Monday, May 23, 2016

‘Doc’ Williams at the Indianapolis '500'
Part two - the Cooper front drive cars
All photos with this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies.

‘Doc’ Williams returned for his third attempt at Indianapolis glory in 1936 assigned to drive the ‘Superior Trailer Special,’ a Miller-powered front wheel drive car originally built in 1927 by Earl Cooper. Before we continue with the ‘Doc’ Williams story, today we feature this sidebar on the history of the Cooper front drive cars from 1927 through 1935.

Construction and racing by Cooper
Earl Cooper in 1924

Earl Cooper, the three-time American Automobile Association (AAA) national champion in 1913, 1915, and 1917, had a remarkable driving career both before and after World War One. Before the war, as a member of the powerful Stutz Racing Team, Cooper notched sixteen victories mostly on dirt tracks and early road courses. Cooper a close friend of Barney Oldfield’s returned to race driving in 1922 at age 36 and proved to be an adept board track racer during the Miller 122 and 91 cubic inch eras with a string of top five finishes.   

During the 1926 AAA season, Cooper bought the Miller supercharged 91-cubic inch chassis number #2605 and over the winter of 1926-7, he built three copies, funded by Buick Motors with the approval and assistance of Harry A. Miller. Each of the three cars were powered by a supercharged 91 cubic-inch eight-cylinder Miller engine breathing through four Miller Dual Throat Updraft carburetors that produced 167 horsepower and powered the front wheels.

The three new Cooper Front Drive cars in 1927

The major difference between a Miller and Cooper was the front drive assembly. Instead of the Miller jewel-like front drive, with the design assistance of Leo Gosssen, Copper’s cars used a Ruckstell planetary gearset with two-speed Ruckstell axle to achieve four forward speeds powered by Miller supercharged engines.

Buick withdrew its support and all four of Earl Cooper’s cars were entered by Cooper Engineering for veterans Peter Kreis, Bennett Hill, and Jules Ellingboe.  All three new cars qualified for the 1927 ‘500,’ but Kreis’s and Hill’s cars had mechanical failure and Ellingboe crashed so only McDonough finished coming in with a sixth place finish.
Peter Kreis in the Marmon Special in 1928
By the time of the 1928 ‘500,’ Earl Cooper had sold his original Miller chassis and landed Nordyke & Marmon Company sponsorship for two of his three cars. All three Cooper-owned cars driven by Kreis, Russell Snowberger, and Johnny Seymour qualified for the starting field, but none finished the race, with two of three cars retired with supercharger failure while Kreis’ car lost a rod bearing.

For the 1929 ‘500’ all three cars were entered as ‘Cooper Engineering Specials,’ for Fred Frame  Johnny Seymour, and Snowberger but again only one driven by Fred Frame finished the race in tenth place seven laps behind race winner Ray Keech’s Miller. Snowberger was eliminated early for the second year in a row by supercharger failure and Seymour’s car broke a rear axle.  During the winter of 1920-1930, perhaps in anticipation of the coming AAA “Junk Formula,” Cooper sold all three front-drive cars to Herman N. Gauss, who ran a garage and welding shop at 916 East Washington Street in Indianapolis.

Herman Gauss’ ownership of the Cooper Front Drive Cars
Herman Gauss had just emerged from a nasty legal scrape. On October 3 1927, a car driven by Herman with his brother George as passenger collided head-on with another car at the intersection of Fifty-Fourth Street and Kessler Boulevard in Indianapolis.  While the Gauss brothers were just slightly injured, the couple in the other Mr. and Mrs.  Manthey of Brownsburg, were killed.

Witnesses claimed that Herman Gauss’ car was traveling over 60 MPH, and the Marion County Grand Jury charged Gauss with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. Over two years passed before Herman’s trial was held on November 29 1929, and Marion County Criminal court Judge Robert Dalton declared that he was unable to determine who was responsible for the accident from the evidence and testimony and found Gauss not guilty. 

After purchasing the cars from Earl Cooper, Gauss, a sometime race car driver, widened the rear of the chassis, revised the engines, and built new bodies on two of the Copper chassis to comply with the new-two man cockpit rules in the 1930 AAA “Junk Formula.”  Gauss sold the third car without the engine to car builder Floyd A. Smith of Long Island New York.  

Johnny Seymour in 1929

Herman Gauss entered his pair of cars powered by 100 cubic inch displacement unsupercharged eight-cylinder Miller engines for the 1930 ‘500’ as the “Gauss Front Drive Specials” for young rookie Hoosier dirt track driver Joe Huff and former Legion Ascot motorcycle racer Johnny Seymour. The Gauss entries easily qualified but neither one finished the 1930 ‘500.  Huff had to be relieved by two drivers “Speed’ Gardner and Ted Chamberlin after he drove just eight laps before a valve broke in the engine on lap 48 while Seymour crashed on lap 21, one of nine cars eliminated in turn two crashes over ten laps.

Floyd Smith entered the third Cooper similarly modified like the Gauss cars but powered with a 215 cubic inch Miller straight eight engine for the 1931 ‘500’as the #3 ‘Empire State Gas Motors Special’ for driver “Wild Bill” Cummings. The two Gauss entries, number #69 and #71, used the same of pair of drivers as the previous year with sponsorship from the Goldberg brothers and their Highway Truck Parts Corporation which sold used trucks and part from their location at 1125 East Georgia Street.

The five Goldberg brothers – the oldest brother Irving, then Max, Samuel, Charles (an attorney), and Manning, were all born in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants. The Goldberg family arrived in Indianapolis during the mid-teens and built up a complex group of interconnected companies. 
Goldberg companies included Irving’s Indianapolis Auto Parts & Tire Co. at 518 North Capitol Avenue, Max’s Superior Trailer Manufacturing at 2100 Fletcher Avenue,  Samuel’s Highway Truck Parts Corporation 1125 East Georgia Street, and Manning’s Rex Trailer Company, which built and sold circus trailers and portable electric power plants next door at 1127 East Georgia Street, During the nineteen fifties the Goldberg family bought a number of multi-unit properties that included the Wyndham on North Delaware Street and the Hotel Continental at 410 North Meridian Street. 

Cummings started Floyd Smith’s ‘Empire State Gas Motors Special’ from the middle of the front row with a 112.563 MPH qualifying average speed, while Joe Huff in the ‘Goldberg Brothers Special’ #69 “crowded” or bumped his way into the field at 102.386 MPH and started last in the 1931 ‘500’ 40-car field, but Johnny Seymour in the #71 ‘Highway Truck Parts Special’ was too slow.  Cummings led four laps in the early going of the race, but was out on lap 70 with a broken oil line and won $710.   Huff, a tortoise in comparison to Cummings, finished the 500-mile grind in sixteenth place, 20 laps behind winner Louis Schneider and won $375.

Joe Huff later raced the ‘Highway Truck Parts Special’ on July 4 1931 at the board track at Altoona, Pennsylvania but the car was much changed from Indianapolis. Gauss had combined two of his straight eight Miller engines in a “U” configuration to create a 16-cylinder engine. Huff started fourth but the car crashed and overturned on lap 36 of 80. The Smith/Empire car also appeared at Altoona and finished second.  Surprisingly for a front drive car, the Empire entry was also competitive on the dirt tracks during 1931 and finished third at Detroit and Syracuse.

Paul Bost drove Smith’s ‘Empire State Gas Motors Special’  at Indianapolis in 1932 and qualified eighth while Huff qualified the 8-cylinder 100-cubic inch Miller powered #53 ‘Goldberg Special’ in the 15th starting position for the 1932 Indianapolis ‘500.  Unfortunately Huff’s teammate, rookie Herbert ‘Dusty’ Fahrnow crashed the U-16 powered ‘Highway Truck Parts Special’ in turn two during practice on the final day of time trials May 28, but was uninjured. Huff, with relief from Fahrnow, finished the 1932 ‘500’ in tenth place and completed the full distance 54 minutes after winner Fred Frame. Bost’s car broke a crankshaft on lap 18 and Smith’s Cooper front drive chassis subsequently dropped out of sight until 1934.

Gauss and the Goldberg brothers lined up a pair of veterans to drive their entries in the 1933 ‘500;’ six-race veteran Ralph Hepburn drove the 16-cylinder 190-cubic inch “twin Miler” powered  ‘Highway Truck Parts Special and six-race veteran Bennett Hill took the wheel of the 16-cylinder all-aluminum 330-cubic inch Marmon Series 16 powered  ‘Goldberg Special.’ Hill qualified nineteenth, while Hepburn bumped into the field in 41st position. Neither car finished as both retired with broken connecting rods, Hepburn’s on lap 33 and Hill’s on lap 158.

 In 1934 Herman Gauss entered both 16-cylinder powered Cooper front drive chassis for the ‘500.’ ‘Dusty’ Fahrnow returned as the driver of the #42 car with sponsorship from the Superior Trailer Manufacturing, a company Max Goldberg had started in 1929. As mentioned earlier, ‘Doc’ Williams was nominated as the drivers of the other Gauss entry the #38 ‘Highway Truck Parts Special’ but the AAA rejected ‘Doc’ as a driver and the #38 car sat for the month of May 1934.  

Fahrnow qualified the ‘Superior Trailer special’ in 24th position with the fastest time posted on Sunday May 28 at 113.070 MPH and then finished 24th after the 16-cylinder 330-cubic inch Marmon engine burned a rod bearing on lap 28. The Floyd Smith-owned Cooper front drive car meantime reappeared powered with a 250-cubic inch Studebaker President eight-cylinder engine driven by Studebaker engineer Tony Gulotta, who qualified seventh but retired with a broken connecting rod on lap 94 before the Smith car again dropped from sight again before it resurfaced in 1936 owned by Chicago union organizer Mike Boyle.

In 1935 #53 ‘Superior Trailer Special’ was practiced during the month by “Dusty” Fahrnow but he was too slow in his only qualifying attempt.  Chicago midget racer Jimmy Snyder then jumped in and posted a time fast enough to make the field, but the ‘Superior Trailer Special’ was disqualified from the starting field after qualifying when an inspection found that the car had used more the allowed amount of fuel (2 gallons and one pint) to complete the ten-lap run.  Rookie Snyder then jumped into Joel Thorne’s 336-cubic inch eight-cylinder Studebaker powered “Blue Prelude Special” and qualified for the starting field but retired from the ‘500’ early with a broken rear spring.

In our next installment, we will return to the story of ‘Doc’ Williams in 1936 at Indianapolis, behind the wheel of the Cooper front wheel drive machine that he would become associated with for most of the next dozen years.

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