Persistence - the Rudolph Wehr story
The Oxford dictionary defines persistence as “the continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty.” Throughout the long history of American automobile racing, few men have personified persistence as did Rudolph K. B. Wehr, who brought unique cars to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway six times during the 18-year period between 1922 and 1940, yet of all the cars that Wehr designed and built, none never ever qualified for the 500-mile race.
Born in Hungary around 1882, Rudolph Wehr attended the University of Budapest before he immigrated to the United States and took a job as a mechanic and chauffeur for J. W. O’Bannon, a wealthy New York bookbinder. A chauffeur's job was dangerous in those early days of automobile travel. Late one night in early August 1910 as Wehr drove his employer and R.L. Gilmore, a real estate investor home to Manhattan from Westchester County they stopped for what appeared to be a pair of stranded motorists but soon revealed themselves to be armed robbers. The New York Times newspaper reported that the robbers relieved the Good Samaritans of a total of $55 ($1,375 today) before they fled into the night.
While still employed by O’Bannon, Wehr began to experiment in his free time with rotary valves. Wehr eventually started the Wehr Motor Company in a shop on New York City’s Upper West Side and built his first working prototype of a rotary valve engine during 1916.
Most automobile engines use spring loaded poppet style valves; in the nineteen twenties there was development of the production “sleeve valve” engine, but Wehr seems to be one of the few men who ever attempted to develop a rotary valve racing engine. A rotary valve works by the rotation of a plug with passages inside a cylinder that regulates the flow of liquid or gas. Typically used in brass musical instruments, a rotary valve can also be used as a metering device to regulate the flow of a product.
On June 1 1918, Wehr raced his “Wehr Special” which was described by the New York Sun newspaper as “a car of his own make” in a non-championship AAA-sanctioned 100-mile race promoted by William Wellman. The race held on the great 2-mile Sheepshead Bay board track in Brooklyn New York once the site of a failed thoroughbred track was for the Harkness Auto Handicap Trophy, named in honor of the track’s principal investor, Standard Oil heir Harry Harkness. The race was originally been scheduled for Decoration Day, Thursday May 30, but had to be postponed twice due to misty conditions that created a wet track surface. The sport’s top cars and drivers of the day were on hand for this race which was held during the time that the Indianapolis 500-mile race was suspended due to the Great War.
Ralph DePalma's 1918 Packard at Sheepshead Bay
Photo from the Bain Collection in the Library of Congress Collection. Photographer unknown
Reports in Motor Age and Automotive Industries magazines explained that as a handicap event the cars started the race based on the lineup established by starter and handicapper Fred J. Wagner. The fastest car, as determined by Wagner, started last or “scratch” and then chased down and passed the earlier starters. The New York Tribune newspaper stated that “henceforth handicap racing will prevail in the automotive realm, as the virtual unknown having hypothetically at least as much chance for victory as the world’s champion.”
Rudolph Wehr and his car started first, followed by Percy Ford’s unidentified machine one minute later, and then so on through the fifteen starters that included Ira Vail’s Hudson, Tommy Milton and Eddie Hearne in Duesenbergs, and Barney Oldfield in the formerly enclosed cockpit Miller-built ‘Golden Submarine.’ The pattern continued until Wagner released the two fastest cars, Ralph DePalma’s cream-colored #4 Packard powered by a 12-cylinder 299-cubic inch aircraft engine, five minutes behind Wehr, and Louis Chevrolet’s #3 Frontenac that started “scratch,” six minutes after Wehr.
Ralph DePalma won the Harkness Auto Handicap race with the mighty Packard, and finished the 100-mile distance in 58 minutes and 21 seconds at an average speed of 102.8 miles per hour (MPH), just ten seconds ahead of Tommy Milton, with Oldfield third in the ‘Golden Submarine.’ Louis Chevrolet lost his chance for victory when he was forced to make three pit stops and finished a distant seventh. The published results of the race list Wehr in last place without details or explanation.
Rudolph, who was not yet a United States citizen and technically still a subject of the King of Hungary, applied for his first United States patent to protect his idea for the use rotary valves with internal combustion engines in June 1917, and in July 1918 he was issued patent #1273433. On May 2 1919 now a United States citizen, Rudolph submitted for a patent his idea of a combined rotary intake and exhaust valve cylinder head for an internal combustion engine and received patent #1347978 on June 27 1920.
Wehr's 1922 patent application drawing
for a single valve
The first try- the 1922 Indianapolis ‘500’
On May 21 1922, the New York Times newspaper reported that three men, Rudolph Wehr, Joseph H. Lehman and L.P. Come had entered a “mystery car in the big sweepstakes” to be held on Memorial Day in Indianapolis. During the interview in their “little office in a grimy shop or the upper west side they somewhat reluctantly disclosed some of the details.” Wehr explained his years of study on the use of rotary valves in an automobile engine, which he claimed was 25% lighter in weight, with 100 fewer parts, that resulted in increased efficiency and less fuel consumption.
Wehr’s partner Lehmann, who was an electrical equipment manufacturer, had invented an alternating electric current ignition system which meant according to Lehman “higher speed, a twin spark working from a single break” and the elimination of the pitting of the spark point. The shadowy Mr. Come, said to be managing their affairs, stated that the car was due to be shipped to Indianapolis the next day.
The three men refused to discuss the speed of the car beyond stating that it had been tested on “lonely roads about New York ….at over 110 miles per hour.” The Times article closed by simply stating that “Frank E. Davidson will be the pilot,” although AAA records also list Wehr as the driver. Davidson was later identified in subsequent press reports as “an engineer” “famed dirt track racer,” and at times the owner of the machine.
The #28 “D’Wehr Special” was a curiosity as it was the only car entered in the Indianapolis race that took advantage of the new for 1922 AAA (American Automobile Association) racing rules. The New York Times article stated that the 120-cubic inch engine’s cylinders had a “bore of 2-5/16 inches with a stroke of 4 ¾ inches,” which through calculation means Wehr built it as a six-cylinder engine.
Since 1920, AAA rules had allowed entries with an engine that displaced from 123 cubic inches up to 183 cubic inches a minimum car weight of 1650 pounds less gas oil or ballast. New AAA 122-cubic inch single-seat rules were set to go into effect for the 1923 ‘500,’ but in the meantime, the 1922 AAA rules package contained “weight breaks” for cars whose engines displaced less than two liters (122 cubic inches).
A 1922 Indianapolis entry with an engine of less than 122 cubic inches but more than 1-1/2 liters (91.5 cubic inches) was allowed a minimum weight of 1400 pounds, while a car equipped with an engine that displaced less than 91.5 cubic inches would be allowed to weight as little as 1200 pounds, but for the 1922 Indianapolis ‘500,’ no such small engine cars were entered; the D’Wehr featured the smallest engine among the 1922 Indianapolis entries.
Frank Davidson in the single-seat D'Wehr Specail
photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
With an engine that only displaced 122 cubic inches the “D’Wehr Special” was also allowed to compete without a “mechanician” (riding mechanic). Frank Davidson rode alone with a rear view mirror, which harkened back to Ray Harroun and the 1911 Marmon ‘Wasp.’ With the new AAA rules package, the riding mechanic required since 1912, would become optional with the 1923 running Indianapolis ‘500’ and remain an option until 1930 when the “mechanician” again became mandatory.
Fifteen years later, a May 16 1937 Indianapolis Star article related what allegedly happened after the “D’Wehr Special” arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 22, 1922. “When they took it out on the track, it simply would not go fast enough. Wehr was almost in despair when Ralph DePalma, then at his peak, driving for the Duesenberg team, happened along and volunteered a solution. "When I go out to qualify," he told Wehr, "have your driver get on the track at the same time, get in my 'tow' and you'll get in with me."
According to the 1937 Star article, “Davidson followed these instructions, and DePalma roared down the straightaway at more than one hundred miles an hour. So did the rotary valve racer, but only for a brief stretch. The pace was more than the engine could stand, and it threw rods all over the track.” Reportedly Wehr’s reaction was “I’ll be back,” an utterance that predated Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film statement by more than 60 years. Davidson and the “D’Wehr Special” was one of only two cars on the grounds that failed to qualify for the 27-car 1922 starting field.
A basic problem for rotary valves come from the pressures in the cylinder of an internal combustion engine are high, due to both the compression stroke and the explosion of the fuel-air mixture. This produces large forces on the valve system, but with the poppet valve system those forces simply push the valve tighter against its seat, and have no effect at all on the valve-actuating mechanism.
Rudolph Wehr did not return to the Speedway with another rotary valve entry until 1931, and in the meantime he had moved his base of operations to the Los Angeles area and had five more patents to his name. During his lifetime, Rudolph Wehr obtained ten United States patents, all related to rotary valves, with the last issued in 1945.
The 1931 Indianapolis ‘500’
For his 1931 Indianapolis 500 ‘entry’, Wehr built a 170-cubic inch displacement engine that was apparently based on the block of a Miller 122-cubic inch engine fitted with a rotary valve head in a revamped Miller 122 chassis widened to accommodate a two-man cockpit. Wehr’s driver was none other than Raffaele “Ralph” DePalma, whom news reports called “the grand old Roman of the auto racing world,” and the 1915 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner in a four-cylinder Mercedes. DePalma had raced at the Speedway before the bricks were set, but his racing career had gone into steep decline after the 1923 Packard Motor Car Company fiasco. Ralph now 48 years old, had last raced in the ‘International 500-mile Sweepstakes’ in 1925.
In a bizarre decision, DePalma and the team drove the “Wehr-Miller Special” to Speedway Indiana from the West Coast as part of a caravan that arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday May 24, as reported in the following day’s Indianapolis Star. There were five people and two cars reported in the DePalma party. Riding with Ralph in the racing car was Ralph Powers, while following in a touring car, also fitted with a Wehr rotary valve head engine, was Rudolph Wehr, accompanied by Harvey Heller, the pattern maker for the Wehr Motor Company, and Frank J. Fabian, described as an “old time racing mechanic,” who had worked with Fred Duesenberg and Ira Vail during their golden racing years.
In order to generate interest in his moribund career and probably generate some much needed cash DePalma contributed a story about a 1917 Providence Rhode Island race with “his oldest and greatest rival” Barney Oldfield to the Western Newspaper Union’s (WNU) nationwide syndicated sports column series entitled My Greatest Thrill in Sport. Other WNU columns in the series featured stories by such sports luminaries as football coach John W. Heisman, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and boxers Jack Dempsey and “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Unfortunately, DePalma’s column appeared nationwide on May 22, while DePalma was still enroute to the Speedway.
The Star reported “Wind-blown and sun-burned, Ralph DePalma, racing hero of a million Americans for a score of years, got into the speedway grounds as dusk was falling Sunday evening. He had driven his Miller-Wehr racing car from Los Angeles to Indianapolis since last Tuesday” (May 19). The Star reporter wrote that DePalma’s “golf hose were once gray, but were now spattered with dust and grease. His gray slip-on sweater looked like it might have belonged to a longshoreman, it was that bedraggled.”
The unidentified Star reporter colorfully noted that DePalma’s “gray hair, now thinning on the sides to leave a fairway down the middle, was brushed or blown back from his forehead. His hands were grease-grimed and his face, forehead and hands were the color of an aborigine.” And the ‘Wehr-Miller Special’ was described as “a companion piece to its master, for it too was greasy and muddy. One does not amble from the west coast to Indianapolis without leaving some travel stains on master and servant ....”
The article continued “No sooner had he parked his car in the the alley of the long line of garages than he called for some fresh spark plugs and with a wrench himself went to work at making the change from old ones to new. DePalma then had all the appearance, in fact, of a racing driver, but it was tough seeing DePalma wheeling a racing car into the grounds instead of rolling in aboard a Packard. It was like seeing a scion of a noble line getting back to bedrock from whence started his family.”
This must have been a trying personal period for Ralph DePalma, as sixteen years after his “500’ victory, DePalma was reportedly nearly broke. His wife, Clara, had been granted a divorce in Los Angeles Superior Court after nearly 22 years of marriage on April 2 on grounds of desertion and Ralph agreed to pay her $25 a week in alimony (nearly $400 in 2016). DePalma later filed for personal bankruptcy in a Los Angeles courtroom in August 1931 and cited $10,000 in assets, mostly real estate, and over $50,000 in liabilities.
The May 25, 1931 Indianapolis Star article closed by stating “Anyhow, DePalma is now here with his racing car, which is one of his own. It Is Miller-built, fitted with the Wehr rotary valve type of head. Ralph says that he breezed it up to as high as 100 miles an hour (MPH) during his trip east. DePalma is expected to give his car a trial Monday and if things go well, he will attempt qualification either late Monday or more possibly Tuesday.”
In 1931, the Speedway scheduled three weeks of practice sessions before time trials commenced for five consecutive days beginning on May 23, so Wehr and DePalma had cut their schedule close by arriving on the evening of May 24, after nineteen cars were already qualified for the starting field. It was reported on Tuesday morning that “the journey was too much for it (referring to the Wehr entry), and the engine needed much readjustment before it could even attempt to qualify.”
On Wednesday May 27 the ‘Wehr-Miller Special’ did not show sufficient speed in practice, as the 1930 requirement was a 90 MPH minimum speed average for four laps. DePalma nonetheless got in line to attempt a time trial but the American Automobile Association (AAA) race stewards ruled that DePalma could not complete his attempt to "crowd.” or bump. his way into the 40-car starting field as the ‘Wehr-Miller Special’ was not in motion when the sun set which officially ended qualifications. This sad end with the Wehr entry marked Ralph DePalma’s final appearance as a driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
1932 Legion Ascot Speedway
In May 1932, Wehr who lived with his wife Theresa in a five-unit apartment building at 318 West 84th Place in Los Angeles, and Frank Fabian bought a Miller AAA ‘big car’ chassis which according to Michael Ferner’s research was originally built in 1930. As the #40 ‘Billy Arnold Special’ it was driven by Ernest “Ernie” Triplett in late 1930 and throughout the 1931 season during which Triplett won his first AAA Pacific Coast championship.
Photo of the Jack Buxton, Frank Fabian, and the Rotary Valve Special
photo appeared in John Lucero's Legion Ascot Speedway
The ‘big car’ came to Wehr and Fabian without an engine, which was not a problem as Wehr still had the Wehr-Miller hybrid engine that now displaced 183 cubic inches. The #29 car, dubbed the “Rotary Valve Special” was driven early in in the 1932 season at Legion Ascot and other AA Pacific Coast events by Jack Buxton and later in the year by former Legion Ascot ‘Class B’ driver Bill Hart, neither with great success and after the end of the season the rolling car was sold to Clarence Tarbot who installed a Cragar engine.
Buxton, a Canadian by birth who lived in Los Angeles, was the 1928 National Auto Racing Association (NARA) (frequently listed in error as the AAA Southwest) champion also well known for his detailed pencil sketches of fellow Legion Ascot drivers and visitors, which appeared in the race programs and in issues of the Coast Auto Racing newspaper. Buxton died on May 13 1935 in the Palmdale California hospital following a passenger car roll-over accident near the village of Little Rock in northern Los Angeles County.
We will continue with the second and final chapter of the story of Rudolph Wehr’s dogged persistence with the application of rotary valves on racing engines in a few days.