Millers At Milwaukee

Working with equally renowned engineer Leo Goossen and a team of superlative artisans, the self-taught Miller created jewel-like speedsters with supercharged straight-eight engines that defined Indy-car racing during the Roaring Twenties. Later, shop foreman Fred Offenhauser began building and selling his own slightly modified versions of a Miller four-cylinder marine engine. These so-called Offys dominated Indy-car (and sprint-car and midget) racing into the 1960s and continued to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1976.

Like any fan, I’ve seen plenty of photos of Millers. But the two-dimensional images make it difficult to sense how the cars look in three dimensions, so it is natural to assume that the bodies are proportioned much like grand prix cars of the era. Today, at the Millers at Milwaukee event staged by the Harry A. Miller Club, is my first chance to study these epic thoroughbreds up close. But it isn’t until a white Miller — the Indy 500 winner in 1926, fitted with the revolutionary intercooler developed later by the legendary Frank Lockhart — sweeps around turn 4 at the Milwaukee Mile with its supercharger whining that it is possible to fully comprehend the Miller mystique.

As the Miller slots into position in front of me while I ride in the mechanic’s seat of a much heftier vintage Indy car, I realize that it’s not a car at all. It’s a razor blade suspended on four tall, skinny wheels. At its broadest point, the body is a mere eighteen inches wide. No wonder this car was timed at more than 171 mph on the dry lake at Muroc. Try to make sense of the relevant numbers: 91 cubic inches. 171 mph. In 1927.

At the moment, though, current owner Tom Barbour isn’t going even half that fast. And he’s fine with that. “These things are like biplanes,” he says after returning to the paddock and pulling off his leather helmet. “You want to fly them at low altitude to show them off. We’re just the stewards and custodians of these cars. Our goal is to keep the history of Harry Miller alive by letting enthusiasts hear his engines and see his cars up close.”

Amazingly, Harry Arminius Miller and his glorious machines were largely forgotten for several decades after his death in 1943. Contemporary Bugattis and Alfa Romeos were (and remain) much more highly prized by fans, collectors, and vintage racers — this despite the fact that the celebrated Bugatti twin-cam engine was essentially a direct copy of the Miller straight eight. Part of the reason, no doubt, was that Miller was never a road-car manufacturer. But there was also another explanation at work.

“There are more sports car guys with money than there are roundy-round guys with money, and the denizens of open-wheel racing tend to be gas-station, blue-collar types,” says Miller/Offy historian Gordon White, who also serves as the racing advisor to the Smithsonian Institution. “But I collected a Miller [a front-wheel-drive Miller 91] for the Smithsonian because I thought it was the cream of American racing cars.”

A small but fanatically dedicated cadre of Miller devotees always kept the faith. They obsessively hoarded Miller parts, drawings, and lore and shared them only with fellow zealots, like secretive scholars of a peculiar and long-dead language. Journalist Griff Borgeson popularized the Miller story in various magazine articles and his groundbreaking book, The Golden Age of the American Racing Car, published in 1966. Then, in 1981, enthusiast Mark Dees released his magisterial history, The Miller Dynasty, which remains the definitive tome on matters Miller.

Over the years, a handful of drivable Millers were cobbled together by the most resourceful and well-heeled collectors. None of them was more influential than
the late Dave Uihlein, heir to the Schlitz Brewing fortune. Along with other major-league Miller owners such as Chuck Davis and Bob Sutherland, both now deceased, Uihlein wanted a place to exercise his cars. So in 1995, he promoted an event known unofficially as the Miller Meet at the Milwaukee Mile, the venerable oval that’s the oldest racetrack in the world.

The inaugural get-together drew a few dozen cars and felt more like a family picnic than a vintage-car extravaganza. The cars, most restored by their owners, were driven casually rather than raced competitively. Retired USAC officials were stationed around the track to monitor the cars, and if somebody was going too fast, Uihlein himself would angrily black-flag him.

Nearly two decades later, the ambience remains as unpretentious as ever — good fellowship at the church of Harry Miller. There’s no prominent corporate branding, no invitation-only hospitality tents. Food comes from a single concession stand specializing in brats and sauerkraut. Participants seem to outnumber paying fans, and the biggest celebrities are auctioneer Dana Mecum, five-time Rolex 24 champion Hurley Haywood, and Automobile Magazine’s own Jean Jennings (see page 114).

Inevitably, though, the rising visibility of Millers, and a corresponding increase in their value, has prompted some changes. Many cars now arrive in big rigs instead of on open trailers, and they’re fettled by paid mechanics rather than family and friends. “The quality of the restorations is very different now,” says Harold Peters, founder of the wonderfully informative Miller/Offenhauser Historical Society. “In the early days, owners focused more on getting cars complete than on restoration accuracy, assembling rare parts they’d been able to scrounge, trade, and repair. Now, even the nuts and brackets are researched and correct.”

A case in point is Dan Davis’s drop-dead-gorgeous Miller 122, the two-liter, rear-wheel-drive bullet that Eddie Hearne drove to the national championship in 1923. There are no surviving color images of the car. But in period photos, Greg Schneider, who helped with the impeccably detailed historical research for the restoration, saw a “Zapon” logo on the bodywork. “I bought body-shop manuals from the era until I found an ad for Zapon lacquer paint,” he says. Backtracking from the ad and using 1920s-era paint chips, he and his colleagues were able to spec period-correct shades of light and dark green for the car.

Fifty entries have shown up for this year’s event. Pretty much any front-engine Indy-style racer is eligible, so the roster ranges from a brass-era Mercer — the yellow behemoth that finished second in the Indy 500 in 1913 — to several Offy-powered roadsters that raced into the mid-’60s. Next year, with the possible addition of sprint cars sporting Offys, there could be as many as eighty entries. But purebred Millers will always occupy pride of place at Milwaukee.

It’s not merely because these cars are so rare — fewer than fifty came out of Miller’s shop in Los Angeles — and won so many races. It’s also a function of their unparalleled craftsmanship and aesthetic excellence. It’s said that Harry Miller never fired somebody for making a part too elegant. The gleaming V-16 engine in the “naked” 1933 Miller being re-created by Ted Davis ought to be beamed to outer space to impress aliens. The gas cap is stainless steel machined out of billet. Even the tie-rod ends look like they belong in a museum.

“Everything he did was over the top,” Davis says. “All the parts are so well engineered, but at the same time, they’re also so beautiful. His cars are works of art.” Or as Sam Mann, owner of a stunning blue 1926 Miller 91, put it: “His cars had an aura. They were exquisite-looking machines finished to a level unmatched by any other race cars in their day.”

Of course, this unrivaled standard of form and function came at a healthy premium. So after the stock market tanked in 1929, the powers that be promulgated new rules calling for cheaper, less sophisticated cars designed to encourage production-car manufacturers to go racing. And so it happened that stock-block engines based on Studebakers, Buicks, Stutzs, even Hupmobiles were featured in cars big enough to hold a driver and a mechanic during an era quickly dubbed the Junk Formula.

Today, genuine two-man cars are hard to find but relatively inexpensive, and there are several here in Milwaukee. Eric Andersen’s 1932 Riverside Special — a homebuilt featuring a six-cylinder Chrysler with a pair of Winfield carbs — was notorious for outrunning the police in rural Wisconsin. “This is the common man’s car,” he tells me. “We ran through twenty gallons of gas today. We just go round and round. We had four or five people driving it.”

Mike Bauman’s 1932 Martz Special had a much more impressive racing history, including several starts at Indy, but what he appreciates most about the car is its dimensions. “I restored a Kurtis-Kraft midget, but then I couldn’t fit in it,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted a two-man car so I could give people rides. This car also appealed to me because it’s so simple. It starts all the time, and I’ve driven it thousands of miles.”

Still, it seems appropriate that the most graceful, although not the most successful, car of the Junk Formula was designed by none other than Harry Miller for an abortive project spearheaded by Preston Tucker to showcase the performance potential of the Ford V-8. Tom Malloy owns the front-wheel-drive Miller-Ford driven by George Bailey in the 500 in 1935. The car is low-slung and beautifully streamlined, and it’s a struggle to wriggle into the mechanic’s seat for a ride. (Malloy removes the “quick-release” steering wheel by taking a crescent wrench to a locknut before climbing into the cockpit.) On the track, the car feels nimble and quick and surprisingly stable. Malloy, an experienced vintage racer, grins when I share my impressions. “Yeah,” he says, “but imagine how those guys felt when they were driving these cars on the edge.”

I can’t, really. The 1920s and ’30s seem like ancient history that plays out in black and white newsreel footage. Much as I’m awed by the Millers of the golden age, my appreciation for them is largely intellectual. The muscular, visceral roadsters of the ’50s and ’60s, on the other hand, fill me with atavistic desire when they roar past with their Offys growling. As sixty-nine-year-old Bill Akin, who owns the lovely 1959 Quin Epperly — built Bowes Seal Fast car, explains: “You tend to associate with stuff you grooved over as a kid.”

So I’m surprised when I find that the sister car to Akin’s roadster — a Kurtis chassis modified by Epperly — is owned by Phil Reilly, whose restoration and race-prep shop is best known for working on Cosworth DFV Formula 1 cars of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “Growing up, guys like Jud Larson, Jimmy Bryan, and Quin Epperly were my heroes,” Reilly tells me. “I didn’t even know who Stirling Moss was.”

As we chat, Reilly’s car is being driven by two-time USAC national midget champ Kevin Olson. About half a dozen roadsters — maybe half of them authentic, half reproductions — are on the track, and Reilly grins each time Olson lays into the 255-cubic-inch Offenhauser. “Those Offys are tough and have a huge torque curve,” he says. “They’re unique in a lot of ways, but they’re not overcomplicated, and once you learn about them, they’re relatively easy to work on.”

At the end of the session, Olson bounds out of the car with a gigantic smile on his face. “I could actually feel Parnelli and A. J. driving next to me down the front straight,” he tells Reilly. “God, I wanted so much to haul it down there into the turns and see what would happen.”

But he didn’t. Because pushing the cars to the limit isn’t what Millers at Milwaukee is about. If you want to see cutthroat vintage racing, go to the Goodwood Revival, where the paddock is studded with pranged race cars at the end of each day. And if you’re looking for high-end auctions and high-profile car shows to complement vintage race cars, try the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Dana Mecum is here with no fewer than seven cars, and although he’s an auctioneer by trade, he’s not offering any of them for sale. “This is the only car event I do all year where I’m not commercially involved,” he confesses, and after two days at the Milwaukee Mile, it’s not hard to understand why. There’s no glamour here, no drama, no spectacle to speak of. This isn’t a place to transact business or rub shoulders with beautiful people. But if you’re interested in the national patrimony of American racing, put Millers at Milwaukee on your bucket list. Right at the top.

The man
“Harry Miller was, quite simply, the greatest creative figure in the history of the American racing car,” Griff Borgeson wrote, and there’s no arguing with this assessment.

Miller is best known for his single-seat straight-eight speedsters of the 1920s — unrivaled marriages of form and function. But he’d come to prominence back in 1917, when he pioneered the use of enclosed, streamlined bodywork in the Golden Submarine raced by Barney Oldfield. Later, he was the first designer to field a competitive front-wheel-drive racing car. His last great project — the star-crossed, prewar Miller-Gulf Indy cars — featured not only four-wheel drive but also a rear-engine chassis, a fully independent suspension, and disc brakes.

While building cars, Miller also designed record-setting boat engines. One of those marine Millers served as the basis of the four-cylinder Offenhauser race car engine. Long after Miller’s death in 1943, his legacy lived on in the Offy, which continued to race at Indy until 1980.