a racer. Power came from the Chrysler “FirePower” Hemi engine tuned to produce 220 horsepower via use of a new intake manifold sporting four Zenith carburetors and a dual exhaust. Most had Chrysler’s Presto-Matic semi-automatic transmissions, but a few—like the outside-the-barn find—had three-speed manuals, dictating a cut-out in the seats for the shifter. Schoendorf takes up the story of that car.

“In 2011 we had a reunion of Cunningham owners in Palm Beach, and I was there with [Barn Find Hunter] Tom Cotter and Cunningham historian Larry Berman,” Schoendorf said. “B. Bruce Briggs had produced a register of the 25 C-3s last updated in 1982, and we looked through it, wondering what had become of some of the cars. Number 5209, reputedly the Paris show car, had a last owner listed in Connecticut, so I said I’d try to find it.”

The car was originally yellow and blue, and was sold in late 1952 to a Massachusetts resident, Dr. John Finkenstaedt, who displayed it in Boston. He also lent it to Car Life magazine, which in 1954 managed a 6.85-second zero to 60 time in it. The C-3 was sold to Connecticut resident Harry Sefried in 1964, by then with a black-and-tan color scheme. But the trail was cold after 1982.

“I found a five-year-old obituary for Sefried, and it mentioned a daughter, who I managed to track down. She lived in Pennsylvania but still owned the Connecticut house where the car was stored outside.” They made a date for later in the year. “My first reaction was relief that it was, indeed, a Cunningham C-3, and my second was that it was in terrible condition,” Schoendorf said. “It had a blue tarp over it, which just trapped moisture. The aluminum body had suffered, but the steel parts were much worse—the whole front subframe, a Ford part, had collapsed, leaving the wheels splayed out. All the tires were flat, and many parts had been removed.”

With the car still registered to Sefried’s daughter, the remains were dispatched to Connecticut-based career race prepper Don Breslauer of DB Enterprises. He rebuilt the motor, replaced that broken subframe, installed new steering, suspension and exhaust, and generally got it mobile enough to make it onto the field for subsequent Cunningham reunions at the Fairfield County Concours d’Elegance (2011), Lime Rock (2013) and the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance (2018). For the latter event, Cotter (who also owns a C-3) and Schoendorf worked together to bring all 25 of the road-going cars back together.

Cotter writes in his new book Secrets of the Barn Find Hunter that a Cunningham C-3 was his second ultimate barn find, after the Shelby Cobra he found in a barn in Indianapolis. His C-3 was a rough barn find, too, in South Carolina. The owner told him, after dogged pursuit, “You are the right guy to own this car.”

“By 2020, #5209 was finally drivable,” Schoendorf said. The original hood shows the imprint of some sort of organic life that lived under the tarp, and the fenders are patinaed. But the interior features new tan leather. Most of the C-3s (including Jay Leno’s example) are resplendent in shiny new paint, often two-tone, but #5209 is hanging on to its history.

A drive was offered, and not likely to be turned down. It’s a bucket-list car. The exhaust is loud and rumbly, and the driving position comfortable on the leather bench (there’s no back seat, though it looks like there could have been). The interior is a study in contrasts—prosaic Ford AM radio and heater controls co-exist with a large and exquisite Vignale-designed instrument panel. Bakelite provides a period touch.

The interior blends Italian and American touches. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The shifter is a tiny offset stalk sticking up from the seats, but the shift pattern is a conventional H, with reverse to the left and up. There’s no synchromesh on first gear, but shifting into second and top is easy enough. The steering is not assisted and is heavy compared to modern cars, but not bad for the period. The drum brakes work fine for touring duty.

The dual exhausts blat out an invitation for people to turn their heads, and they do. The old C-3 is an emissary from a different world among the SUVs. Driving it was similar to other cars of the period, albeit with a lot more available power. A C-3 is capable of 120 mph, though some parts have to be removed, Schoendorf said.

Back at the shop, Schoendorf pointed to the convertible, which he bought in 2012. It has a story, too, and was a stalled restoration project with 28,000 miles on the odometer. It’s back together now, proudly sporting its $800 primer paint. The two glossy C-3s Schoendorf owns are that way because he didn’t have a choice—they were little more than stripped shells when he acquired them.

All the cars have tales to tell, but there’s room for one more in this piece. The only racer in the room is a replica of the single aerodynamic Cunningham C-4RK closed coupe, which also used a Chrysler Hemi, producing 325 horsepower. The original from 1952 is at the Revs Institute in Naples, Florida. At the 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours, the C-4RK came in 10th, piloted by Charles Moran, Jr. and John Gordon Bennett. And in an open C-5R that year, John Fitch and Phil Walters were third overall, behind the Jaguar C-Types.

“I love the Chrysler Hemi engine, and I had a 1952 example with a Cunningham four-carb manifold that was surplus to requirements,” Schoendorf said. “I was touring Briggs Cunningham’s garages in Westport, Connecticut with his daughter, Lucie McKinney, and spotted something under a tarp. It turned out to be a leftover chassis from a recreation series of four that the late Briggs Cunningham III did in the 1990s.”

Power came from a Chrysler “FirePower” Hemi with four Zenith carbs. (Jim Motavalli photo)

So he had an engine identical to the original racer’s and a chassis, and with the help of Miles Collier at Revs and Lucie McKinney he was able to do a 3D scan of the original C-4RK. The resulting racer, which took four or five years to finish and required the construction of a full-sized wooden buck on which to form the aluminum panels, is an exacting replica. At the old Loring Air Force Base in Maine, the car, with 338 horsepower on the dyno, reached a heart-stopping 143 mph. Since the Revs Institute C-4RK stays close to home base these days, the Connecticut car is its “stunt double.” The colorful Briggs Cunningham had his dreams, and now Chuck Schoendorf has his.

Jim Motavalli
Jim Motavalli
Jim Motavalli is a prolific automotive journalist and author of two books on electric cars, Forward Drive and High Voltage. He is also a WPKN-FM radio host and co-host of the Plugging In podcast.


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