A friend of mine, Scott Wischmeyer (from Our Tiny Earth ), 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…
As William Morris puts in this story , “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 (shown below), onto which several additions were built over the years.
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.
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 , 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 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 . And the Rochester Museum and Science Center has a restored 1936 Cunningham Town Car on exhibit on the 3rd floor. Well worth the price of admission. Go check it out.
And remember, “Rochester Made Means Quality.”
Tags: Canal Street, Cunningham Automobile Factory, Cunningham car, Dr. Michael Cunningham, Ford, Gleason Works, James Cunningham, Jay Leno, Jay Leno's Garage, made in Rochester, Our Tiny Earth, Rochester, Rochester Made Means Quality, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester NY, Rolls Royce, Scott Wischmeyer, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Son & Co.
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