The Cunningham automobile (not to be confused with the Cunningham Steam Wagon produced from 1900 until 1901 by the Massachusetts Steam Wagon Company of Pittsfield, MA.) has its roots in a firm named the James Cunningham, Son & Company of Rochester, N.Y. Incorporated in 1882, it was taken over after James' death in 1886 by his son, Joseph. Production was now focused on fine carriages. Cunningham became the leading producer of carriages, sleighs, etc. long before the shift of the century. Also, aircraft,car bodies (mainly hearses) and even automobile chassis for other car makes were manufactured. Today, its high quality luxury automobiles are best remembered.
Cunningham’s emphasis was on a quality built product featuring luxury, elegance, and high style. Its products were sometimes innovative, often unique, and in most cases, expensive. When it produced automobiles, its strategy was to build a car equal, or better than, the best European automobile.
The company in 1896 produced electric-powered buggies, primarily for purposes of experimentation during an era when such electric-powered vehicles were slow, and when vehicles powered by steam required the operator to be certified and licensed.
Foreseeing the necessity to switch to the production of horseless carriages, Cunningham started automobile production in 1908, producing gasoline-engined cars which sold at approximately $3,500, a very high price for an automobile at the time. Initially, the company made only the chassis and assembled each car from items produced by other manufacturers, thereby following the individual order of the customer. Engines came from Buffalo or Continental. Frequently, Cunningham also sold electric cars which based on their experimental car from the 1890s. By 1910, the company was producing all its parts and selling its cars in the range of $4,500 to $5,000.
The big four-cylinder cars
After 1911, finally, Cunningham offered complete automobiles that were illustrated in its first catalogue. Alas, production remained slow and was not attuned to mass production. With 450 workers, a worker could produce only one and a half cars during a production year. Much of the wood and metal-work work on each car was crafted by hand.
The first of this cars was the model J. It was a huge automobile with a Cunningham-built 4-cylinder engine of 40 HP. Wheelbase was 124 in. There were four bodies: a 7-passenger touring car at $3,500, a runabout at $3,250, a limousine and a landaulet at $4,500 each. For 1912, the model J was offered without much changes. Choice of bodies went up to seven and included three additional open body styles: A 5-passenger phaeton, a 4-passenger torpedo and a 4-passenger toy tonneau, each at $3,500. Prices for the other models didn't change.
The new model M that superseded the J in 1913 got a slightly less powerful engine rated at 36,1 HP. Its chassis had the same wheelbase as previous and probably wasn't changed much. There was a little shuffling with the body styles as the phaeton and torpedo were listed for 5 passengers now. Again, there were seven body styles but the toy tonneau had gone and a new 7-passenger "Berlin Limousine" joined the range. Prices remained the same with the exception of the two liousine types which went to $4,600 each.
The only obvious change in the model R that appeared in 1914 was a wheelbase of 129 in. Listed body styles were slightly rearranged and reduced to six. The torpedo and the "Berlin Limousine" were dropped. Prices went up remarkably. $3,500 was the catalogued price for the runabout and each of the now three touring cars (for 4, 5 or 7 passengers, respectively) was prized at $3,750. Limousine and landaulet now hit the $5,000 mark.
The Model S, built from 1915 until 1916, was the last of the big four-cylinder Cunninghams. Technically, these cars were quite similar to the model R. Body styles didn't change, and neither did prices. For 1916, the 5-passenger touring car was dropped.
The Cunningham V-8
From the very beginning, Cunningham automobiles were highly regarded because of their clean lines. A radiator shell of German silver was included, and a feature seen on many of these cars was the use of aluminum steps instead of running boards, adding to the European touch of the car.
A V-8 engine was developed in 1916 and introduced in the series V-1 Cunningham. It was of the side-valve design and had a huge displacement of 442 c.i. It was rated by the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce (N.A.C.C.) at 45 HP.
Cunningham bought many components from outside vendors. In case of the series V, there were a clutch and transmission by Brown Lipe, axles and rear-wheel brakes by Timken-Detroit, pistons by Lynite, and an electric system by Westinghouse.
To meet the bad roads of the day, Cunninghams were further equipped with an air pump for easier repair of the quite usual tire punctures. As there was not a service network for the small company, and the owners of these very expensive cars did not wish to let local mechanics repair their cars, Cunningham simply sent its own expert people to their customers for the necessary work.
Series V Cunninghams came with a wheelbase of 132 in. Twelve body styles were listed in its initial year. Open types - 5 and 7 passenger touring cars, a new 2 passenger roadster, a 3 passenger runabout and a 4 passenger toy tonneau - had a price tag of $3,750. There were three new closed styles at $4,500 each: a 4 passenger coupe, a 5 passenger sedan and a 4 passenger roadster coupe. With $5,000 each, the more formal styles were, as could be expected, the most expensive. There were four of them: a 5 passenger touring sedan, a 6 passenger town car and a limousine and a berline that seated 8 passengers each.
Of course, these only were basic prices. Individualizing these bodies would add hefty supplements in price. Cunningham further invited its customers to commission their own body work, and gladly assisted with design and execution. Such cars could easily cost twice as much as a comparable catalogued style.
Although it appears that these cars were listed as 1917 models, they were available to the public already in 1916. Thus, they are among the earliest V-8 engines built in the U.S.A. after the Cadillac V-8 model was introduced in 1914.
Series V-2 started with model year 1918 Changes were few. Body styles offered were reduced to eight and prices went up, starting now at $4,250 for open-bodied cars. With the exception of a re-introduced Landaulet at $5,750, closed cars cost $5,500 each. Gone were the runabout, the roadster coupe, the touring sedan and, again, the toy tonneau. The roadster now seated 4 passengers and the smaller touring car 4. For 1919, berline, town car and coupe were dropped, too. A special roadster became available to commemorate Ralph De Palma’s record-breaking run at Sheepshead Bay that year.
With the series V-3 that started in 1920 came many improvements. Most important was its new engine. It had the same 442 c. i. displacement as before. 3 main bearings were on each cylinder bench. The aluminium crankcase was cast in two parts and counterweighed. Pistons were cast iron and the Oil pump was gear-driven. Transmission, again by Brown Lipe, had 4 speeds plus overdrive. Further, an additional chassis with a wheelbase of 142 in became available. With the series V-3, drum-type headlamps were introduced. There were only three catalogued body styles on the 132 in. wheelbase - at substantially higher cost. Roadster and 4 passenger touring were at $6,200, and the sedan even cost $7,600. On the longer chassis, a 6 passenger touring car was available at $6,700, and three very formal styles called Inside Drive limousine, Town Limousine and Landaulet. These cars had an astronomical price tag of $8,100 each and thus belonged to the most expensive cars on the market. For 1921, there were few changes. Now, there were a touring car and three formal styles (one of them a "Cabriolet" a.k.a convertible sedan) on the smaller chassis with prices that started at $6,000. On the larger chassis, there were two touring cars at $6,700 and $6,800, respectively, and a town car and a cabriolet for $8,100 each.
On November 17, 1919, famous race car driver Ralph De Palma drove a stripped but otherwise stock series V-3 Cunningham special roadster at ninety-eight miles per hour in a six-mile trial at the Sheepshead Bay Race Track.
In 1928 Cunningham entered the aircraft production field under the name Cunningham-Hall Aircraft Corporation. As with automobile production, its engineers were innovative and were able to produce a bi-wing plane in 1929 that was designed, and was able, to land at the very low speed of thirty-nine miles per hour.
Cunningham ceased producing automobiles in 1931, but continued to make bodies for other car manufactures until 1936 when the company finally went out of business.
- Kimes, Beverly R. (editor), Clark, Henry A.: The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1945. Krause Publications (1985), ISBN 0-87341-045-9