"Rochester made means QUALITY"
The story of the Cunningham Car Company
An unwavering commitment to excellence was the mission guiding one of Rochester’s earliest industries, one that operated continuously throughout the Industrial Age under the direction of four generations of the Cunningham family.
It was 1834, and Andrew Jackson was President when James Cunningham, a native Scotsman and Canadian émigré, made a stopover in Rochester, America’s fastest-growing city. Hailing from Cobourg, Ontario, this talented and ambitious woodworker had an eye for design and was in search of a job that would suit his abilities. He found opportunity with carriage makers Hanford and Whitbeck, who offered the young man an apprenticeship.
After several years of training, Cunningham achieved journeyman status and by 1838 was deemed a master coach builder. He then partnered with two coworkers to buy out the small enterprise, forming Kerr, Cunningham, and Company. The shop began to turn out horse-drawn cutters and buggies. Cunningham’s proprietary suspension system, coupled with their attractive designs, made these coaches and sleighs superior to almost all others.
Cunningham never favored advertising but had great confidence in his product’s ability to sell itself. From the earliest days he sought opportunities to put his products in front of potential customers. For example, he would often hitch a chain of buggies and ride the ridge road to Niagara Falls, stopping at liveries along the way to demonstrate the superior nature of his products. In a rental business, fleet owners knew quality carriage work and the value of durable goods. Cunningham banked on livery customers to recall the fine ride and perhaps, when ready, buy one of their own. And as often as possible, Cunningham would have models on exhibit at country fairs and regional expositions, events drawing large crowds of potential customers.
Business was on the rise and undeterred by a fire at the State Street shop. Cunningham—now sole proprietor—purchased acreage on Canal Street and built a factory that would situate the Cunningham Company close to its primary means of shipping, the Erie Canal and Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia Railroad. He had a wife and young family and built a home adjacent to the factory, a practice not uncommon among artists and craftsmen who felt the need to be close to their work.
“Mr. Cunningham turns out none but the best work.”
—1852 Rochester Democrat
By the mid-1850s, Cunningham had gained an international reputation for its superior coachwork. There were now fifty hands employed making axels, springs, wheels and accessories such as lamps and folding steps to customize their product when most others in the trade were buying these elements from proprietary firms. Indeed, keeping this work in-house was essential to consistently meet Cunningham standards. While average carriages would sell for $300 to $400, a custom-built Cunningham would carry a hefty tag of $1,000, and Cunningham was the world’s largest coach works.
Funerals had become fashionable events. Believing that one’s final ride should be one’s finest ride, Cunningham sensed a lucrative market niche. Just prior to the Civil War, the factory began turning out ornate and intricately adorned horse-drawn hearses. Early models were reminiscent of a popular French style known as corbillard and featured oval plate glass windows.
The first sold to a Pittsburgh funeral director for the incredible sum of $2,300. Another was so overwhelmed with his acquisition, he wrote to tell Cunningham its arrival inspired the renovation of his entire parlor to better befit the beauty and splendor of his new coach. Eventually Cunningham would dominate the industry, producing highly-stylized hand carved and elaborately decorated coaches. Cunningham Funeral Cars attracted a worldwide market of progressive undertakers.
By the late 1880s Cunningham’s workforce, consisting of 450 designers, blacksmiths, die-cutters, lamp makers, upholsterers, wood carvers, and glassworkers, was now Rochester’s largest. Cunningham himself worked alongside his hired hands and became a father figure to many of those he had mentored. Though a workplace injury would eventually sideline him, he continued to be in the factory daily until his 1886 death. So revered was he, the entire Cunningham workforce walked en masse to his funeral. Joseph T. Cunningham, his son and partner since 1882, would now take the reins of James Cunningham & Son, Inc.
“Rochester Made Means Quality”
—Slogan attributed to the presence of Cunningham
Cunningham wasn’t all work and no play. Annual company picnics were popular, and Cunningham’s was among the most spectacular. On Picnic Day, several hundred workers wearing brown linen hats would assemble in front of the factory at 7 a.m. Led by a military band and Joseph T. Cunningham, they would march up Main Street to hop the bay line railroad to Sea Breeze, where boats would complete the journey to the Newport House. They spent the day playing baseball or just relaxing, capped off by a fine lakeside dinner.
The late nineteenth century was a time of great prosperity, and Rochester had its considerable share of wealthy entrepreneurs. Enormous mansions built on East Avenue would attest to their success. Most of the estates featured an equally elegant carriage house that, more than likely, contained at least one Cunningham.
Mastering the art of coaching was becoming a popular pastime for sons of industrialists and bankers. Cunningham introduced a sporty, streamlined, low-riding carriage called a tally-ho that held great appeal to this new leisure class. Popular entertainment for Sunday churchgoers was to park their carriage under the canopy of stately elms and hope to catch a pick-up race between these young aristocrats, with barking, tail-wagging black-spotted coach dogs in hot pursuit. The truly wealthy might own a Cunningham park drag, a four-horse-powered coach suitable to ride to Driving Park or Highland Park, where they could enjoy a tailgate picnic retrieved from the carriage’s rear compartment.
Winds of change were blowing by the end of the century, and the automobile would become the preferred means of transportation. Horse and buggy days were to fade into history and carriage building would become a lost art. With its master coach building ability, Cunningham was in an excellent position to transition into the horseless carriage trade.
“A motor car designed and built to meet the requirements of a discriminating motorist with whom excellence and not price is the prime consideration.”
—1926 Cunningham brochure
The first all-Cunningham-built motorcar appeared in 1910, when road conditions were still treacherous. Built for endurance, standard features were the patented heavy-duty suspension system, a dash-operated lubrication system, a fifty-gallon gas tank, and a built-in air pump, intended to provide roadside assistance should the need arise in the long distance between service stations. Cunningham developed a V-8 that became a standard in 1916, providing enormous horsepower to their custom-crafted vehicles. Every factory-built chassis was test driven 300 miles. Upon delivery, new owners were assured a Cunningham factory mechanic would be dispatched should service issues arise.
A new luxury class appeared in the early 1920s that wanted nothing but the best that money could buy. The prestige of owning a built-to-order Cunningham was extremely appealing to this most discerning group. Naturally, George Eastman was a Cunningham owner, sharing company with, among others, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, William Randolph Hearst, Fatty Arbuckle, and Harold Lloyd. Cunningham’s comparison to Rolls Royce would lure elite international buyers, including Chinese warlords, Latin American millionaires, European royals, and Indian princes.
In comparison, by 1926, the Model T was rolling off Ford’s assembly lines in Detroit at the astounding production rate of 1.5 million, with a sticker price of around $265. Cunningham’s annual production rarely exceeded 350 hand-crafted cars and, depending on the level of customization, would run in the $6000 TO $8,000 range. Air Force Major M. K. Lee’s custom Cunningham included a complex instrument panel resembling a cockpit, featured the first car radio—made by Stromberg-Carlson—and $10,000.
The market crash of 1929 and depression that followed produced a profound change in tastes and buying habits of the class that could still afford expensive cars. With so many less-fortunate struggling and out of work, it became unfashionable and considered déclassé to exude an ostentatious appearance—not that all found this shift acceptable.
“If this thing keeps up, we’ll be in the Buick class.”
—Depression-era laments of a North Shore, Long Island socialite
After it ceased automobile production in the mid-1930s, Cunningham did some military work and, like so many American manufacturers, contributed to the WWII efforts in the 1940s. Post-war production would find Cunningham under the guidance of fourth-generation leader Peter Cunningham, who would oversee the construction of a new, modern factory in Honeoye Falls. Cunningham would produce an electro-magnetic switching device known as a crossbar that had various applications in, among others, the aerospace and telecommunications industries.
In 1968, Cunningham became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Gleason Works and, sadly, eventually lost any identity within that company.
It is estimated, from the approximately 3,500 Cunningham automobiles produced, that fewer than eighty exist worldwide. But vestiges of the Cunningham legacy remain in and around Rochester.
At the Genesee Country Village & Museum’s John L. Wehle Gallery there is a handsome four-horse team park drag carriage.
Granger Homestead in Canandaigua has a fine example of an early funeral carriage that was recently put into commission for the hundredth anniversary reenactment of Susan B. Anthony’s funeral at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance.
The Thomas Burger Funeral Home in Hilton and the Thomas Funeral home on Lake Avenue have obtained a horse-drawn Cunningham hearse and encourage public view of their prized, glass-enclosed displays.
The Rochester Museum and Science Center has on display the 1936 chauffeur-driven automobile that belonged to socialite Charlotte Whitney Allen.
A beautiful buggy is on display in the lobby of a recently repurposed Cunningham workshop on Litchfield Street in Rochester, now the Carriage Factory apartments. Lining the walls of the five-story building is a vast array of custom-framed artifacts that include original brochures, artist renderings, photographs, and lithographs of workers and original vehicles—a donation from Cunningham family descendants.
The author and editor wish to acknowledge the late F. Nicholas Zuck of Scottsville, whose extensive research made this article possible.
Morris, William H., The Cunningham Car Made in Rochester (self, 1986).
Hinrichs, Noel, The Pursuit of Excellence (James Cunningham, Son & Co, 1964).
“Cunningham Carriages,” cunninghamcarriages.com.
“New Life for Rochester’s Cunningham Carriage Factory, Before & After,” “Historic Carriage Returns to Rochester,” and “Cunningham Cars and the Pursuit of Excellence. Made in Rochester,” rochestersubway.com