THE CUNNINGHAM CAR - MADE IN ROCHESTER
William Morris - May, 1986
Rochester has long had a special relationship with the automobile industry, evidenced by the names of Selden, Cunningham, Gleason, Delco, Rochester Products, Voplex, and Schlegel. Each of these Rochester businesses has made or continues to make substantial contributions to the automobile world, but the name of Cunningham marks a unique contribution.
My effort to do a story on the Cunningham automobile had its origin during the 1960's when a Cunningham was in Rochester as part of the Glidden Tour, during the course of which it was the object of great admiration. Sometime later I undertook for the Rochester Museum and Science Center to get a photograph of each surviving Cunningham, and ultimately to arrange to get one of these fine cars back to Rochester, where they were built.
Since its beginning, this project has changed somewhat. It has been expanded since my membership as a Fellow of Rochester Institute of Technology, so that hopefully the beneficiaries of this effort will now be both the Museum and RIT. The current goal is to write a history of the Cunningham automobile and the people who made it, both in a writing and in an informal slide talk, to be illustrated with some of the cars which survive. It has not proven feasible or possible to get a photograph of each surviving Cunningham car, but some of the well-restored Cunninghams will be illustrated. It is also hoped that we can update a roster of the surviving cars, made several years ago. Lastly it is still the hope that one of these cars can be brought back for permanent display in the Museum.
I. THE EARLY YEARS OF THE CUNNINGHAM COMPANY
The story of Cunningham in Rochester has its genesis in the energy and talents of James Cunningham and in the untimely death of his father in 1819. James Cunningham had been born in County Down, Ireland, in December 1815. Following the death of his father, the mother and her five children left Ireland and settled across the lake in Cobourg, where they operated a small farm. James went to the local country schools and worked on the farm, but at a very early age he demonstrated a talent and an enthusiasm for working in wood. He worked for a short while at carriage making in the neighborhood, and then decided to consider employment with an uncle in New York, who was an architect. However, he returned after about six weeks in New York City and on his way back stopped in Rochester and secured employment in a carriage factory here. Fortunately, he stayed.
His interests and his talents led him in 1838 to join with two partners in a business known as Kerr, Cunningham & Company, which commenced to manufacture sleighs and buggies. Their products were successfully sold, but the depression of 1838 caused the dissolution of the partnership. James Cunningham personally assumed the burden of the debt resulting from that venture and proceeded to conduct business under his own name, commencing in 1842.
The carriage business prospered, due in large part to Cunningham's shrewd and careful continued insistence on quality craftsmanship. Before many years passed Cunningham carriages were being sold in areas hundreds of miles away. After a fire in the original carriage works on State Street, Cunningham purchased property on Canal Street where he built a new carriage factory and a home. This site was just off Main Street West (then Buffalo Street) and was the yards of the railroad that was later to become the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad. Additional land adjoining the site was purchased and in 1848 Cunningham built the first of the factory buildings which still stand. The Canal Street property remained Cunningham's headquarters for more than 100 years.
The business continued to grow, both as the result of expanding markets and also because of improved manufacturing procedures and the continuing emphasis on quality. Power tools began to be used in manufacturing, including a number invented by James Cunningham himself. Company progress was only temporarily interrupted and delayed by the panic of 1857 and the depression which followed it, which forced Cunningham into bankruptcy. However. by the time the Civil War commenced the company was operating profitably. During the Civil War many of the Union artillery pieces and carriages moved about on wheels made by Cunningham.
By the 1880's the firm had established a position of preeminence in the manufacture of carriages. both for personal use and for use as hearses and funeral cars. By 1884 Cunningham had been referred to as the largest industry in Rochester, both in plant area and in capitalization, and employed about 550 people*, considerably more than were then employed by Bausch & Lomb (approximately 200) or by the predecessor of Eastman Kodak Company (about 30-40). It has been said that Cunningham in the 1880's had sold more carriages in the United States than all other manufacturers combined.
By the 1880's the management of the company had expanded. In 1868 Joseph Cunningham. James' son, became a partner and the firm name became James Cunningham & Son. In 1875 Rufus K. Dryer became a partner in the firm and also became James Cunningham's son-in-law.
In 1882 the firm was incorporated and became known as James Cunningham, Son & Co., the name by which it was known for decades thereafter. At the time of its incorporation James Cunningham was the president, Joseph Cunningham was secretary and Rufus K. Dryer was treasurer. Upon James Cunningham's death in 1886. Joseph became president. and he remained as head of the company until he retired in 1909.
When Rufus K. Dryer became a partner in 1875, that event marked the beginning of another prominent Rochester family's association with the management of the Cunningham Company. Mr. Dryer had started as an office boy in 1860 when he was hired by James Cunningham as a favor to Rufus Keeler, a former mayor of Rochester who had assisted as receiver for the firm following the 1857 bankruptcy and for whom he had been named. As it turned out. Dryer's talents lay in the field of finance. so that during the regime of Joseph Cunningham, the responsibilities between manufacturing and finance were clearly delineated and assigned between these two men. The two men were close friends and next door neighbors on East Avenue. They maintained a close business and personal relationship until Dryer retired from the business and turned to banking in 1909, the same year that Joseph Cunningham retired.
By the turn of the century. Cunningham carriages had become preeminent. They were favored both for their quality and their style. not only by personal owners. but by coach liveries throughout the country. The manufacturer of hearses and funeral cars had also become a very important part of the Cunningham business. winning special awards at expositions in the late 1800's. Writers have commented that almost everyone takes his last ride in luxury and that some of the people who rode in Cunningham carriages were dead. This was due to Cunningham's pioneering efforts in the funeral vehicle business, producing a line of funeral carriages "whose ornately carved exteriors became mantles of dignity, however belatedly tendered, for ceremonial farewell rides."
James Cunningham's early fondness and skill in woodcarving became apparent in the design and construction of his hearses, as well as a Cunningham tradition. They were elaborately hand carved, and it has been reported that at one time 200 wood-carvers were employed at the plant. Sometimes these hearse bodies were decorated with ornate carved wooden garlands, cherubs, doves, tassels, draperies, trumpets, and torches. The earlier practice of designing hearses with large oval side windows and plumed ornamentation on the roof ultimately gave way to the hand carved four-column square body style which was succeeded in turn by six-column and eight-column hearses, all elaborately hand carved and beautifully finished.
By the turn of the century, winds of change in transportation were blowing. The days of horse-drawn carriages were threatened by the coming of the automobile. Although the company had explored the possibility of producing automobiles in the late 1890's, the conversion to the manufacture of automobiles did not begin until 1908, and even then it proceeded only gradually. This change coincided with the retirement of Joseph Cunningham and Rufus K. Dryer, and the succession to management of a new generation. In 1909 Augustine J. Cunningham, Joseph's older son, who had started with the company about ten years before, became president. James C. Dryer, son of Rufus Dryer, had graduated from MIT and became vice-president in charge of engineering. Francis E. Cunningham, newly graduated from Harvard, the second son of Joseph.
II. THE EARLY CUNNINGHAM CARS (1908-1915)
Although the Cunningham Company experimented with a few electric automobiles early in the 20th Century. it was not until 1907 that the company decided to enter the automobile market in earnest. Its first cars were built in 1908 but, following the tradition of carriage makers. Cunningham built only the chassis and bodies of these first cars. These first models usually had Buffalo or Continental four-cylinder engines. and the axles. radiators, transmissions and other major parts were purchased from other manufacturers. So far as is known, none of these earliest models remain in existence.
Also during the years 1909 to 1912 bodies were made in sizeable lots for other manufacturers, such as Empire Electric, Cadillac, Chalmers, Peerless and Velie.
The production of the first all-Cunningham automobile in 1910 was preceded by the assembly of a talented manufacturing team. James C. Dryer was in charge of the mechanical and technical part of the business. but in 1910 the company employed the first of three talented chief engineers, Volney F. Lacy. Lacy came to the company as an expert in gasoline marine engines and it is he who engineered the first of the Cunningham automobiles and who set the stage for the second series of Cunninghams by designing the basic V-8 engines.
The design of Cunningham automobile bodies also was a development from the design of carriages and was first performed by carriage draftsmen. In the 19th Century the title of Draftsman was one of great prestige. It was he who translated European carriage styles into useable and workable designs, and they were mostly drawn full size on large blackboards in the carriage shop.
It is for that reason that there are so few scale drawings remaining from the carriage era. The head draftsman or designer usually also acted as the shop superintendent. In 1901 Arthur Gabel became the head designer, succeeding his father, Martin Gabel, who had designed carriages which won prestigious awards in the Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Gabel was joined in 1904 by J. Lawrence Hill who had come to the United States from New Zealand about 1900 and had studied automobile and carriage design in New York. Gabel and Hill were both involved in the design of the first Cunningham automobile body and chassis in 1908, and then they left Cunningham to start their own body and paint shop.
In 1909 the body design function was taken over by G. Carson Baker, who was responsible for the design and detailing of practically every automobile body produced by Cunningham until the last body was produced in 1936, at which time he left the company. He too performed his duties with a tradition behind him. His father had worked as a wood worker in the Cunningham factory and Baker started as a cabinetmaker with the company before progressing into body design.
In 1910 the first fully Cunningham-built car was introduced, known as Model H. These cars were built with a very rugged chassis and a four¬cylinder, forty horsepower engine of Cunningham's own design and manufacture.
The accompanying illustration from a 1911 magazine proclaimed the success of the Cunningham car in the 1910 Chicago Motor Club's 1000 Mile Reliability Run, in which the Cunningham won the Standard Oil Trophy for fuel consumption. The car shown came equipped with a mohair top, windshield, five lamps, Prest-o-lite tank, tire irons, two extra de-mountable rims, a speedometer, Bosch magneto, robe, foot rails, tire kit, and a set of tools. The suspension system, which remained basically unchanged in Cunningham cars for more than twenty years, consisted of semi-elliptic front springs and three-quarter elliptic springs in the rear. The touring car cost $3,500 and the chassis was
Although these models were basically similar, there were two major changes during the period. Beginning with the Model M in 1913, the cars were changed to left-hand drive, and beginning with the Model R in 1914, the cars were equipped with a self-starter.
Cunningham automobiles were recognized for their reliability at an early time. In 1911 a Cunningham was chosen to serve as the official's lead car in the 1911 Glidden Tour. The expected favorable publicity turned sour when the car went out of control at high speed and into a ditch, resulting in the death of one passenger. Temporarily this incident was a blow to Cunningham's prestige, but as memories of the incident faded, Cunningham regained its following in the automobile market among people of taste and influence.
It was during this period of time that Cunningham's insistence and emphasis on quality was transferred from the making of carriages to the making of automobiles. Each automobile was built to order, with body styles selected by the owners, and all work was done by hand. Each car was exhaustively road tested, first on completion of the chassis and again on final assembly, when the car was ready for delivery. The accompanying illustration shows a Cunningham being road tested in 1916 on Plymouth Avenue South in Rochester, on an occasion when the overflowing of the Genesee River provided something unique in a test environment.
Only one Cunningham car from this era is known to survive, a 1914 Model R chassis which was part of the Harrah Collection in Nevada for many years and which is now privately owned in California. Even that survivor is incomplete, for it is only a chassis. It is believed that the vehicle was at one time a hearse and that for some reason the hearse body was removed when the car was acquired by Harrah's.
The company continued to build carriages alongside of automobiles until 1915, when the last Cunningham carriage was built. The automobile era had finally come to Canal Street.
III. THE EARLY V-8 CUNNINGHAM CARS (1916-1924)
The period of Cunningham's most respected stature in the automobile industry can fairly be said to have started with the introduction of the V-8 engine in 1916 and continued until the engine was last produced in 1931.
Although much of Cunningham's success during this period must be attributed to the efforts of the body designer, G. Carson Baker, perhaps the greatest credit should be given to Volney F. Lacy. Lacy was a graduate of MIT. He was a pioneer in gasoline engines and came to Cunningham as chief engineer in 1909. He left Cunningham in 1916 to found Rochester Boat Works, adjacent to Rochester Yacht Club, which he ran and where he was well known to area yachtsmen until shortly before he died in 1938.
His great achievement and his contribution to Cunningham's success was the design of the V-8 engine. This engine was modified over the years, but was basically the same engine until the production of Cunningham engines ceased in 1931. The two blocks of four cylinders each were set at a 90° angle. The cylinders were arranged and cast in pairs. Aluminum pistons were used as early as 1922. Bore was 3-3/4 inches and stroke was 5 inches, giving a piston displacement of 442 cubic inches, exactly double that of the first o/~ Ford V-8 engines!in 1932)and making it the largest V-8 engine for automobiles. The initial models of the engine developed 90 horsepower, but refinements in the late 1920's raised that to 110 horsepower.
A Cunningham chassis was available with a 132-inch and 142-inch wheelbase for pleasure cars and a slightly longer chassis for hearses and ambulances. As had been the Cunningham practice from the beginning, bodies were built to order only upon the specific request of customers. Among the unusual features which appeared early was a built-in tire pump which was located on top of the gear drive. Initially, in order to use it, the driver had to stop the engine and engage the pump's gear by means of a dash lever, then start up again.
The tire hose was coiled under the seat and once the compressor was operating, the hose could be pulled out and air applied to the tire which needed it. Among early promotion pieces was a photograph of a well-dressed woman using this mechanism to inflate a front tire. Another unique feature was a self-contained lubrication system which was operated by a manual pump on the dashboard. Pushing on the pump handle would force lubricating oil into the springs and shackles to silence unwanted squeaks, and this could be done while the car was under way.
At the beginning of the 1920's the Cunningham work force numbered approximately 800, but the annual production of vehicles seldom exceeded 400. The Cunningham car was handmade to the end. The company ignored the assembly-line production techniques of Ford and General Motors, and clung to the costly and dignified standards of making its carriages. Both the metal and the wooden parts of the cars were meticulously fashioned in Cunningham's own shops. The major components of the bodies were frames of white wood and ash, strengthened by hand-forged steel braces and covered with hand-hammered aluminum panels. A former shop employee has reported that Cunningham had employed about 40 blacksmiths making these braces for the body frames, one of the largest blacksmith forces in the city. Hoods, fenders and tanks were fabricated of steel in the sheetmetal shop. The semi-elliptical and three-quarters elliptical springs were hand hammered by blacksmiths.
Interior woodwork consisted largely of mahogany, birdseye maple and Circassian walnut. Upholstery was cut and sewn of many materials, including fine hand-buffed leathers. Fittings were manufactured in the plant. Even the glass used in the bodies was cut, ground and polished at Cunningham. Painting and finishing the bodies involved 14 or 15 coats, all hand rubbed; this was before the days of lacquers and baking.
Once a chassis was completed, it was road tested for a distance of 300 miles, or until the company was satisfied. On completion the final assembly was also tested until it passed the exacting standards set by the company. Even after delivery, Cunningham maintained an interest in the cars which it had manufactured and sold. Owners were encouraged not to entrust repairs to a local garage, but rather to call for help from the factory, which would then send a mechanic to make necessary repairs.
One of the greatest boosts to the Cunningham reputation occurred on November 17, 1919 when race driver Ralph DePalma set American speed records at Sheepshead Bay, New York, for distances of 6, 8 and 10 miles. He drove a stock Cunningham roadster, which was stripped of its fenders, bumpers, spare tire and other appurtenances, at average speeds of over 90 miles an hour. Those records, and a later 24-hour endurance record, sold quite a few cars of this model at the base price of $6,200, and a number of them were made. These were in a way the pace setters for the well-known "boat-tail" roadsters which became popular in the 1920's.
During its fifteen years of making cars powered by its v-a engines, Cunningham made a number of models, each designated with a V-, which roughly correspond to these years.
V-7 and V-8
V-8 and V-9
V-9 and V-lO
The use of model numbers beginning with the letter V should not be confused with the expression "V-8" engine, which indicates an 8-cylinder engine with cylinders arranged in a V.
Not many of these early V-8 automobiles remain. There is a 1916 V-1 in Connecticut, and there are 1919 V-3's in California, in the Harrah Foundation in Nevada, and in Norway. The DePalma V-2 speedster which set the records in 1919 is at the Briggs Cunningham (no relation) Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, California. There are believed to be from 1921-22 V-4's in existence, two of them in California. The only V-5 model whose continued existence has been ascertained is a former hearse which has been cut down and converted to a snowplow by an undertaking firm not far from Rochester. Illustrations of a few of these surviving cars are shown.
Cunningham vehicles also contributed to the military efforts of the United States. During World War I Cunningham manufactured a number of ambulances for the Army and Navy. One of the most unusual contributions was the construction of more than 100 Cunningham-Caquot balloonwindlasses for the Signal Corps. Cunningham engineers demonstrated considerable ingenuity when they were suddenly called upon to manufacture these windlasses for tethering captive observation balloons used on the Western Front. A battered French windlass was supplied as a model. and the company then produced these windlasses. The mechanism consisted of a flat iron frame upon which was mounted a Cunningham V-8 engine with a very large radiator. a heavy duty clutch. a few other modifications. and a large planetary transmission with a bevel gear and pinion. all driving a drum which held a mile of steel cable with a telephone wire core. This entire unit was mounted on a FWD (four-wheel-drive) truck chassis. These power units with their special attachments and features were later incorporated in the design of experimental tanks which Cunningham built for the Army in the late 1920's.
During this period. which really began with the introduction of the V-8 engine designed by Lacy and his departure from the company in 1916. Cunningham engineering was supervised by chief engineer G. Edward Franquist. He left Cunningham in 1922 and died shortly thereafter. setting the stage for a new chief engineer and what may fairly be described as the height of Cunningham's position in the American automobile industry.
IV. THE IMPROVED CUNNINGHAM V-8 CARS (1925-1931)
By 1924 Cunningham had already established itself as a leading producer of luxury cars, ambulances, and hearses, but it did not adopt the assembly-line technique of production. Annual production seldom exceeded 350 cars during the entire period of automobile manufacture. The manufacture of Cunninghams continued to be characterized by the dignified standards of the carriage era.
The year 1925 has been referred to as the "dawn of the classic era" and it marked the introduction of the Model V-6 Cunningham cars. The several changes and improvements introduced that year may fairly be credited to a new chief engineer, David Fergusson.
Fergusson was a native of Bradford, England, and a graduate of Bradford Technical College. After working for various English engineering firms having to do with steam and gas engines, he entered the automobile business in 1897 as the chief engineer of a patent firm in London working on automobiles. He moved to New York City for the same firm in 1900, and in 1901 commenced a long association with the Pierce-Arrow Company in Buffalo. While he was there, he designed many of the well-known Pierce-Arrow vehicles, starting with the car known as the Motorette, and he continued as the person responsible for designing Pierce-Arrow automobiles until 1922. During a brief period as an automobile consultant, he became acquainted with the Cunningham Company. His consulting jobs for Cunningham resulted in his joining the company as chief engineer on November 1, 1923.
The production of Model V-5 Cunninghams continued in 1924, but in 1925 the Model V-6 was introduced. This introduction was marked by several changes in the car, both in engineering features and in appearance, and it was marked by the publication of corporate brochures which were rather unusual for thisconservative company. These brochures proclaimed a newly designed transmission, four-wheel brakes, a change in the steering ratio and in the mounting of the front wheels on their axle, resulting in vastly improved and easier steering, and a stronger chassis. As before, front equipment included 11 inch headlamps, "fitted with Bausch and Lomb Non-Glare lenses." The same basic spring suspension was continued, and continued to be characterized by the three-quarter elliptic springs in the rear of the car, now in some cars protected by a rear bumper. The most obvious recognition feature of the new model was the result of a change in the design of the radiator shell. The former rounded radiator shell was squared off, with a flat front, and was made higher.* The new feature which seemed to attract the most publicity, however, was the change in the design of the crankshaft so that the counterweights were for the first time arranged 900 from the crankshaft pins. In a brochure announcing Fergusson's new association with Cunningham, the company proclaims:
"The result of this association is a new ninety degree angle V-type engine with ninety degree crankshaft. A car without tremor at any speed, whose acceleration is rapid, effortless, impressive. A car of essential nobility, mechanically and artistically."
Another brochure, announcing the new V-6 models includes the following concerning the engine:
"The chief improvement is the new Cunningham motor - the heart of the product. The entire design of this most important unit has been revolutionized. One has only to drive one of the new models a few minutes to sense the fact that it is something new in gasoline motor perfection. This silent, unobtrusive source of power defies the most exacting critic to detect even a trace of any periodic vibration at any speed within its normal operating range."
However, even radiator shape and brakes are not sure recognition features. A few V-4's had been made with flat-front radiators, and some rounded radiators from V-l's were used in V-5's as late as 1923. Some V-6's had only two-wheel brakes. Well-defined annual changes were not characteristic of Cunningham!
It is obvious from the foregoing that self-laudatory automobile " advertisements and publicity were not originated in and are not the products of modern times.
It is interesting to note how Fergusson's enthusiasm for engine design changed quickly from favoring a straight-8 design to a V-8 design. In a longhand letter written to the Cunningham Company about three months before he joined Cunningham. he wrote in part as follows:
"I have been working on straight-line eight-cylinder designs for some time and I would like to talk over with you some of the conclusions I have made. I have driven the new eight-cylinder Packard and believe they have a wonderful proposition. I certainly think that the V-eight-cylinder engine for high grade cars is wrong. as this design of engine is inherently out of balance and. although the length of the eight in line engine is rather excessive. it certainly adds very materially to the appearance of the car. This increased length gives the Packard a Rolls Royce look of exclusive¬ness. The smoothness of running of the engine is much superior to the V-eight. especially above 20 miles per hour. and is quite an improvement to the six at speeds below 20 miles per hour."
No sooner had he settled in at Cunningham and made plans for the 1925 Model V-6 cars than he became a strong V-8 advocate. His enthusiasm for V-8 engines preceded by several years the strong advocacy of V-type engines which followed Ford's introduction of its V-8 in 1932. at that time becoming the only mass-produced V-type engined car in America and the only American V-8 car other than Lincoln and Cadillac in any substantial production.
Fergusson began to write an annual survey of American automobile develop¬ments in The Rochester Engineer. a monthly publication of Rochester Engineering Society. Beginning with his first article in December 1925. Fergusson dwelt almost entirely on the problem of vibration. and not surprisingly he came out strongly in favor of his own counterbalanced V-8. He wrote:
"In the research for eliminating vibration almost every conceivable device has been tried out and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to obtain freedom from this, one of the greatest drawbacks to the present automobile engine, and has resulted in the development of a V-eight cylinder engine with a very unusual crankshaft having the angle of the crankpins set at 90° to one another... This gave freedom from the out-of¬balance condition of the reciprocating parts, but necessitated counterbalancing of the crank shaft by means of weights attached to the crank arms. With this arrangement the V-eight engine having the cylinders at 90° gives perhaps the greatest perfection it is possible to attain, the crankshaft is so short that without going to a greater diameter for same, there is scarcely any torsional vibration present, and the engine is only about half the length of a straight-eight engine of the same bore and stroke, thus giving a compactness and rigidity that cannot be approached in the case of a straight-eight engine .... The above type of inherently balanced eight cylinder V engine is the newest of all present day automobile engines."
In his 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930 articles, Fergusson continued to be a strong advocate of the V-8 engine and repeatedly listed as its advantages much shorter engine length (giving greater body room on a given size chassis), lower center of gravity, better engine balance, and freedom from the torsional vibration that is "the greatest weakness of the straight six and the straight eight cylinder engine". He was finally able to conclude in March 1931:
"The further use of "V" type engines in luxury cars show[s] that all prejudice against the "V" type engine has disappeared, and indicate[s] that this type may displace the straight line type in the near future where over six cyl inders are used."
The 1925 Model V-6 Cunninghams and the succeeding V-7's, V-8's and V-9's, built up to 1931, turned out to be superb automobiles, real "classics," the cars that were rightfully called the Rolls Royces of America.
Customers could still choose between a wide variety of standard body styles or could order custom bodies to their own specifications. One of the obvious choices was between having a running board or an aluminum step-plate under each door. The distinctively shaped parking lights mounted on the front fenders became a distinguishing characteristic of some, but not all Cunninghams of the era. Another Cunningham characteristic was the treatment of the beltline and the almost sculptured look below the beltline, in roadster and phaeton bodies. This sculpturing is difficult to capture in photographs, but it was continued in some open cars until the end of this era. One writer characterizes the styling of these open cars as having almost "nautical lines, an impression that is heightened by the fender lights which resemble ship ventilators." Other accessories as well were unusual for the era, including automatic windshield wipers, clocks, meters, parking lights, inside rear view mirrors, and inside trouble lights on extendable cords, as well as the auxiliary tire pumps mentioned earlier.
Cunningham owners were a veritable Who's Who. Most writers appear to delight in naming the many prominent people, mostly in Hollywood, who drove Cunninghams. Most also describe the special car built during this period for a Major Lee with its many unique features, including the first automobile radio (a Stromberg-Carlson, naturally) installed in an automobile. The temptation to do both will be resisted. Suffice it to say that Cunninghams were owned by many prominent people in business as well as entertainment in the United States and also by many foreigners of wealth and position, including Indian princes, European royalty, Latin American millionaires and politicians, Japanese industrialists, and even Chinese warlords. One Rochesterian recalls specifically the Cunningham made for the latter with its bright yellow body and bright green fenders, as ordered.
There were a few changes made during this period, but only two of obvious significance. Beginning with the V-7 models of 1927, the front fenders were flared (customers could still choose between fenders with a flat surface and sharp edges, fenders with a graceful rounded surface, or fenders in the shape of an inverted V.) Front fenders had been shaped to the front wheels all theway down to the level of the running board. so that there was room for a side-mounted spare tire and wheel without a wheel well in the fender. Now. in the V-7's. the after-end of the fender was carried back so that it reached the running board level closer to the front door, requiring wheel wells in the fenders for spare wheels and tires.
A second change in the Model V-7 cars was that the squared radiator shell and hood were heighted and enlarged. and a characteristic hexagonal radiator cap replaced the moto-meter cap which theretofore had almost always been used.
A number of superbly restored Cunninghams of this era survive and some are illustrated. They include a V-6 touring car owned by B. C. Hartline of Ohio and D.E. Metlow of Tennessee; a V-6 town car owned by George F. Thagard, Jr. of California; a V-7 phaeton. a Classic Car Club prize winne) owned by William S. Abbott of Illinois. a V-9 town car, also a Classic Car Club prize winner. owned by C.K. Vaughn of California; a V-9 limousine owned by J. B. Nethercutt of California; and a V-9 hearse owned by Joseph Peterson of Michigan.
The Cunningham of probably the greatest interest to Rochesterians and the one most likely to be recalled by Rochesterians is the V-7 phaeton. bright green in color. which was owned by Augustine J. Cunningham from the time it was built in 1928. This car was licensed and driven regularly by "Gus" Cunningham until his death in 1957, and thereafter by his nephew. Peter Cunningham. until 1970. In 1973 the car was given to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was on display for a short period of time and now has been in storage for ten years or more. It is hoped that this car may be returned to Rochester for display by Rochester Museum and Science Center with a recently acquired Cunningham carriage and a 1936 Ford with a Cunningham body.
The tradition of building military products, begun with the balloon windlasses and with V-8 engines during World War I, continued during this period. Spurred by the foresight of some cavalry officers (including one named Patton) who visualized the end of horsedrawn units in the Army, Cunningham was called upon to develop some experimental tanks and other armored vehicles. Particularly desired was a fast light tank that would travel long distances without breaking down. In 1928 Cunningham's first tank was tested. It was equipped with a revolving turret and armed with both a cannon and a machine gun, and during tests it traveled 20 miles an hour, more than three times as fast as any tank that had been produced up to that time. Later Cunningham developed a tank track with lightweight rubber block treads that permitted greater speeds and in 1935 a Cunningham tank reached a cross-country speed of 50 miles an hour. The company also developed experimental half-tracks, cargo carriers, armored cars and weapon carriers. Appropriations for these experimental vehicles were not continued and when they were resumed toward the end of the 1930's, Cunningham was no longer equipped to make vehicles. However, many of the features which had been developed by Fergusson and the other Cunningham engineers were incorporated in the designs widely utilized in the vehicles produced by others for World War II.
The coming of the depression in 1929 spelled trouble for Cunningham. The company had not maintained a large dealer organization nor had it done much advertising. The market for fine cars sank to an unprofitable and highly competitive minimum. Cunningham did not have the facilities for mass producing automobiles nor did it have any interest in doing so. The situation has been aptly summarized by Noel Hinrichs in "The Pursuit of Excellence," (privately printed in 1964):
"Cunningham was aware of the challenge to its kind of excellence and made efforts to catch up with Detroit, but in the nature of things it could not hope to succeed. The point is that what Cunningham represented: luxury, elegance, high style, was becoming outmoded, and the firm was not equipped materially or temperamentally to adjust to the new trend. A cheap, mass-produced Cunningham was unthinkable."
The last effort to produce a thoroughbred Cunningham car came in 1931 with the introduction of a V-I0 model, having a slightly larger and more powerful V-8 engine. However, no more than a handful of these cars were produced and so far as is known, none survive.
In all, from the first assembled Cunningham in 1908 until the last Cunningham manufactured in 1931, approximately 5600 cars, hearses and ambulances are said to have been built. Of this total production, only about thirty are known or believed to survive.
V. THE END OF THE AUTOMOBILE ERA AT CUNNINGHAM
The V-10 Cunningham cars were superbly crafted, perhaps better than their predecessors. However, due to market conditions they did not sell, and in 1931 Cunningham stopped the production of automobiles.
The company did continue, however, to make funeral vehicles and ambulances on assembled chassis and engines. The Series W-1 vehicles had a different shaped radiator and hood which concealed a Continental straight¬eight engine. (There is no record of Fergusson's reaction to that change!) In these vehicles the elaborately carved bodies were continued, and ten or twelve were built. One of these hearses, and also an ambulance, not yet fully restored, survive. It is likely that automobile production might have ceased even sooner than it did, had it not been for Cunningham's traditional market for hearses, but even the Series W-1 was limited in its markets.
Cunningham soon gave up assembling its Series W-1 funeral cars and ambulances, and during 1933 and 1934 made funeral car bodies for the chassis made by other companies, Cadillac, Packard, Oldsmobile and Buick.
The manufacture of bodies to be placed on chassis manufactured by others led to Cunningham's final effort in the automobile business, which appeared as the Ford-Cunningham Town Car. The company built town car bodies for Ford chassis, which usually sold for around $2500 over the $650 price of the chassis. At least one of these bodies was installed on a 1935 Ford chassis and at least one on a 1937 Ford chassis, but several appeared on the 1936 Ford chassis. Probably the best known of these to Rochesterians is the Ford¬Cunningham town car previously owned by Mrs. Charlotte Whitney Allen and which was used by her regularly for daily transportation from the time it was new in
1936 until she sold it in 1964. This is the car which has recently been acquired by Rochester Museum and Science Center and which hopefully will be on permanent display before long.
In September. 1936. the last Cunningham automobile body was built and the automobile era at Cunningham was over.
VI. THE POST-AUTOMOBILE ERA AT CUNNINGHAM
The end of the production of Cunningham automobiles was not the end of Cunningham products.
In 1928 the company, aware of the expected boom in civil aviation, engaged an experienced aeronautical engineer, Randolph F. Hall, and formed the Cunningham-Hall Aircraft Company. Its first plane, a cabin biplane, first flew in April, 1929, and was followed by a few other planes of this and other designs, including an experimental monoplane trainer with unique wing features. All of these planes were made at the Cunningham factory on Canal Street and were trucked, disassembled, first to the airport in Leroy and later to Rochester airport, there to be reassembled and flown. The depression affected this market as well and the market for private aircraft almost entirely disappeared. The last Cunningham plane was built in 1938. However, the company's experience in aircraft production would be fully utilized during World War II.
After 1936, the company's survival was very much in question, but the Cunningham tradition was strong and the company continued to search for a product. It made a variety of unusual and diverse products, including safety belts for aircraft, diving helmets, and even belt buckles for Boy Scout uniforms. One writer with knowledge reported that at times the payroll consisted of a small group of machinists and model-makers and a single night watchman!
World War II made a profound change in the situation on Canal Street, and Cunningham undertook to make machine gun mounts. Its defense production force of 6 men in January 1940 expanded to 360 in two years, and by 1943, Cunningham employed 800 men in making a variety of war products. Cunningham won the Army-Navy "E" award for excellence in production. Besides machine gun mounts, it also manufactured parts for other producers including gear boxes for controlling wing surfaces of airplanes, aircraft gun turrets, and aircraft tail surfaces.
The company was still under the management of two of the three men who had taken over in 1909, Augustine J. Cunningham and Francis J. Cunningham. Mr. Dryer had retired in 1940. In 1941, the corporation was dissolved and the business was continued as a partnership of the two Cunningham brothers. During the 1940's, Peter Cunningham, the son of Francis Cunningham and great-grandson of the founder of the company, became a partner. He became president when the Cunningham brothers died in 1957 and 1958.
When the war ended in 1945, Cunningham found itself in the position of having made an extensive contribution, but it was in the same situation that it had been in during the late 1930's. It lacked a product suited to its experience and abilities. Soon after the war, the company designed and produced a variety of small farm and garden machines consisting of sickle-bar mowers, tractors, and rotary tillers. Some of these are still in regular use and proudly display the Cunningham logo. However, once again competitors using mass production methods were too much for Cunningham's quality methods. By 1948 there were more than 90 other companies in this field and it too was given up. Cunningham then went into a complete line of plumbing fixtures for house trailers and later, in an almost accidental development, got into the production of a product totally unlike anything it had made before. This was the crossbar switch, which was a fundamental element of electro-mechanical switching equipment. The development of this product required extensive engineering and testing, and success appeared to be on the way by 1958 when the second of the two third-generation Cunningham brothers had died.
The shift to production of crossbar switches required considerably less factory space than the company owned, and in 1954 the Canal Street property, which had been Cunningham property since 1840 was sold. Production was then concentrated in the factory building on Litchfield Street which had been built as an annex to the Canal Street plant and was just across the street from it.
Under the leadership of Peter Cunningham, a new plant was built in Honeoye Falls and the company moved there in 1961.
In 1968 the Cunningham Company became a subsidiary of the Gleason Works, and then became a part of another manufacturer which had its roots in Rochester beginning back in the last century. Gleason operated what became legally known as Cunningham Corporation as a subsidiary for a few years, doing manufacturing of sub-assemblies for other manufacturers. Cunningham Corporation has now become a part of Gleason by merger and there is no longer a Cunningham Corporation.
Despite its other products, Cunningham is certainly best known for its automobiles - made in Rochester, and undoubtedly deserving of a large share of the credit for the origin of the slogan "Rochester Made Means Quality." At the time of the demise of the quality automobile era, Cunningham could have, like Marmon, Franklin, and Pierce-Arrow, invested heavily in tooling for new models and could have, like those firms, gone broke. Like Stutz and Locomobile, it could have brought out a much cheaper model, but then would have found it had no dealer organization to sell these cars. It has been commented that it was a combination of careful planning and luck that they avoided both pitfalls, only to fail to reach any comparable success in the manufacture of other products.
The Cunningham legacy of excellence in design and quality of construction is most tellingly demonstrated in the Cunningham cars which survive, and they tell the story better than words.
In addition to the foregoing articles, valuable information was acquired from the files of the following:
Eastman Kodak Company
National Automotive History Collection of the Detroit Public Library Rochester Engineering Society
Rochester Museum and Science Center
Rochester Public Library
University of Rochester, Rare Books Section of Rush Rhees Library
I am particularly grateful for the recollections, papers, and photographs of these people with whom I have talked:
Gail L. Bauch, daughter of Volney F. Lacy
Raymond J. Diringer
Dorothy F. Foland, daughter of David Fergusson
Humbert B. Porrecca
Correspondence and conversations with Cunningham owners, former owners, or enthusiasts:
William S. Abbott Joel Anderson
Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum Mark Carlson
Kenneth E. Fahnestock Kenneth Fosmire
James P. Gould
Theodore A. Hall, son of Randolph F. Hall
Harrah Auto Collection and Foundation
D. E. Motlow
Charles H. Mullins
J. B. Nethercutt
Jack Passey, Jr.
Willard J. Prentice
George F. Thagard, Jr.
Correspondence and conversations with others:
Peter F. Cunningham
John R. Utz
Michael C. Williams