Briggs Cunningham Auto Museum Closed

Times Staff Writer

Moving quickly and with no fanfare, auto racing enthusiast Briggs Cunningham sold his large collection of historic automobiles Wednesday and permanently closed his automotive museum in Costa Mesa.

The purchase price of the 71-car collection was not announced, but something about the amount is indicated by the collection's most valuable car--a 1927 Bugatti Royale. Only six were built, and one was reported sold recently for more than $8 million.

The buyer of the Cunningham collection was identified as Miles C. Collier, a collector in Palm Beach, Fla., and a family friend. A joint press release issued after the sale Wednesday stated that the cars would be moved to an automotive museum Collier is building in Naples, Fla.

A spokesman for Collier said he would not be available for comment.

"It was a very sad day for me," Cunningham said Wednesday, "but I like to see (the collection) in a good place and kept together. I like to see somebody I know get it who's not going to sell it."

Cunningham, who will be 80 this month, is an heir to the Swift meatpacking and Procter & Gamble Co. fortunes. He began his auto collection in 1929 and later moved it from his estate in Connecticut to a building in the industrial section of Costa Mesa at 250 E. Baker St.

The museum opened there in 1966 and continues to be the only place in Costa Mesa listed in the American Automobile Assn. tour books under "What to See."

Since its opening, attendance has been small by tourist-attraction standards--between 15,000 and 18,000 a year, according to museum office manager Joyce Cox.

Among Top Collections

The reason, according to John Gunnell, editor of Old Cars Weekly, is that the Cunningham museum appeals to the automotive aficionado, not the general public.

"It's probably in the top five outstanding collections in the country," Gunnell said. "It's more of a purist car museum for the enthusiast than one that shows movie-star glamour cars. . . . This museum and the Hall of Fame Museum at the Indianapolis Speedway are the two top car-nut car museums in the country."

John Burgess, the museum's only curator, retired in October. He said the collection concentrates on the "industry pacesetters," cars that made breakthroughs or set trends aesthetically or technically.

He said a car such as the museum's 1913 Peugeot grand prix, which placed second in the 1914 Indianapolis 500 powered by an engine smaller than a Model A Ford's, is a delight for a car enthusiast.

He said it was so technically advanced that it used double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, features being touted now as the latest in automotive design.

"It's funny. It's like everything else," Burgess said. "Nobody in the local area ever goes to see anything local. They have to be told by outside people what they have in their own area. We got more people from Australia and New Zealand than from Costa Mesa. And I think I've met every Japanese engineer there is in the world."

'Notoriously Unprofitable'

The museum has about 450 members and charged $4 general admission for nonmembers. It was "notoriously nonprofitable," Cox said. Yearly deficits forced Cunningham to "sell stock and things like that" to maintain the museum and its staff of seven to 10 office workers, auto detailers and mechanics. The staff kept each car immaculate and in running condition, Burgess said.

"Museums don't make money, and Mr. Cunningham is now 80 years old," Burgess said. "He can't keep it forever. It was quite a large deficit he had to make up every year.

"They decided they were going to sell the Bugatti Royale first. . . . Then he started thinking about the effort, and he said, 'I guess I'll sell the whole business.' "

Cox said negotiations by telephone went on for a few days the week before Christmas and the sale was agreed to a few days before Christmas. She said many people seemed to be interested in buying the collection.

"We decided to sell this year because of the rise in the capital gains tax next year," Cunningham said. "If anything happens to me, (the collection) goes to my wife, and she doesn't want to be bothered by it.

"Mr. Burgess had to retire, and we don't want to get another curator. I'll be 80 next month. I know Mr. Collier; I knew his father. He's going to build a museum in Naples. I've seen some plans, and it looks good."

Studied Auto Engineering

Burgess said Cunningham is upset about having to part with his collection. Cunningham called the museum staff "seven, eight times a day" and drove to the museum "almost every day," even after he moved from Newport Beach to Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County.

Burgess said Cunningham's love of the automobile surfaced early in his life. Cunningham studied automotive engineering while in college. He became a world-class yachtsman and skippered the victorious American entry, Columbia, during the 1958 America's Cup. But he spent much of his time and money on automobile racing.

He mounted an almost single-handed attempt to win the 24-hour Le Mans race in France. "He literally went there to capture the victory for America and spent tons of money out of his own pocket," Gunnell said. "He did real well but didn't have the resources of a big corporation."

During his early days of auto racing, Cunningham became close friends with another racer, Miles Collier. It is his son who bought Cunningham's collection.

"Sometimes you sit down and kind of reflect on things," Burgess said. "When you get 80 years old, you wonder where all this is going to go after you put all this effort into putting the collection together.

"There are an awful lot of vultures in the business looking for these as commercial items, not for what they are.

"As far as I know, (Collier) will move the collection in its entirety. If he does, it's a very wonderful thing because the museum does depict aesthetically, mechanically and performance-wise the history of the industry since the turn of the century."

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