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Cunningham Cars and the Pursuit of Excellence. Made in Rochester.

December 18th, 2012

Jay Leno shows us one of his Cunningham cars in an amazing YouTube video. Cunningham cars were made in Rochester, NY.
A friend of mine, Scott Wischmeyer (from Our Tiny Earth external link), has been looking for ideas for a project car that he could start next summer. While looking, he decided to Google “Cars made in Rochester, NY.” What he stumbled upon next was a true American classic – the Cunningham car…

A Cunningham automobile in front of a factory on Canal Street. c.1910-1925. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone collection]
As William Morris puts in this story external link, “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.” Why was the Cunningham so special? Primarily handmade quality, attention to detail, and luxury. These cars were held in the same high regard as Rolls Royce – and just as pricey. One of these cars would set you back some $9,000 in 1920. While a Ford was $260. But while most cars topped out at 40-45mph, the Cunningham could reach 98mph! Maybe I’ll just let car aficionado and late night talk show host, Mr. Jay Leno, explain in this video…

The Cunningham company was started by James Cunningham (1815-1886) in 1838 as a carriage manufactory and was first known as Kerr, Cunningham & Company. In 1842 the business was operated under the name James Cunningham only. In 1848 he began constructing a facility on Canal Street external link (shown below), onto which several additions were built over the years.

A view of the Canal Street factory complex of James Cunningham, Son & Co. [SOURCE: Rochester Public Library]
In 1868 the company became known as James Cunningham & Son. It changed names again in 1882, becoming James Cunningham, Son & Co. The company’s carriages were known for their extra high quality and style. They were sold all over the United States. The company was one of the countries biggest manufacturers, not to mention one of Rochester’s biggest industries. In 1908 the company began to manufacture automobiles and in 1915 the last Cunningham carriage was produced at the factory.

Man assembling engines at the Cunningham Automobile Factory. c.1910-1916. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone collection]
During WWI and WWII the company manufactured military products. They stopped making cars in 1931. The Canal Street property was sold in 1954, but the company continued to make various mechanical products. In 1968 Cunningham became a subsidiary of Gleason Works, and was eventually absorbed by Gleason.

Simply amazing. Can you imagine if Cunningham had decided to find a way to mass produce these babies? Or if George B. Seldon external link, also of Rochester, had actually done something with his automobile patent? I don’t think people really understand just how deep Rochester’s automobile history external link goes, or how close this town came to actually being Detroit. On second thought, perhaps we should be thankful that didn’t pan out. I don’t know…

In any event, Dr. Michael Cunningham, the great great grandson of James Cunningham, has identified about 80 original Cunningham cars still in existence. One of them is a Cunningham limousine at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History external link. And the Rochester Museum and Science Center external link has a restored 1936 Cunningham Town Car external link on exhibit on the 3rd floor. Well worth the price of admission. Go check it out.

And remember, “Rochester Made Means Quality.”

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 at 8:03 am and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester Images. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Cunningham Cars and the Pursuit of Excellence. Made in Rochester.”

  1. Mike Puma says:

    Great photos and article! You may interested in this, but you probably already know. One of the Cunningham Carriage buildings is currently be rehabilitated for housing.

    http://www.preservationstudios.com/ps/our-projects/historic-tax-credits/carriage-factory

  2. @Mike, that’s right, I completely forgot about that. I love these renderings by SWBR Architects. Looks like a nightclub…

    http://www.christa.com/index.asp?PageId=17&CatId=6&ProjId=215

  3. Roni Solomon DDS says:

    The Cunningham Mansion stood where 1000 East Ave is today.

  4. Thanks for the very interesting article about Cunningham. My grandfather, Stephen Eagan, worked at James Cunningham Co. on Canal Street. By trade he was a carriage blacksmith at carriage companies in New Haven, Cincinnati and Springfield, MA before coming back to Rochester and Cunningham’s.

  5. @Patrick, what a cool bit of history to have in your family. If you have any old photos of your grandfather while at Cunningham send them along and I’ll post them here.

  6. I wish I had some photos but I have none at all of my grandfather. As another note, my Uncle James (my father’s brother) also worked at Cunningham’s prior to World War I. It is great the information that one can get from the Rochester City Directories.

  7. Thanks for the shout! Cunningham is quickly turning into a bit of an obsession. Though I know I’ll never be able to afford one of my own, I love what Cunningham was. It’s a true Rochester treasure.

  8. @Scott, maybe you could get Leno to take you for a ride in his. Or maybe give you one as a gift. I think he’s got two. It’d be only fair.

  9. Douglas A. Fisher says:

    George Selden actually did set up production for the Selden car, using his own invention and patents-in-process of the internal combustion engine. The #1 Selden car was acquired from the Selden family by Harry Schoff in Honeoye Falls, but was auctioned off after Schoff’s death in the 1960s.

    Cunningham probably had the largest production run, as the Cunningham carriage company preexisted the automobile business.

    Buffalo, home of the original Pierce-Arrow plant, has the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, with a planned expansion to include a previously-unbuilt gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, using Wright’s architectural design. Further details at: http://www.pierce-arrow.com

    Other cities are similarly commemorating their own automotive history.

    With Rochester’s own significant history in both patents and production, an intellectual basis — and the market — exists for a Rochester Museum of Automobile History.

  10. Gillian Conde says:

    yes, the old Carriage Factory on Litchfield is being turned into apartments. DePaul Properties is the developer, I am the VP. I found an old carriage for sale in Vt that was an original Cunningham. It will be coming back to Rochester and we will be putting it in the front lobby permanently!

  11. Simeon N.Cunningham says:

    Awesome stuff!!! James was my great-great-great-grandfather.

  12. Steve Albertus says:

    I had Cunningham relatives that ran a carriage service in Oil City and Clarion Pennsylvania in the late 1800’s. Any relation to these Cunningham’s?

  13. Mary Johnson says:

    My grandfather, Raymond Johnson worked at Cunningham on Canal Street. He also was entrusted to deliver some of the cars. He would take his wife, and my dad who was born in 1915 all around the NY state area, and deliver the car then take the train back to Rochester. These were great road trips that they all enjoyed. After Cunningham folded, my grandfather opened an Allis Chalmers dealership out in Webster, but could help anyone fix any car of the day. My grandmother said that delivering the cars was a real experience. People would stop on sidewalks and stare at the car, waving to my grandparents probably under the assumption they were the owners. They said driving the cars into New York City was a particular thrill to them. They would stay the weekend and take the train back on Sunday.

  14. Bill Powers says:

    This site is very exciting and informative.
    James Cunningham was our great great uncle.
    Bill Powers,Ontario,Canada

  15. Lore DiSalvo says:

    Terrific article…Thank you for sharing. Colonel S. Tooey an entrepreneur of boating for Long Point Park on Conesus Lake,NY listed his employment at Cunningham Automobile Company on his 1917 draft card. Tooey later began the famous Silver Springs, Florida Jungle Cruise Boats and Glass Bottomed Boats. Is there any more pics or historical artifacts for the company? I am currently researching Colonel Tooey. Thank you ~Lore

  16. Hi Lore, if you search the Monroe County Image Library (http://www3.libraryweb.org/lh.aspx?id=941) for Cunningham, there are a number of photos not in this article. Some of groups of employees, and I suppose it’s possible Colonel Tooey is in one of them if you have other pictures of him to compare against. It’s also possible that the currently-homeless Rochester Historical Society has things. It might be worth your while to touch base with them. Finally, there appear to be a number of newspaper articles about him when searching Fulton History as well (http://www.fultonhistory.com/fulton.html). Hope that helps! We’d love to see updates here if you find any.

  17. Susan Doyle says:

    My father-in-law claimed that his mother’s mother was one of THE Cunninghams of Rochester. However, she was disowned by the family for marrying a Protestant. I know her married name was Hess.

  18. KIRK WIGGINS says:

    I HAVE JUST PURCHASED A 1929 CUNNING SPORT TOURING ENCLOSED AUTOMOBILE. IT WAS ORIGIONALLY A BILL HARRA CAR. I HAD THE CAR FULLY RESTORED BY MISTER CHRIS KIDD OF TIRED IRON RESTORATIONS IN MONROVIA CALIFORNIA. I WANTED ONE OF THESE AUTOMOBILES SINCE I WAS FOURTEEN YEARS OF AGE. AS A KID I MET A FEW MEMBERS OF THE CUNNINGHAM FAMILY WHO HAD A 1930 CUNNINGHAM AND A 1932 PIERCE ARROW V12 AUTOMOBILE IN THEIR GIANT GARAGE. EVERY SUNDAY MORNING AT 6;00AM MR. CUNNINGHAM WOULD DRIVE ONE OF THESE CARS TO THE BEACH AND BACK DOWN SUNSET BL. I WAS A YOUNG PASSENGER IN BOTH VEHICLES SINCE 14 YEARS OF AGE. THE CUNNINGHAM WAS THE BEST ANTIQUE VEHICLE I EVER HAD THE PLEASURE OF BEING DRIVEN IN. IT WAS SO MAJESTIC AND FAST. IT CRUSED AT FREEWAY SPEEDS AND IT WAS ALWAYS RELIBLE. NOW I OWN ONE. THIS HAS BEEN THE DREAM OF MY LIFE. I SPENT MY ENTIRE LIFE’S SAVINGS AND THEN SOME RESTORING THE GREAT CAR.

  19. JOHN IVERSON says:

    HAVE A 1927 CUNNINGHAM AUTOMOBILE.. GREAT RIDING CAR. VERY RELIABLE BUT IT’S STILL AN OLD CAR.

  20. Dave D. says:

    An all original 1928 Cunningham Berline, 7 passenger limousine, with only 5300 miles in on display at the Northeast Classic Car Museum in Norwich, NY. Here is link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8v8OsSG7VE

  21. THE CUNNINGHAM AUTOMOBILE AND THE MCFARLAN AUTOMOBILE WERE TOPS.

  22. MY FRIEND OWNS A 1929 CUNNINGHAM..WE WERE INVITED TO PEBBLE BEACH TO DISPLAY HIS VEHICLE. THE JUDGES REALLY DID NOT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE CAR..PEOPLE REALLY LOVED IT THOUGH. THE ENGINE IS ALL CUNNINGHAM. MCFARLAN PURCHASED OTHER OUTSOURCED MOTORS FOR THEIR VEHICLES.

  23. Daniel Cunningham says:

    I love Cunningham cars very much and they are my distant cousins are Cunningham!!!!!!

    I will buy again Cunningham car 1920s soon.

    Thank god for my distant cousin who invented .

    Cunningham cars are # 1 .

    Boo boo boo to ford cars as cheap & junk cars.

    Danny


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