Perhaps the golden era of the playboy sportsman took place during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Of course, anglophones normally read about the exploits of English nobles in those days, but the rest of Europe was also in on the fun. The first world war put an end to that, and the second applied the exclamation point, the final nail in the coffin for those who persisted in trying to enjoy life. A decade of austerity lay ahead.
But the same couldn’t be said of Americans. The 1950s became the golden age of the American playboy sportsman.
Why so late?
Well, while the European nobles were busy refining the art of yacht racing all over the continent, and also learning about internal combustion engines and fielding legendary polo teams, their American equivalents were dragging an agricultural nation kicking and screaming into the industrial age after the civil war. They didn’t have time to goof off. Also, a lot of them were of a slightly puritanical bent, and hadn’t yet realized that the main reason to have money is to be able to enjoy yourself with it in ways that everyone else simply can’t.
So yes, by the 1950s, the scions of American industrialists had finally understood their position and went off to get serious about having a good time.
And that brings us to Karl Ludvigsen, one of the great automotive historians. Because, of course, this post is about a book, as well as being about amazing race cars (we did say “eclectic” in the manifesto, didn’t we? If we didn’t, we meant to).
You see, Ludvigsen wrote a book entitled Cunningham Sports Cars, which might sound like a dry racing title, but is actually a lasting monument to a great American playboy sportsman: Briggs Cunningham. The book, like all Ludvigsen titles, is painstakingly researched and evocatively illustrated but what it is most notable for is making the reader wish he was Cunningham.
You see Briggs, who died in 2003, was not content to use his enormous wealth to buy cars and yachts – he actually built his own, painted them in American racing colors (blue over white) and tried to win Le Mans (with the cars) and improve the breed (with his yachting innovation). He also won the America’s Cup, but that was while skippering a tub built by someone else, so he might not have been happy with it (we are, of course, kidding).
In an age where the excesses of the rich are indulged in private or at least with as little publicity as possible (to avoid having the po-faced masses* attempt to raise income taxes or establish even more draconian luxury taxes), it’s refreshing to read about a man who did so openly and under his own name (kind of like an Elon Musk without any kind of social concern or wish to advance humanity).
Even more importantly was the fact that he learned from his mistakes. Le Monstre (a special-bodied Cadillac) is rightly remembered as the ugliest thing to defile the sacred Mulsanne straight (and this is hard to do because, other than on race weekends, that is a stretch of French highway, and we assume that Ami 6s were allowed to use it), but his later, Cunningham-branded cars were truly beautiful.
So we at Classically Educated invite you to raise our glass of whatever obscenely expensive bubbly you might have to hand to a man who was more concerned with the good things in life than with why enjoying them is antisocial in some way.
Living well is the best revenge, of course. And if you buy the book you can do so for a modest sum… at least vicariously. And you can wish you were Briggs Cunningham, as well as reliving yet another age lost to the merciless passage of time.
*I have a defective socialism gene. Can’t be helped.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who writes in English. His latest book, Incursion, was published in 2017.