Monday, April 11, 2016

Monroe wins Indianapolis race!
On May 30, 1920, Gaston Chevrolet in a Monroe won the eighth annual ‘International 500-miles Sweepstakes’ held on the 2-1/2 mile brick surface of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This was one of the earliest examples of the now-common practice of “branding” race cars with a corporate nameplate while the race vehicle itself shares nothing in common with the production vehicle.

Monroe early history

The Monroe automobile story began in 1914, when R. Frank. Monroe, formerly the owner of the Monroe Body Company in Pontiac, Michigan and William Crapo ”Billy” Durant founder of Chevrolet Motor Company formed the Monroe Motor Company.  The new company that had Monroe as the president, and Durant as the vice-president, was formed to build and market a new lightweight “runabout car” powered by the Mason Motor Company’s 92-cubic inch four-cylinder engine.

The early Monroe cars, with perhaps a total of 3,500 built, were assembled in a factory building in Flint Michigan formerly used by Chevrolet, and the Chevrolet Motor Company distributed the new $450 Monroe automobile. However, in April 1916, Durant regained control of the General Motors Corporation and resigned his Monroe Motor Company vice-presidency.
The company’s access to the Chevrolet facility and distribution network ended, and Monroe production moved into the former Welch Motor Car Company factory located in Pontiac, Michigan. The Monroe also moved up-market from its humble origins as a low-cost open car with a small engine, to a larger 172 cubic inch engine of the company's own design built by Sterling Motor Company and a sedan body style was introduced in 1918.
Also during 1918, Chevrolet’s Indiana distributor, William S. Small, took over national distribution of the Monroe automobile but despite Small’s efforts, the combination of the company’s tight finances and the nationwide automobile industry sales slump caused by the Great War, doomed the firm and it entered bankruptcy after approximately 1,800 cars had been built in Pontiac.  At the December 1918 bankruptcy auction, William Small demonstrated his confidence in the light car market by purchasing the remaining assets of Monroe that included stacks of unassembled parts.
The author's photo of the William Small building today

Small lost out on the bidding for the Pontiac factory building, the assembly of the Monroe transferred to Small’s facility in Indianapolis at 602 North Capitol Avenue. The block-long two-story building which stretched between North and Roanoke Streets was built in 1916 located in what was then the heart of the city’s “Auto Row.”   Most of the Monroe automobiles built in Indianapolis are thought to have been assembled from the leftover parts inventory that had been purchased at the bankruptcy auction. 

Monroe goes racing

Louis Chevrolet had founded Chevrolet Motor Company with William Durant in 1911, but soon after left that company and founded Frontenac Motor Company in 1916 with his younger brothers, Gaston and Arthur, based at 323 West 15th Street in Indianapolis. In late 1919, William Small hired Louis Chevrolet was hired as a consulting engineer for the Monroe production car and as the director of Monroe’s racing operations. In the latter role, Louis, his two brothers and their associate Cornelius Willett “CW” Van Ranst designed a completely new race car to compete in the 1920 running of the 500-mile race at Indianapolis.

1920 Monroe Touring car

For the 1920 model year, all Monroe passenger cars used the company’s own 149-cubic inch 4-cylinder engine that featured two valves per cylinder in a removable head with the engine’s output rated at 27 horsepower. Monroe advertised itself as the “Leader of the 4-cylinder class” and offered its S-9 series in two models, either a touring car or roadster, both priced at $1,440.
 1920 photo of the Monroe racing engine
from Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection in the
Center for Digital Studies
of the IUPUI University Library

By comparison, Van Ranst’s new four-cylinder 183 cubic inch Monroe racing engine design used a single casting that included the head and upper crankcase with detachable lower barrel crankcase to enclose the 2-piece crankshaft.  The engine featured two intake valves and two exhaust valves per cylinder with double overhead camshafts inside aluminum camshaft housings,  aluminum pistons to tubular connecting rods, and dry sump oiling.

Over 95 years later the actual shop location in Indianapolis used for the construction of the Monroe race cars is disputed, but the crew finished the engine with purchased items that included a Delco ignition system and a single Miller carburetor. Dynamometer testing revealed that the new engine, which shared no components with the Monroe production power plant, produced 100 horsepower at 3,300 revolutions per minute.

Backgrounds of the drivers

The three Chevrolet brothers
Louis, left, Arthur center and Gaston on the right
The formal announcement of the entry of the four-car Monroe racing team for the Indianapolis classic came on February 9 1920. The Monroe entries, nicknamed “greenbacks” for their color scheme, boasted a solid driver lineup – Louis and Gaston Chevrolet, Joe Thomas, and Roscoe Sarles.

Louis, born in Switzerland in 1878 had been racing and winning since 1905, with his first start at Indianapolis in 1909, though he did not drive in a 500-mile race on the bricks until 1915. Louis drove ground-breaking tiny lightweight (1100 pounds) 103 cubic inch Stirling powered 1915 “Cornelian,” the first car at Indianapolis to use monocoque design. Since 1916, Louis had of course exclusively raced Frontenacs, and scored nine race victories. Gaston, born in France in 1892, had started racing in 1916, and like his oldest brother Louis drove Frontenacs, and scored three wins during the 1919 AAA (American Automobile Association) season, all on the high-speed board tracks.

Joe Thomas, from Grays Harbor Washington, started racing in 1914, but he did not start his first AAA race until 1916 in Corona California as a member of the Mercer team. During his five-year career with Mercer, Thomas had not won any races, but proved to be a steady top-five performer on the often-frightening board tracks.

While Thomas was to be an Indianapolis “rookie,” the 1920 race was native Hoosier Roscoe Sarles’ second race at Indianapolis, his first start came the previous year in the “Liberty 500” when he finished dead last behind the wheel of Barney Oldfield’s Harry Miller built entry. Sarles was also adept at racing on the wickedly fast wooden bowl board tracks.  

After all the fanfare of the hometown Monroe team’s entry for the upcoming 500-mile race, much less publicized were the Chevrolet brothers’ of three maroon-colored Frontenac entries, scheduled to be driven by Arthur Chevrolet, Joe Boyer, and Art Klein which were mechanically identical to the Monroe.  

Arthur, the middle brother born in 1884 in Switzerland,  raced at Indianapolis in 1910, then in the very first ‘500,’and most recently in 1916.  Joe Boyer, the heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune, had been associated with the Chevrolet brothers since 1915, as he had qualified Louis Chevrolet’s cars for him for the 1915 and 1916 running of the 500-mile race.  Klein a Buckeye racing since 1914 was billed at age 25 “America’s youngest registered race driver” by the New York Times. Klein had served as an engineering officer with the 149th Aero Squadron during the Great War and would make his fifth ‘500’ start as a newlywed married less than a month.

In 1920, riding mechanics were still required by the AAA for two more seasons and unlike the later requirement during the 1930 AAA “Junk Era” rules, riding mechanics or “mechanicans” in the early nineteen-twenties played an integral role, helping maintain oil and fuel pressure, signaling the pit crew and warning the driver of approaching traffic.  

Louis Chevrolet would ride with Honey Creek Indiana’s Thane Houser, while brother Gaston’s “mechanician” was Syracuse’s John Bresnahan.  Joe Thomas’ riding mechanic, Henri North, had ridden with Thomas previously in 1917, and Ernie Ansterberg (alternately spelled Ansterburg) a New Yorker living in Southern California, was taking his second ‘500’ ride with Boyer. No details are known of the early lives of the three remaining Frontenac/Monroe “mechanicians,” Frenchman Marcel Cheveaux, Clyde Tatman, and Harry Franck.

The 1920 ‘500’

This was the first year that qualifying time trials covered four laps or ten miles, which since 1912 had been single laps. Art Klein was the first driver to make a qualifying run, followed by Louis Chevrolet, who briefly held the track record but wound up third with an average speed of 96.3 miles per hour.  Gaston qualified sixth fastest, Sarles seventh overall, and while Joe Thomas’ 92.8 MPH average was fast, he started 19th because his run came a day later. The Frontenac sister team cars were slotted second and fifth with wealthy New Yorker Bennett Hill, an Indianapolis “rookie” who replaced Arthur Chevrolet after he had been injured in practice crash, posting the eighth fastest qualifying speed.

Two days before the race, the William Small Company ran a quarter-page advertisement in the evening Indianapolis News headlined “Keep your eye on the Monroe greenbacks.” The text of the advertisement read “We felt that Indianapolis should be represented with an Indianapolis made car and we had full confidence in the Monroe organization of over 500 men to build a good racing car.” The text continued “In securing Louis Chevrolet, Gaston Chevrolet, Joe Thomas and Roscoe Sarles to pilot the greenbacks, we feel that we have the best driving talent obtainable.”

The pre-race advertisement closed with the statement that “the Monroe racing cars are the smallest and lightest car entered in the sweepstakes and the qualifying by Louis at 96.3 MPH sustains our confidence in the cars, drivers, and the whole Monroe organization.”   The casual reader might easily infer that the Monroe racing cars were designed and built alongside the Monroe passenger cars, rather than truth of simply being re-badged Frontenacs.

A post-race press release that was distributed nationally through the Monroe dealer network, headlined “Monroe wins Indianapolis race,” gave a rosy recap of the event, stating that Gaston Chevrolet never ran below fourth and made two stops for gas, oil, and water only. Monroe’s article stated that  Gaston’s first stop came at lap 110 with a second insurance stop on lap 197, at Louis Chevrolet’s insistence, which came when Gaston held a ten-mile lead.

In reality, the race was not as easy for Gaston and his Monroe team as the press release made it sound. Joe Boyer’s Frontenac led the first eleven laps then 37 laps again around the mid-point of the race, but it appeared to be Ralph DePalma’s race to win in the latter stages. Gaston inherited the lead with 13 laps to go only after Ralph DePalma ran his Ballot out of fuel on lap 185 with a two-lap lead and coasted into the pits.

While DePalma was refueled, Gaston took the lead which he would not relinquish and won by 5 ½ minutes over Rene Thomas’ Ballot, while DePalma recovered from his blunder to finish in fifth place.  Joe Thomas’ #28 Monroe was the only other member of the Chevrolet brothers’ seven-car effort to complete the 500-mile grind, coming in with an eighth place finish, 43 minutes behind Gaston’s #4.   The other five Monroe/Frontenac cars suffered from broken steering that kept them from finishing  

Art Klein’s #8 Frontenac led one lap early in the running, but then his car was the first team car to go out with a crash on lap 40, and then Art drove a good portion of the race in relief of his teammate Joe Thomas in the #28 Monroe.  Roscoe Sarles crashed his #5 Monroe in turn four on lap 58, then walked to the pits and later relieved Bennett Hill in the #7 Frontenac, only to have the steering on that car fail on lap 115 and Sarles crashed again, the second time in turn one.  

Louis Chevrolet made a precautionary stop on lap 94 and the crew found that the steering knuckle on his #3 Monroe had cracked and the crew persuaded Louis to retire the car. Late in the race with just eight laps to go to the finish, the steering in Joe Boyer’s #6 Frontenac failed and he crashed heavily on the backstretch.  Years later, CW Van Ranst attributed all the Frontenac/Monroe steering failures to inadequate heat treating of key components.  

Gaston Chevrolet and John Bresnahan 
Gaston’s victory worth $21,800 was historic in many ways.  Monroe’s win was the first time since 1912 that an American car had won at the Speedway, and the Monroe which averaged 88.618 MPH, was the third Indianapolis-built car to win ‘500’ after the inaugural 1911 ‘500’ win by the Marmon “Wasp” and the National in 1912. Even more significantly, Gaston’s Monroe finished the 500 mile race on the same set of Oldfield tires, which were built by Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, so Firestone could claim that their tires were on the top three finishers of the 1920 ‘500.’  Oldfield tires were marketed beginning in 1919 took full advantage of the public notoriety of old-time racer Barney Oldfield, who had coincidentally driven the six-cylinder 1920 Marmon Model 34 “Pacemaker” to start the great race.    

The Monroe car company failed soon after the ‘500’

 Monroe’s victory in the eighth annual Indianapolis ‘500’ did little to help sales of the Monroe automobile for the William Small Company.  After the end of the Great War on November 11, 1918 and the United States transitioned from war production back to a consumer economy, the country experienced a short but severe recession during 1920 and 1921. Banks tightened their requirements on loans, which were the life blood of early automobile manufacturers both for working capital and credit sales, and by early August 1920 the William Small had laid off two-thirds of their work force. 

On August 24 1920 the William Small Company filed a voluntary petition for receivership in Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis. The filing admitted the company was bankrupt with $900,000 in debts compared to just $450,000 in assets. For example, the Williams Small Company owed three key parts suppliers - GF Warner Malleable Casting Company of New Haven Connecticut,  Hoess Piston Rings of Hammond Indiana manufacturers of “Humanized piston rings, which breathe with the motor,” and Columbus Bolt Works of Columbus Ohio a total of $7,869.

The following day, Marion County Superior Court Judge Theophilus J. Moll named Reilly Adams, the president of the Security Trust Company as the receiver. While in receivership, Adams ordered the price of Monroe Automobiles cut to $1,295, but sales remained sluggish.  Confusingly the William Small Company were listed as the entrants of two Frontenac entries in the 1922 '500,' driven by Wilbur D'Alene and Tom Alley.  Perhaps this was a last gasp for publicity to boost sales. 

After various failed attempts to restructure, the American Fletcher National Bank of Indianapolis purchased the assets of the bankrupt William Small Company at auction during 1922.
The assets were soon sold to Premier Motor Manufacturing of Indianapolis which added the four-cylinder “Model B” to their lineup in an effort to boost their sales, but that move failed to stave off the inevitable and Premier itself closed down in 1924. 

The Monroe race car builders after the 1920 ‘500’

Louis Chevrolet announced his retirement as a racing driver in June 1920 on the eve of the Universal Trophy Race held at Carl Laemmle’s Uniontown Speedway near Hopwood Pennsylvania and he died at age 62 in 1941. Gaston Chevrolet died in competition less than six months after his triumph at Indianapolis on Thanksgiving Day in a two-car crash at the Beverly Hill Speedway board track that killed both Gaston and Eddie O’Donnell. Gaston’s riding mechanic, John Breshahan, recovered from the injuries he suffered in the crash and then he rode with Roscoe Sarles and Ora Haibe for the Duesenberg team in 1921 and 1922.  John Breshahan died in February 1967 at 84 years old.   

Both Louis and Gaston are interred at the Catholic Holy Cross and Saint Joseph Cemetery on Indianapolis’ near south side.  Arthur’s name is inscribed on the family headstone but as he committed suicide in Louisiana in 1942 he is not buried there.  CW Van Ranst also designed the 1921 ‘500’ winning straight-8 powered Frontenac and remained lifelong friends with 1921 ‘500’ winner Tommy Milton as the pair worked as consultants for a number of Detroit automakers through the years. Van Ranst died in Dearborn Michigan in 1972 at age 79.

Monroe drivers and mechanicians after the 1920 ‘500’

Being a race car driver or riding mechanic during the board track era could prove to be an extremely dangerous career choice, as Gaston’s story attests, and while some of the Monroe drivers and riding mechanics survived, sadly others lost their lives while racing.    

Joe Thomas raced until he retired mid-season during 1923 and he died in Sacramento at age 75 in 1965. Art Klein who died in 1955 had promised his bride that he would retire after his 1920 Indianapolis ‘500’ crash, but he continued to race until he too retired during the 1923 AAA season. Riding mechanic Thane Houser appeared as a relief driver in four 500-mile races between 1923 and 1929 , then returned to be a riding mechanic for two years during the “junk era” with Dave Evans, the last in 1931 in the non-stop Cummins Diesel entry.  Thane’s nephew, Norm, raced ‘big cars’ throughout the Midwest during the nineteen forties and unsuccessfully tried to qualify for the ‘500’ five times between 1947 and 1951.

Harry Franck remained with the Frontenac team after he had ridden with Roscoe Sarles in 1920, and rode with Tommy Milton to victory in the first of his two ‘500’ victories in 1921.  Bennett Hill, the rookie who replaced Arthur Chevrolet, developed into a board track expert during the 1924-1927 supercharged Miller ‘91’ era, and scored five board track wins, all of which came in California, with one win at Beverley Hills, and two each at Culver City and Fresno before he retired during the 1927 AAA season. Bennett returned once to run the Indianapolis ‘500’ in 1933, and passed away in 1977 at age 84.  

Roscoe Sarles became a star with the Duesenberg team during 1921 and 1922 with funding provided by his friend the Hollywood silent film star Wallace Reid. At the grand opening of the Kansas City board track on September 17 1920, Sarles, substituting for Cliff Durant glanced off Peter DePaolo’s machine, and his car crashed through the guardrail and plunged the ground where it caught fire. Joe Boyer relieved teammate Lora “L.L.” Corum on lap 112 of the 1924 Indianapolis ‘500’ and drove the Duesenberg to victory.

Three months later, racing in the “Fall Classic” on the 1-1/4 mile board track at Altoona Pennsylvania Boyer died following a gruesome last-lap crash and died after surgeons had amputated his crushed legs. Ernie Ansterberg rode with Roscoe Sarles in the 1921 and 1922 Indianapolis 500-mile races, and then became a driver himself for the Duesenberg team in 1923.  Ernie, the first of two drivers who relieved Joe Boyer in his original car in the 1924 ‘500,’  died in a practice crash nine days before the inaugural race at the new Charlotte North Carolina board track. Ernie’s death came less than two months after he set a new world’s record speed of 125.7 MPH in qualifying at the same Altoona Pennsylvania race meet at which Boyer died.  
the author's photo of the restored Monroe racing engine
 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
Nowadays when we have “Chevrolets” battling “Hondas” for supremacy of the IndyCar racing world, when as fans we visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and view the restored Monroe racing engine,  we can reflect back on the how ground-breaking Chevrolet brothers helped introduce the concept of “branding” race cars back over 95 years ago.

1 comment:

  1. Does anyone have a photo or a drawing of the 1920 Frontenac/Monroe chassis?