Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The mighty Sampson “16” was displayed at PRI 2015

photo by the author

The 2015 Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in Indianapolis featured a special treat for racing historians, with a display dubbed “The Evolution of Speed – an Exhibition of Speed” co-sponsored by PRI and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum.  Over the coming weeks, we will feature each of the significant cars displayed – today it is the 1940 Sampson “16” Special.

Years ago, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway offered rules packages that encouraged innovation and experimentation rather than cookie-cutter “spec” race cars of today. The Sampson “16” Special, built and owned by multi-millionaire Alden Sampson on Van Nuys, California is an example of such innovation.     

Alden Sampson III born in 1902 an heir to the Aden Sampson & Son oilcloth flooring fortune started by his namesake. His father, Alden Sampson Junior founded  the Alden Sampson Manufacturing Company in Pittsfield Massachusetts that built the Sampson touring car, but the company achieved more success with heavy trucks, such as a the 1905 4-ton 40 horsepower truck.

Alden III’s father passed on a love of machinery, as he built his five-year old son a miniature gas-powered car to drive around the family’s 40-acre estate Westenhook Farm. Sadly, Sampson Junior passed away at age 31 in 1909, and his widow, Florence sold the assets of the company to the United States Motor Company, which continued to manufacture Alden Sampson trucks until its collapse in 1913.

At age ten, Alden III was heir to a 6 million dollar fortune, equivalent to $ 140 million today. While in high school, Alden ran away from home, hopped on a westbound freight train and got off in the small Ohio community of Tippecanoe City. Alden dropped the ‘III’ from his name and started a garage. At age 21, Alden legally assumed control of the principal of his inheritance and invested in a Maxwell (later Chrysler) dealership while he somehow disguised the true source and extent of his wealth from the public and his wife Mildred.

While racing a Chrysler stock car on the Atlantic City board track in 1927, Sampson met 23-year old Louis Meyer, then a mechanic for Frank Elliott with aspirations to become a race driver. The two became fast friends, and in 1928, and the pair headed to Indianapolis Motor Speedway where Meyer had driven 50 laps in the 1927 ‘500’ for Wilbur Shaw. Shaw was named a driver for one of two cars owned by Phil ‘Red ‘Shafer but when sponsorship did not materialize, Shafer put the supercharged Miller up for sale.

Sampson bought the car and told everyone in Gasoline Alley that that he had mortgaged his Ohio garage to buy the 91 cubic inch rear-drive Miller for his friend Meyer to race. Meyer started qualified the gold-colored #14 Miller over his ten-lap run at an average speed of 111.352 to start in the 13th position in the 200-lap 1928 Decoration Day classic. Over the course of his 500-mile run, Meyer made just one pit stop and ran steadily in the top ten before he passed Tony Gullota of lap 182. Louis then led the last 18 laps to win the race and the $28,250 purse for his himself and his rookie car owner.  Meyer went on to win the Indianapolis ‘500’ again in 1933 and 1936 to become the great race’s first three-time winner.  

In 1938, former driver and engine and car builder Riley Brett, Leo Goossen, and Alden Sampson were busy with development of the “Sampson Midget Motor” and their new entry for the 1939 Indianapolis ‘500,’ the ‘Sampson Motors Inc. Special.’

In 1930 Sampson and Riley Brett built a radical ‘U16’ engine which used Miller 91 cubic inch engines, placed side by side and backwards in the Miller 91 chassis. Spur gears replaced the flywheels on each engine, while a third spur gear mounted between them drove a hollow driveshaft to the clutch housing, containing a standard Miller 91 flywheel and clutch assembly. In turn, the power was transmitted through a standard Miller 91 transmission. The car in this configuration successfully qualified for the ‘500’ on four occasions, but it was time for a new design.

The starting point of the ‘Sampson Motors Inc. Special’ was the unique 16-cylinder engine originally developed in 1927 by Frank Lockhart for his ill-fated attempt at the land speed record.  After he set a 160 MPH record on the Muroc Dry Lake with his 91 cubic inch supercharged intercooled Miller in 1927, Lockhart planned to break the absolute world’s land speed record. With sponsorship from the Stutz Motor Company, the Lockhart team, led by the young self-taught mechanic built a 16-cylinder engine that consisted of a pair of 91 cu in (1.5 L) Miller straight-eight engines installed 30-degrees apart on a common crankcase. The flywheel attached to a central gear at the rear of the engine, with each engine’s crankshaft geared to the central gear.

The finished engine weighed approximately 630 pounds and produced more than 550 horsepower at 8,300 rpm. From wind tunnel tests, Lockhart predicted that the engine would propel the narrow (60 inch tread) 2,800-pound Stutz Black Hawk to a maximum speed over 280 MPH on the sand of Daytona Beach Florida.  On April 25, 1928, Lockhart died when the crashed on its second southbound run of the day at an estimated speed of 225 MPH. Many historians attribute the cause of the crash to either a gust of wind or the failure of one of the car’s Dickinson Tires. 

Riley Brett bought the wrecked Stutz Black Hawk engine from Ella Lockhart, Frank’s widow, who administered his estate. Riley initially planned to use it in the 1930 Sampson Indianapolis entry but decided to start fresh with the same ‘U-16’ concept rather than deal with removal of the superchargers and intercooler on the Lockhart engine.  After the Rickenbacker Indianapolis  ‘junk formula’ rules package ended in 1938, the American Automobile Association (AAA) Contest Board adopted the European standard rules package that allowed supercharging of engines up to 183 cubic inches, so once again the 180-cubic inch Black Hawk engine was viable as it was originally built in 1927.

The central gear of the Black Hawk engine, located below the plane of the crankshafts, allowed the engine to set low in the frame designed by Offenhauser Engineering’s Leo Goossen. Goossen’s design chassis used an under slung aluminum boxed frame fitted with parallel quarter-elliptic leaf springs and tube axle at the front, paired with rear parallel torsion bar suspension of the constant velocity joint de Dion ‘dead axle.’ Myron Stevens and Gordon Schroeder constructed the new ‘Sampson Motors Inc. Special’, chassis that was cloaked in an attractive cigar shaped aluminum body finished in cream and pastel blue livery.  
The fantastic Sampson 16 as shown at PRI 2015 photo by the author

On March 15, 1939, Alden Sampson was the first car owner to post an entry for the 27th running of the ‘500’ and the use of the eleven-year old “beach death motor” quickly generated considerable publicity. For a driver, Alden Sampson selected handsome Bob Swanson, one of midget racing’s early stars along with Billy Betteridge.

Swanson won the first Turkey Night Grand Prix held in 1934 at Los Angeles’ Gilmore Stadium, and won the 1935 National Midget Racing Association title (the NMA was a short-lived group created by drivers during a dispute with Earl Gilmore).  Swanson made his first appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1937 as the driver of Paul Weirick’s Adams/Sparks entry. Bob missed the 1938 ‘500’ due to injuries he sustained in a late 1937 midget crash but recovered sufficiently, though with a noticeable limp, to become the second repeat Turkey Night winner in 1938.

Along with the typical problems that crop up during any new car’s debut, the complications of the rear de Dion suspension and the complexity of the power plant led to long frustrating days for the Sampson crew during May 1939.  The car was not ready until the final weekend of time trials, and though Swanson posted the month’s third fastest 4-lap average of 129.340 MPH, the Sampson started deep in the starting field in 22nd position. 

During the race, a part of the de Dion rear axle failed on lap 19, and the Sampson placed as the 31st finisher. Swanson later relieved Ralph Hepburn in the ill handling ‘Hamilton-Harris’ Stevens/Offenhauser on lap 104. Two laps later, Swanson lost control as he exited turn 2, crashed into the backstretch fence and then 1938 ‘500’ winner Floyd Roberts smashed into Swanson’s machine. Roberts soon died from head injuries, while the unconscious Swanson was trapped beneath his overturned machine and received burns, but he returned to racing just over two weeks later.
The tail of the Sampson 16 as shown at PRI 2015 - photo by the author

Swanson returned as the driver for Alden Sampson in 1940, with the car dubbed the “Sampson 16 Special” and painted a pale yellow with blue trim, although it retained the same car number, 32, as the year before.  Once again, the team struggled through the month, and Swanson did not make his time trial run until May 27. Bob posted the fastest time that day and the fifth fastest speed average of the month at 124.619 MPH, but started in the 20th position.

Swanson put in a yeoman’s effort on Race Day and finished sixth, flagged by the starter on the conclusion of his 196th lap due to rain on the race course.  Two weeks later, Swanson died in the Perrysburg Ohio hospital of injuries he suffered in a midget race time trial crash at the quarter-mile Fort Miami Speedway. Swanson’s wife, Lillian, became a widow for the second time, as her first husband Ernie Triplett died at El Centro California in March 1934.   

For the third entry of the “Sampson 16” in the 29th annual ‘Decoration Day Race’ Alden initially named William ‘Shorty’ Cantlon as his driver, but Cantlon never was comfortable in the car, and late in the month Alden lured veteran driver Artha ‘Deacon’ Litz out of retirement. Deacon squeezed the “Sampson 16 Special” “into the field in 29th position with a 10-mile average of 123.440 MPH. Litz’ final appearance in the 1941 ‘500’ ended on lap 89 when the Sampson suffered oiling problems and he finished 22nd.  

During the course of World War 2, Sampson sold his “16” and the remaining parts and patterns for Sampson midget motor to Gordon Schroeder. Schroeder obtained sponsorship from bandleader Spike Jones for the 1946 ‘500’ driven by Sam Hanks but the car fell out early from a broken oil line on the Sampson 16-clinder engine. Schroeder later sold the car to H.C. ‘Cotton’ Henning who replaced the 16 cylinder engine with an older 268 cubic inch Miller engine and painted the car black with sponsorship by the Bennett Brothers for the car’s final appearance in the 1948 ‘500’ driven by George Connor.    
The Sampson 16 on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum in 1962.
Photograph courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

The restored ‘Sampson 16’ reappeared as one of the first cars in the ‘Firestone history display’ part of the original Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road (outside of turn one) that opened in 1956. Initially it was shown in its original 1939 cream and blue ‘Sampson Motors Inc.’  livery, but in its current IMS museum iteration,n as shown at PRI 2015, the mighty Sampson “16” is painted yellow with blue trim as was raced by Swanson in the 1940 500-mile race.     


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