Photos courtesy of Auctions America.
Whether referring to its coaches, automobiles or professional cars, Cunningham (in its many iterations) earned a reputation as a premium manufacturer with a conservative focus. Even as eight-column carved panel hearses began to fall out of favor in the late 1920s, Cunningham stayed the course, producing examples into the early 1930s. On Saturday, May 13, a rare 1929 Cunningham Model V-8 carved-panel hearse will cross the auction block in Auburn, Indiana, giving bidders an opportunity to acquire an unusual piece of Depression-era professional car history.
Cunningham began building buggies and sleighs in Rochester, New York, in 1838, as Kerr, Cunningham & Company. While ownership changed with the times, the Cunningham name remained on the company’s masthead until 1977, when then-owner Gleason Works shuttered the Cunningham Corporation. By then, a company with over a century of manufacturing history had been reduced to producing crossbar switching equipment for telecommunications, rendered obsolete by the proliferation of the transistor.
The firm began building hearses prior to the start of the Civil War, as an offshoot of its carriage business. Initial demand was modest, quite possibly because of the exorbitant price, and the first recorded sale of a Cunningham hearse, to a Pittsburgh funeral home, was booked at a price of $2,300. The War Between the States saw rapid growth for the firm, and by the end of the 19th century, Cunningham was well-established as a premier supplier to the funerary trade. When the industry began favoring six- and eight-column carved-panel hearses in the early 1900s, the Rochester manufacturer began to supply these as well.
In 1908, Cunningham began building automobiles, and like so many other firms of the day, replied upon a network of third party suppliers for components like engines and transmissions. Just one year later, it showed the company’s first motor ambulance at a Rochester exhibition, and by the end of 1910 was building all key components in-house. Its first engine was an overhead-valve four-cylinder, rated at 40 horsepower and mated to a three-speed transmission with a leather cone clutch. Priced from $3,500, the Cunningham Model H was built to rival the finest cars available on either side of the Atlantic.
In 1916, Cunningham introduced the model V, named for its side-valve V-8 designed by Volney Lacey (but built in-house by Cunningham). With a displacement of 442-cu.in. and a (likely conservative) rating of 45 horsepower, the engine would go on to power V-1 and V-2 models through 1919. The V-3, introduced in 1920, boasted an all-new Lacey-designed V-8 engine, still displacing 442-cu.in., but rated at 95 horsepower and mated to a four-speed transmission.
On the professional car side, Cunningham introduced a new hearse model for 1919 that could be configured with either glass sides or ornately carved wooden panels (simulating drapery), split by eight columns as was the norm of the day. Inside, the hearse was as ornate as a chapel (sans the stained glass), fitted with gothic arch-trimmed wood panels on the sides, front and back. While the styling of this hearse would evolve, the basic form (inspired by the horse-drawn hearses of an earlier time) would remain through 1931, when the company introduced its “new” Cathedral funeral car. Like the model it replaced, this version offered either carved panels or glass located between the eight side pillars, though other manufacturers had moved on to fresher designs by this time.
In 1932, Cunningham exited the professional car manufacturing business, instead providing bodies for Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard or Pierce-Arrow chassis until 1936. By then, its attention was elsewhere, as the company was busy designing everything from airplanes through half-tracks and light armored vehicles. The years prior to the onset of World War II were particularly lean for Cunningham, which found itself producing an array of products that ranged from airplane seat belts to diving helmets to Boy Scout belt buckles, but wartime manufacturing contracts would soon see the firm return to prosperity.
Exactly how many Cunninghams were produced remains a bit of a mystery. As Coachbuilt.com points out, the oft-cited production total of 5,621 examples (including automobiles, professional cars and chassis) originated with company historian Winfried Yengst in the 1950s, and is often misquoted. Yengst meant that, based upon his research, no more than 5,621 Cunninghams could have been built, and today marque experts believe the actual number to be roughly 3,000. It’s unclear how many survive today, though the Cunningham registry reportedly contains around 100 entries (including all vehicle types).
The Cunningham Model V-8 hearse set to cross the block in Auburn spent much of its life in the Chicago area, before being purchased by the Howe-Peterson Funeral Home in Dearborn, Michigan. There, it reportedly served three generations of the Peterson family before being retired and reserved for show duty. It’s excelled in this regard as well, capturing numerous first place and best of show awards at professional car and concours d’elegance events alike, and has reportedly been on display at Greenfield Village within The Henry Ford on several occasions.
Given the condition and rarity of this surviving example, Auctions America predicts a selling price between $80,000 and $100,000 when the hearse crosses the block in Indiana next month. For additional details on the Auburn Spring sale, visit AuctionsAmerica.com.