Monday, December 8, 2014

The 1919 Bender racing car at Indy

During the early days of automobiles during the first decades of the twentieth century, precision machine parts such as ball bearings were hard to come by and expensive. With two only small manufacturers in the United States, ball bearings were primarily manufactured in Europe, and most cars foreign or domestic used ball bearings sourced from Germany or Italy. 

As a result, when ball bearings failed, the customer’s automobile sat for many weeks in the repair shop as the mechanic waited for the delivery of the replacement bearing from Europe via overseas shipment.

The bearing shortage situation irked Swedish immigrant Karl E. Ahlberg, whose auto repair garage and livery service was located in a small two-story garage in Chicago. Karl worked at night during 1908 in the garage’s loft and designed machines that would allow him to regrind and rebuild annular ball bearings that had failed in service and thus get his customers’ automobiles back on the road rather than waiting for new bearings.

Ahlberg designed an attachment to a standard lathe to regrind the raceways of worn bearings. Not only did his invention make immediate bearing repair possible, Karl’s process saved one-half of the imported bearing cost and tests proved the reground bearings to be equal to new ones. During 1909, Ahlberg’s invention attracted the attention of one of his customers, Charles J. Bender, who in September provided the funding to expand Karl’s shop into two adjacent buildings.

In March 1911, Karl Ahlberg submitted his revolutionary equipment design to the United States Patent Office, and on December 5, 1911 Karl was awarded patent number 1010565 for his grinding device.  The Ahlberg Bearing Company was incorporated in May 1916, with a total capitalization of $50,000 from three partners – Ahlberg, Bender, and Marcus Hurschel.

An Ahlberg Bearings advertisment

The new company operated from its home office at 2636 Michigan Avenue soon expanded with established branch offices in major cities across the country, with the first remote branch office located at 325 West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles California.

The Ahlberg Bearing Company business model used the “core exchange” system- the customer brought his damaged or worn bearings to the branch location, and for a fee typically half the cost of a new bearing, exchanged the damaged bearing for a reground bearing. 

Ahlberg guaranteed the reground bearings to be “better than new,” since during the rebuilding process, the raceway and balls were triple inspected with Ahlberg special measuring instruments and secured with patented Ahlberg retainers. Instead of reground bearings, customers could choose to purchase new Ahlberg custom job built “CJB” bearings.  

Dario Resta

Southern California racers became early customers at the Ahlberg Bearing Company’s Pico Avenue branch. Most notable of these racers was Dario Resta, the Italian-born Grand Prix driver raised in Britain who was brought to race in the United States by Peugeot importer Alfonso Kaufman in 1915. Behind the wheel of Kaufman’s 4-cylinder 340 cubic inch Peugeot EX3, Resta won his first two American races held in association with the Pan-Pacific Exposition then he started in third place as a rookie in the Indianapolis 500-mile Sweepstakes.

Resta in the Peugeot EX3 at the 1915 San Francisco races

Resta finished second in the 1915 Indianapolis ‘500’ after he led 37 laps only to surrender the lead to eventual winner Ralph DePalma when he pitted on lap 134. Resta scored three more race victories during the 1915 AAA season at the 2-mile Chicago and Sheepshead Bay board tracks but finished second in the AAA standings behind champion Earl Cooper.

During the winter of the 1915-1916, the streamlined Peugeot EX3, originally built in 1913, was rebuilt by Resta and Harry Miller at the Harry A. Miller Manufacturing Company shop at 219 East Washington Street, The rebuild featured on the installation of new connecting rods and ‘Alloyanum’ (a blend of aluminum nickel and copper) pistons also included the Ahlberg bearings. Miller’s work on the Peugeot engine further improved the remarkable performance of the EX3 later and what Miller learned was incorporated in his own four-cylinder engine.

Resta won five AAA races during 1916 which included the Indianapolis 300-mile Sweepstakes, a second consecutive William K Vanderbilt Trophy (on the Santa Monica road course), and the 1916 AAA National Championship. Ahlberg Bearing Company advertising throughout 1916 and 1917 included a copy of a letter from Resta written on Harry A. Miller Company stationary. Resta’s letter read

“Referring to ball bearings and retainers you made for my Peugeot racing car I wish to express my appreciation and thanks for same and to say to you that these parts were responsible to a large extent in helping me to win the November Vanderbilt Cup race.”

Ahlberg Bearing Company continued to expand operations which eventually grew to include 34 branch offices across the United States, but things were not going well for Karl Ahlberg. In 1917, his wife Ellen successfully sued him for divorce, and then in 1919 Charles Bender and his brother William forced Karl out of his eponymous business.  Charles became President and General Manager while William was the Secretary-Treasurer and Sales Manager of the Ahlberg Bearing Company with a new factory and office at 317 East 29th Street in Chicago.

The May 1918 edition of The Accessory and Garage Journal reported the design of the “Bender Special” a roadster passenger car that used a 4-cylinder Illinois-built Buda engine with a ‘high-tension’ magneto and equipped with reground Ahlberg bearings. The car capable of 70 miles per hour (MPH) was built to “demonstrate the mechanical value of the restoration processes of the Ahlberg Company.”

Not content with just a passenger car to advertise the company’s products, C.J. Bender became a racing car owner.  The first ‘Bender Special’ Indianapolis car made an appearance at the June 22 1918 100-mile non-championship race on the 2-mile Chicago ‘Speedway Park’ board track with former Duesenberg team driver Tom Alley. 

1917 Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo 
of Tom Alley in the Pan-American Special
Note the white enamel grill surround a 
trademark of the Pan-American passenger car

The car which used Ahlberg bearings was powered by the same 4-cylinder 289-cubic inch Miller aviation engine that Alley had driven during the 1917 AAA season as the ‘Pan-American Special,’ that reflected sponsorship from the short-lived Pan-American “American Beauty Car” built in Decatur Illinois.

Tom Alley is  seated in the unlettered 'Bender Special'
The man at the front of the car is unidentified- 
could it be C. J. Bender?

The Automotive Trade Journal described the Bender Special as “remodeled to ride on underslung Timken axles fitted with Ahlberg ball bearings, fitted with Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels.” The article noted that the Miller “aviation style” engine rated at 140 horsepower was the only one in the Chicago race that used dual Bosch magnetos.  

Photo of Tom Alley
courtesy of Tacoma Public Library
The 1918 ‘Chicago 100’ was run as a handicap event, with Alley who hailed from the tiny southeastern Indiana town of Metamora and the ‘Bender Special’ as the thirteenth car and driver to start 75 seconds behind first starter Ralph DePalma’s aviation-powered Packard ‘299.’ After 50 laps Alley had moved up to finish in sixth place, but despite the promising finish, the Chicago race was the only 1918 AAA race appearance for the handsome Alley and the Bender race car.

Tom Alley and the ‘Ahlberg Bearing Co.‘ Bender-Miller were entrants in the 1919 “Liberty Sweepstakes,” the first race staged at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since September 1916 since track president James Allison had suspended racing at the Speedway for the duration of the World War.  Alley completed his 4-lap qualifying run with an average speed of 92.2 MPH and started 28th in the 33-car field.

Though the Bender-Miller never challenged for the race lead, Alley and riding mechanic Harry Thicksten completed the entire 200-lap race distance in fifth place, with an average speed of 81.26 MPH, The pair took the checkered flag 25 minutes behind winner Howdy Wilcox after they were delayed during the race by the loss of the right rear wheel. 

Notable was that the Bender-Miller was the only car in the 1919 ‘Liberty 500’ that used Mason ‘non-skid’ cord tires, and aside from the lost wheel,  the ‘Ahlberg Bearing Co. Special’ did not require a tire change during the race.

The Mason celebratory advertisement 

The Kent, Ohio based Mason Tire and Rubber Company trumpeted their Indianapolis success in newspaper advertisements across the nation which noted that by comparison, Wilcox’s winning car stopped three times and had seven Goodyear tires replaced.  Goodyear for its part noted that two of the Goodyear tires on Wilcox’s car went the full distance for Goodyear’s first recorded victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Alley and the Bender-Miller appeared in August 1919 at the Elgin Illinois road race, and after he started fourth, Tom finished ninth when the Miller engine failed on lap 26 of the 33-lap race won by Tommy Milton. Alley reappeared at the season-ending October 12 race at the Cincinnati Motor Speedway 2-mile board track and completed the entire 125-lap distance in sixth position behind the victorious Joe Boyer.

The Cincinnati race marked the final appearance of the ‘Bender Special’ race car but veteran driver Tom Alley continued to race through the 1925 season and then passed away in 1953. As American ball bearing manufacturing increased, the market for Ahlberg reground bearings decreased, and the company focused on new bearing distribution and operated until the late 1950’s. 

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