Friday, November 28, 2014

The DuPont nameplate at Indianapolis

The recent increase in public interest in the history of the duPont family with the release of the film Foxcatcher brought to mind the DuPont corporate connections to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

When one mentions the name “DuPont” to a modern auto racing fan, their immediate response usually involves NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Racing) racer Jeff Gordon. This response is understandable, given Gordon’s long connection to the DuPont Paints brand from his rookie appearance in 1992 through the 2012 season with a record of 84 race wins and 4 championships. Most fans are surprised to learn that the DuPont name graced the Indianapolis Motor Speedway more than 60 years before Gordon’s signature victory in the inaugural 1994 Brickyard 400.

In July 1802 French immigrant Eleuthere Irenee du Pont founded the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, commonly referred to as ‘DuPont’ in Wilmington Delaware to manufacture gunpowder and the firm quickly became the number one supplier to the United States military. Through the years, DuPont also began to manufacture dynamite, smokeless powder, fabric, paints, and chemicals on its way to becoming the corporate behemoth we know today.

In 1914, Eleuthere’s grandson, Pierre, invested in the fledging General Motors Corporation (GM) and helped the growing company expand by buying more stock as the years passed and DuPont (the company) eventually owned 37 percent of GM’s stock.   In 1920, Pierre succeeded William C. Durant as the President of General Motors and served in that role until 1923 when he rose to the position of GM’s Chairman of the Board until 1929. In the late 1940’s the Justice Department pursued an anti-trust case against DuPont and in 1957 the Supreme Court ruled that DuPont had to divest itself of the ownership its GM stock.

A Biddle car- built by Arthur Maris 
an early employee of DuPont Motors

Pierre’s second cousin, Eleuthere Paul “E. Paul” du Pont was what we today might refer to as a “gearhead” as he was interested in all things mechanical – airplanes, motorcycles and cars. He owned an early Indian ‘Camelback” motorcycle, flew his own biplane and started his own automobile company in September 1919.  Arthur Maris the former President of the Biddle Motor Car Company was the DuPont Motors first Vice-President and General Manager with John Pierson of the short-lived Wright-Martin airplane manufacturer as the new company’s chief engineer.

The fact that DuPont Motors planned to have their new four-cylinder car on display at the New York Auto in January 1920 proves that this was an “assembled car” that used components from suppliers, such as frames, engines, transmissions and rear ends rather than build its own major components. The “assembled car” was quite common in the early days of the automobile industry but as Ford Motor Company and General Motors increased production fed with their own built components, the “assembled car builders” were slowly squeezed out of the market. 

This was not true of the DuPont automobile, which was an expensive car and exclusive due to its very limited production. The company initially based in Wilmington Delaware later also assembled cars in a new factory at 13th and Pennsylvania Avenues in Prospect Park Pennsylvania. 

The first duPont model on a 124-inch frame powered by a four-cylinder L-head Continental engine coupled to a four-speed Warner transmission and Columbia rear end was unimaginatively called the Model A. The retail price of the new DuPont automobiles started at $4000 and featured four body styles - a sedan, a 2-seat roadster, and two sizes of touring (open) cars.  

A DuPont advertisement

1922 saw the introduction of a $3000 closed coupe body, and in 1923 prices were cut $400 across the board and saw the introduction of national magazine advertising that used the slogan “The car that makes an instant appeal.”  The Model A was followed quickly by the nearly indistinguishable Model B, with total production of the two types estimated at 120 cars.  The Model C powered by a six-cylinder Herschell-Spillman engine was introduced in 1924 with four model styles which started at $2090.  

The 1925 Model D saw a switch to six-cylinder 268 cubic inch Wisconsin engine with Bosch electrics and a single Schebler carburetor tied to a Carter transmission. For 1927 model year duPont Motors introduced two new body styles for the Model D - a seven passenger touring body that came finished in cobalt blue with a khaki top and a four-door convertible.  

DuPont Motors experimented with supercharging in the short-lived Model E shown as a stripped chassis at the 1928 Chicago Auto Show. The low-pressure supercharger ran at half the engine speed but did not feed through the carburetor but rather through a rotary valve attached to the block. 1928 also saw the debut of the longer 136-inch long wheelbase Model F of which only three are believed to have been built. The Model F introduced an interesting feature to the automotive world; be lifting the seat cushion exposed a large wing nut which when loosened, allowed the adjustment of the seat frame forward or back.

In September 1928, duPont Motors Incorporated introduced the 1929 Model G powered by a factory-modified eight-cylinder 322-cubic inch 140-horsepower side-valve Continental engine. The Model G was available in a large variety of body styles - convertible sedan, sport phaeton, limousine, club sedan, seven-passenger touring, sport roadster, convertible coupe, five-passenger Victoria. 

A special edition two-passenger speedster painted grey with black leather upholstery, equipped with art-deco Woodlite headlamps and chrome wire wheels debuted at the invitation-only 1929 New York Auto show. Also for the 1929 show, duPont built a total of six ‘toy’ cars which used 16-inch diameter Seiberling salesman’s sample tires, powered by a 1-1/2 horsepower Briggs & Stratton engines with the aluminum bodies built by the Merrimac Body Company.

Through the efforts of Los Angeles dealer E.A. Van Trump Jr., the Model G became popular in the Hollywood move community. Mary Pickford purchased the first $5335 Model G two-seat speedster off the floor of the New York show for her husband Douglas Fairbanks at a time when a Ford Model A roadster cost $500. Boxer Jack Dempsey, playwright Eugene O’Neill, and humorist Will Rogers all drove duPont Model G roadsters.         

After the introduction of the 2-seat speedster, at the urging of New York distributor Alfredo J. Miranda, Jr. the duPont factory began to work on an entry for the 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans France.  After a misstep since a 2-seater was not legal, the duPont factory produced a pair of special Model G cars fitted by the Merrimac Body Company of Boston with 4-seat speedster bodies.

In addition to the DuPont dealership at the Hotel Delmonico on 5th Avenue, Alfredo Miranda and his brother Ignacio operated Miranda Brothers Inc., an exporting company that sold automobile trucks, aircraft, tires, machinery, and munitions to South America. In 1940, both Miranda brothers were convicted and sentenced to terms of ‘a year and a day’ in the Lewisburg  federal prison for selling munitions through spy Sidney Cotton to Bolivia in violation of the neutrality embargo during the nineteen thirties South American Gran Chaco War.  

The LeMans entries were close to stock with exception of the use of a larger 60-gallon fuel tank, Marchal headlights, more aggressive camshaft profile, Rudge-Whitworth knock-off wheels, and Dunlop tires in place of the DuPont’s standard equipment Seiberling tires. The second car intended to be raced by Australian duPont distributor Sidney Cotton was damaged in transit, so the drivers of the remaining car were Miranda and young duPont Motor experimental engineer and 23-year old factory test driver Charles Moran, Jr.

Charles Moran Junior, scion of a wealthy New York attorney met one of E. Paul duPont’s cousins, Edmund, as freshmen students at Princeton in 1924 and through his cousin befriended E. Paul duPont. After his graduation in and a brief season racing in Europe that included the 1928 Bol d'Or Endurance race, Moran was hired as an experimental engineer and test driver at duPont Motors.     

The white and blue trimmed #2 duPont entry started the 24-hour grind on June 16 1921 from 23rd position and quickly moved up to run in eighth place, but retired after just 20 laps (approximately 3 hours) when a ballast weight loosened, hit and bent the driveshaft which created a vibration soon caused the transmission to fail. Despite the failure, to commemorate the Lemans adventure, DuPont and Merrimac produced perhaps 15 of the ‘Le Mans’ 4-seat Model G speedsters for sale as passenger cars.

For the 1930 Indianapolis 500-mile Sweepstakes the AAA (American Automobile Association) Contest Board had adopted a new rules package at the urging of Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker. Eddie wanted more participation from automobile manufacturers so the intent of the rules were for cars “susceptible of adaption from production car chassis,” with supercharging outlawed on four-cycle engines and an engine  displacement limit of 366 cubic inches. Also for 1930 the use of a riding mechanic was required after an absence of eight years.

Rickenbacker’s plan was partially successful as entries were received that had been built from Duesenberg, Oakland, Auburn, Stutz, Chrysler, and du Pont automobiles. Based on AAA rules in effect at the time regarding the naming of cars, only the duPont and Stutz cars appear to have been factory entries.  

The official 1930 qualifying photo of the DuPont
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The bright yellow #32 DuPont entry, based on a two-seat 125-inch wheelbase Model G speedster came close to meeting Rickenbacker’s “semi-stock” ideal as it was close to stock. With the fenders, headlights, windshield, spare tire and chrome grille removed, and fitted with special bodywork from the cowling rearward, atop the seven-inch deep frame, what looked sleek as a passenger car appeared tall and ungainly at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Like the LeMans entry, it was equipped with Rudge-Wentworth kick-off wheels but fitted with Firestone balloon tires for Speedway duty.

As unbelievable as it seems in this era of sleek fully-equipped race car 18-wheel transporters, after it had been prepared at the factory by Moran and Allen Carter under the direction of Chief Engineer L.F. Hosely the six-foot tall Moran drove the DuPont racer, fitted with Woodlite headlights to Indianapolis from the Wilmington factory. During the month of May, Moran told newspaper interviewers that as an amateur racer, any prize money he won in Indianapolis would be given to the next man to finish in order to maintain his amateur status.

Moran and riding mechanic George Read completed their ten-lap time trial run at an average speed of 89.733 miles per hour (MPH). While this speed earned the duPont entry the 19th starting position right in the middle of the starting field, the car’s qualifying speed wound up being the third slowest in the field. The 3350- pound car could not break 100 MPH on the straightaways, while the pole-winner Billy Arnold averaged over 113 MPH in the Harry Hartz’ Miller-powered entry which weighed less than a ton.

Racing on “the Brickyard” must have been difficult for Moran in 1930, with narrow Firestone balloon tires on a basically stock 1-1/2 ton machine. In addition, until 1933, there were no limits on much oil a car could use during the race, so as the lap mounted, the brick-paved track became slick and treacherous; Rick Decker’s pink ‘Hoosier Pete Special’ split an oil tank early in the 1930 race and turn three was badly slickened.

In that era, Speedway and AAA officials did not display a yellow flag to slow the cars while the spilt oil was cleaned up as is done today, rather teams of workers spread a mortar-and-sand combination to absorb the oil. Years later in a 1966 interview with the New York Times, Moran vividly remembered the alkaline taste in his mouth from the dusty absorbent that probably only served to make the brick racing surface more treacherous.

During the 1930 ‘500,’ over a period of nine laps, ten cars were eliminated by crashes in turn three; the legendary drivers involved included Lou Moore, Peter DePaolo, Babe Stapp, and Deacon Litz.  Marvin Trexler’s Auburn based racer, the factory duPont entry, and two other cars were eliminated in a crash on lap 22 but all involved escaped without injury, but a crash on lap 29 of Cy Marshall’s Duesenberg badly injured Cy and killed his brother Paul the car’s riding mechanic.

1930 proved to be the only time the duPont nameplate contested the Indianapolis 500-mile Classic but Charles Moran Jr. returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1931 as the pilot of his own “Model A Ford Special” that failed to qualify.  

Moran’s Indianapolis racing career did not end with his non-qualifying effort,  as he returned as a riding mechanic  with James ‘Billy’ Winn to a ninth place finish in a Duesenberg semi-stock racer owned by Fred Frame. Winn, known as the “Red Devil” due to his red helmet and driving suit, later married Detroit furniture heiress Helene Yockey, the widow of Winn’s late friend Joe Russo. 

Moran later briefly worked for the Indian Motorcycle Company, and then joined his Columbia classmate Edmond duPont at the Wall Street brokerage house Francis I. DuPont and Company. Moran raced a Type 35 Bugatti at Bridgehampton and Watkins Glen in 1950, then after a 22-year absence returned to race in the 1951 24 hours of LeMans behind the wheel of a Ferrari 212 Export and finished in 16th  place. In 1953, Charles raced the Chrysler Hemi-powered Cunningham C4-RK at LeMans and finished in 10th place.     

While Moran’s sports car racing accomplishments are impressive, his greatest contributions to motor sports came as an executive. Charles was the President of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) from 1954 to 1955 and Founding President of the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS) the National Sporting Authority of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) for the United States.

As President of ACCUS, Moran negotiated the settlement of the first USAC-NASCAR feud in 1961 through a series of meetings between NASCAR’s “Big” Bill France and USAC President Thomas Binford. Charles served as ACCUS President until 1966 when he was named the managing partner of F. I. DuPont and Company. Forced out of the Wall Street firm in September 1969, Charles Moran Junior died at his retirement home in Utah in June 1978. 

Following the 1930 ‘500,’ the DuPont automobile nameplate began its slow descent into oblivion. During the nineteen twenties, company founder E. Paul duPont lent the Hendee Manufacturing Company that manufactured Indian motorcycles $500,000, and in early 1930, E. Paul accepted 40,000 shares of Hendee stock that gave him control of Indian motorcycle manufacturing. In June 1930, the first two floors of the Springfield Massachusetts Indian factory building were remodeled to accommodate DuPont automobile production.

After the merger of the two companies in late 1930, DuPont Motors introduced the Model H, which used a 145-inch wheelbase frame. With the collapse of the American economy in the Depression, E. Paul duPont suspended automobile production in the middle of 1931 with only three Model H cars built.  Paul intended to resume production when the economy improved, but no more DuPont cars were built with a total estimated production of less than 600 cars built during an eleven-year span.

The Nethercutt DuPont Model G in 1958

Perhaps the most famous of the 30 or so remaining DuPont passenger cars is the 1930 Model G Merrimac-bodied Town Car, one of the first classic cars purchased by Jack Nethercutt (of Merle Norman Cosmetics) in 1956 for $500. After a complete 18-month $56,000 restoration, the Nethercutt duPont Model G captured the “Best of Show” award at the 1958 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Years later, the car rented from the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar California appeared in the 1982 motion picture Annie.

The restored DuPont 1930 Indianapolis entry
courtesy Tam's Old Race car Site 
Remarkably, the 1930 duPont Indianapolis entry appears exactly as it did in the 1930 Indianapolis 500-mile race owned and regularly raced in vintage events  by renowned collector Lammot J. duPont of McLean Virginia.

This article would be remiss if it failed to mention the one other duPont connection to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1960 and 1961, Mrs. Henry Clark Boden IV, born Marguerite duPont de Villiers-Ortiz entered the ‘Kelso Auto Dynamics Special’ a laydown Offenhauser-powered ‘Lujie’ Lesvosky-built chassis. Despite the best efforts of drivers Jack Turner and Lloyd Ruby, the car, a copy of the 1959 ‘500’ pole-winning ‘Racing Associates Special’ failed to make the race either year.  The star-crossed jet-black and gold leaf machine is part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum collection.

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