Right from the beginning of the 1950s a number of American motoring enthusiasts were keen to match the European mastery of the road-racing technique. Many of them built small Americanised sports cars but only Briggs Cunningham was successful and achieved fame from his attempts. Cunningham built several different models of cars but most observers agree that his best effort was the C4R.
This car featured a tubular chassis with strong side members and small, lightweight cross-members but was hardly state-of-the-art when compared with the racing chassis built into most of the European race cars. Also the car weighed over 1.2 tonnes. To shift this race car along at a decent speed required a powerful engine and Cunningham chose the Chrysler small-block hemi which generated 224kW and 421nm of peak torque at a fairly low 2000rpm.
This engine was matched to a five-speed all synchromesh gearbox and it was this combination which made the C4R a very potent sports car. It came close to defeating the European products and, as a comparative newcomer with only private backing, surprised many when it was only really outclassed by Ferrari and Jaguar. The C4R achieved a remarkable fourth place in the 1952 Le Mans 24-hour event, at an average speed of 141km/h.
Cunningham had established a pattern and he had proved how competitive cars using big V8 power could be. Later on this technique was perfected by Carroll Shelby, who was only able to remain competitive by using a European chassis. But in the mid-1950s the lack of chassis technology meant the end of the Cunningham team. Cunningham also showed the major US car manufacturers that road going versions of his race cars, by their popularity, were a viable market.
Their very existence proved that American car manufacturers could successfully build a road going sports car which was capable of competing successfully with the smaller European cars which were becoming increasingly popular in the USA after World War II.