Monday, April 24, 2017

George Souders the story of the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner
Part two

George Souders' portrait in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
part of the collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

The subject of this article George Souders was honored with a plaque placed by the Indiana Racing Memorial Association (IRMA) at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds in Lafayette Indiana on April 21 2017. In part two  of our series, we look back at the 1926 season exploits of the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner, George Souders of Lafayette, Indiana.

George Souders opened his 1926 racing season on January 3 at the one-mile 143 foot long fairgrounds oval in Albuquerque New Mexico for a $1500 program that opened with a 10-lap race followed by a 15-lap affair held an hour later and then topped by a fifty-mile feature race. 

Souders retired from the 10-mile race with a slipping clutch but returned to win the second 15-lap race. Souders then dominated the feature as he led 49 of the 50-lap race and crossed the finish line in a time of 49 minutes flat for an average speed of 62.8 miles per hour (MPH).

On May 30 1926 George Souders returned to the fairgrounds in Albuquerque for a smiliar three-race program with nine other cars and drivers. Souders was of course considered the pre-race favorite after his domination of the January races at the same track. Souders and A. A. Womack were entered with their Chevrolets in a field that also boasted a Duesenberg, a pair of Hudsons, and several Frontenac-Fords.

The afternoon’s scheduled program opened with time trials with two of the eleven entries were eliminated during qualifying. The engine in Johnnie Mais’ car suffered burnt bearings and Chuck Anderson was disqualified by referee Frank Vallely after Anderson spun out on three successive laps. ‘Slim’ Harper with his Mais entry sidelined by mechanical troubles took over Anderson’s car and proceeded to set the fastest time - a new track record of 46 seconds flat.

Souders swept the balance of the program as he won all three races. George led the 10-mile race from start to finish followed by Harry Milburn with Gallup’s Johnny (Gianni) Biava in third place. 3,000 fans watched as nine cars started the second 15-mile race and Biava led the first three laps before Souders took the lead which he never relinquished. As Biava tried to keep up the pace he crashed on the race’s eighth lap and his Frontenac-Ford racer crashed through the wooden fence and flipped twice in the air as it rolled down the embankment while Biava was thrown clear.

The Albuquerque Morning Journal reported that Biava landed 120 feet from the track and broke his left arm and shoulder.  His doctor told the paper Sunday night the Biava would survive his injuries but that his left arm would be permanently stiffened. Souders dominated the seven-car 50-mile feature which was marked by a high attrition rate as only Souders and second place finisher Milburn completed the distance.  Souders earned a reported $1250 for his day’s work.

July 5 1926 found George racing at the familiar West Texas Fair Speedway in Abilene Texas for the American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned sixth annual “Speed Classic of the South.” Besides Souders, the other “foremost racing stars” entered included Fred Lecklider, Frank Lockhart, and Texans Elbert ‘Babe’ Stapp and Harry Milburn. Lockhart has committed to race in Abilene before his Indianapolis victory, but the AAA Contest Board ruled that Frank had to keep his commitment rather than race his championship car at Rockingham Speedway in New Hampshire.

Following the afternoon races, fans were encouraged to go to nearby Lytle Beach for the second annual “Bathing Girl Revue,” which also featured swimming and diving contests and fireworks.
George Souders' poses in his #401 Chevrolet courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

During a practice run on Sunday July 4, Souders’ #401 Chevrolet suffered a damaged radiator after he hit the inside rail and the car rolled over, but the damage was quickly repaired   On July 5 during morning time trials Frank Lockhart earned a $25 bonus as he lowered his nine-month old track record by 2-1/5 seconds as he completed two laps around the 5/8-mile track in 65 seconds.

Souders failed to complete his July 5 qualifying run, as his car’s engine reportedly broke three pistons. The day‘s second fastest qualifier was Lecklider at 68 4/5 while Babe Stapp qualified two cars, Ralph Hamlin’s front wheel drive Frontenac-Ford powered entry at 71 1/5 seconds in sixth place and a Duesenberg (possibly owned by William White) at 71 4/5 seconds for seventh position.

Souders’ Chevrolet engine was repaired in time for him to make a qualifying attempt after the day’s third race, a 20-mile race won by Lockhart. George ran two laps in a time of 72-4/5 seconds and then lined up to start fourth in the fourth race of the day, a 15-mile 24-lap affair. As described the following day in the Abilene Daily Reporter, “Genial George” Souders staged a race-long duel with Colorado’s ‘Slim’ Harper in John Mais’ 16-valve ‘Dodge Special’ that brought the capacity crowd of 10 to 12 thousand fans to their feet.

As the cars started their eighteenth lap, Souders forged into the lead ahead of Harper and held on to win the $500 purse in a record time for the distance of fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. Lockhart won the final race of the day, shortened to thirty miles, in his Miller followed by Lecklider in a similar machine. Souders wound up third in the feature trailed by Milburn’s Duesenberg.  For his efforts in Abilene Lockhart won a total of $1675, this included besides his qualifying bonus, $1000 for the 30-mile race win and $650 for his 20-mile race victory.

George Souders was listed as one of “winners of races held in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico” in advertising that promoted the $2000 ‘Southwest Classic’ on Sunday  August 29 on the one-mile 143 foot long fairgrounds track in Albuquerque.  Among the other “twelve dirt track champions“ listed as entrants for the race were Jimmy Randolph, ‘Slim’ Harper, Harry Milburn and the California racing brothers Ray and Chester “Chet” Gardner. Advance advertisements in the Albuquerque Journal newspaper in the days leading up to the race stated that the adult admission of $1.50 was “remarkably low- 75% lower than AAA races elsewhere.” 

Despite being pre-entered, Souders’ name did not appear in the results listed in the Albuquerque Journal article on August 30. Only ten cars took place in time trials as Dick Calhoun re-set the “southwest record” to 43 2/5 seconds at the mile post which was later matched by Californian Cliff Bergere in a Miller. To decide the winner of the silver cup trophy, the two drivers flipped a coin and Calhoun called it properly.

The racing events that followed were plagued by dusty track conditions but no accidents occurred. Bergere took the lead from Millburn during the first lap then cruised to victory in the 30-mile feature.  Other races that day were won by Chet Gardner and Lee while Jimmy Randolph the Arizona champion was a non-factor as his car suffered from carburetor trouble all day

On Labor Day, Monday September 6 Souders in his Chevrolet Special finished second behind Dick Calhoun in races held at Cushing Speedway Park in Cushing Oklahoma near a small town mid-way between Tulsa and Oklahoma City which had been hosting races since 1921.

After he attended the ‘Detroit 100’ in early September AAA zone representative and race promoter DH Jefferies announced he had secured agreements for a stout field of entries for the upcoming races at the West Texas Fair in Abilene on Wednesday September 22 and Friday the 24th.  In addition to Souders and Calhoun, Fred Frame, ‘Babe’ Stapp and Peter DePaolo, the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner, were scheduled to appear.

The Abilene Daily Reporter dubbed these men “the Big Five” who would compete in a five-race program topped with 20-mile feature race. DePaolo, although not known for his dirt track prowess, was signed to drive a new Miller “especially built for dirt tracks” owned by Hollywood millionaire William S. White. Stapp was entered as the driver of a Chrysler Special owned by EM Little of Abilene while Calhoun was scheduled with the ‘Gallivan Special.’ Fred Frame was entered in the Miller driven in Abilene in 1925 by Lockhart along with Souders in his #401 Chevrolet Special. Other entrants included ‘Slim’ Harper in the Mais’ ‘Dodge Special’ and Breckinridge driver Bob Stillwell.   

Qualifying runs were held each day not to set starting positions but to offer a $50 prize offered to the driver who could break Lockhart’s track record of 65 seconds flat for two laps around the 5/8-mile dirt oval. On Wednesday twelve cars took times but none broke the record; the qualifiers were led by Fred Frame at 66-3/5 seconds, with Souders third fastest, Chet Gardner fourth and DePaolo fifth.

Calhoun won the day’s first five mile race start set by draw for the eight fastest cars (barring Millers) over Souders. Chet Gardner emerged as the day’s big winner with $840 in winnings as he won the ten-mile heat for specially built speedway cars which featured two separate crashes involving Calhoun and Frame. Gardner capped off his successful day with his victory in the day’s 20-mile feature race.

The following day’s Abilene Morning News described DePaolo as “outclassed” and noted “he could not keep in step with the dirt track artists,” with a best finish of second place in the 20-mile Speedway car dash.  The characterization was accurate, as DePaolo was much better racer on the high-speed board tracks as opposed to dirt tracks.

George Souders was running in third place during the third 10-mile race when the connection to the fuel tank in his Chevrolet broke and knocked him out of that race. With repairs made, Souders dueled with Gardner for the lead in the 20-mile speedway car dash before his Chevrolet engine broke a connecting rod on the 27th lap and finished him for the day.  

Scarcely mentioned in the next day’s race report was the death of Freeman Midyett whose #111 Frontenac Ford crashed through the outside rail in the third turn on the first lap of the second race. Midyett a 32-year old driver from Breckinridge Texas was thrown from his car as it tumbled down the embankment.  Suffering with a fractured skull, Freeman was rushed to the West Texas Baptist Sanitarium where he was pronounced dead at 4:15 PM, four hours after the accident. Several drivers donated their winnings from the race to Midyett’s widowed mother and the West Texas Fair Association paid his funeral expenses.

For the September 24 1926 Friday afternoon races in Abilene, George Souders replaced Peter DePaolo in the seat of Bill White’s yellow Miller racer. Souders led the field in the day’s third race until lap 12 when lubrication problems forced the Miller out. Souders returned for the day’s longest race the 25-mile feature but once again the Miller was beset with oiling troubles and dropped out before the finish.

Harry Milburn the Fort Worth driver captured the feature race win and banked $650 while Dick Calhoun earned the title of the day’s unluckiest driver. Calhoun captured the five-mile heat race and the 15-mile race but then he crashed his $3000 Frontenac Ford after a spindle broke during the 25-mile finale.  Calhoun was initially reported as killed in the accident but upon arrival at the West Texas Baptist Sanitarium he was found to have suffered no broken bones, only “minor internal injuries.” To add insult to his injuries, in the crash Calhoun reportedly lost the $300 cash in his pocket which he had won in Wednesday’s races.

Although his results with Miller in the second day of races at Abilene were disappointing, Souders’ career had taken a major leap forward as he had established himself with car owner William S. White.  A mysterious “Hollywood millionaire,” the source and extent of White’s fortune remains murky to racing historians. Some sources attribute it to his family’s Hawaiian fruit business, while others suggest much darker and more sinister sources of income.

White owned “big cars” in the early nineteen twenties with drivers that included Jack Petticord, Harlan Fengler and Leon Duray. According to National Sprint Car Hall of Fame historian Tom Schmeh, White first entered a car in the International 500-mile Sweepstakes at Indianapolis in 1927 for Harlan Fengler. White continued through the years to enter cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as late as 1947 and promoted a number of post-war races at several venues across the Los Angeles basin.   

On September 28 1926 Souders and the White Miller were entered in the races held in conjunction with the Oil Belt Fair. Souder was the quickest qualifier turning two laps around the 5/8-mile oval with a total time of 74-2/5 seconds, and then placed second in the first 7-½ mile race behind Fred Frame’s Miller. A sudden downpour hit the track during the feature and starter DH Jefferies stopped the event on the twentieth lap of the 24-lap 15-mile race. Fred Frame was 100 yards ahead of Souders with Chet Gardner a close third place. When track conditions caused Jefferies to declare the race official, Frame was awarded a $400 purse while Souders earned $200.    

Souders was entered in the Miller in the races held on October 9 and 10 as part of the Tri-State Fair on the 5/8-mile dirt track in Amarillo Texas, while his “Souders Special” was entered for driver Roy Meachum, but the author could find no results for those races. 
As the year 1926 drew to a close, Souders was entered in Bill White’s Duesenberg along with Harry Milburn, Fred Frame, the Gardner brothers, “Slim” Harper, the recovered Dick Calhoun and Jimmy Randolph for the New Year’s Day fairgrounds races in Albuquerque New Mexico. The four-race auto racing program was to be part of a two-day show with an American Motorcycle Association (AMA) motorcycle race scheduled for January 2 1927.  

In our next installment we will relate the story of Souders’ success in 1927 and his career as the reigning Indianapolis king. Thanks to fellow historian Bob Lawrence for providing information on the results of several races during Souders’ 1926 season. Readers are encouraged to check out Bob’s work at

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

George Souders- the 1927 ‘500’ winner
Part one

The subject of this article George Souders will be honored with a plaque placed by the Indiana Racing Memorial Association (IRMA) at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds in Lafayette Indiana on April 21 2017

Eight drivers have won the International 500-mile Sweepstakes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in their first attempt - most recently Alexander Rossi in 2016.  First-time or “rookie” drivers won the ‘500’ three times in the first four years – 1911, 1913 and 1914, then a dozen years passed before a “rookie” driver won again in 1926.

Lockhart’s 1926 surprise

Californian Frank Lockhart began the month of May 1926 as the designated relief driver for Miller team driver Bennett Hill. Before time trials, Lockhart was tapped to replace owner/driver Peter Kreis behind the wheel of the #15 Miller after Kreis contracted the flu and was briefly hospitalized. During his first practice run in the car on May 26, the 23-year old Lockhart surprised the ‘railbirds’ when he posted a lap of 112.22 miles per hours (MPH).

On the first day of time trials for the 1926 ‘500’ held on Thursday May 27, Lockhart set a new one-lap speed standard of 115.488 MPH that broke Peter DePaolo’s year old record of 114.255 MPH. After his second lap, Lockhart’s car experienced tire trouble and he was unable to complete the last two laps of his attempt, but his new one-lap record was recognized as official.  At the close of the first day of time trials at sundown, Earl Cooper, in what proved to be his final Indianapolis ‘500’ start claimed the pole position in one of two front-wheel drive Millers entered in 1926.

At the end of the second day of time trials, Lockhart still was not among the 19 drivers who had qualified for the starting field. A wire story which appeared in the Syracuse Herald accurately predicted that Lockhart “probably will take it slowly to play it safe and be sure to get Kreis’’ car in the big melee.” On the third day of time trials on Saturday May 29 Lockhart with his third and final qualifying attempt posted a four-lap average of 95.783 MPH. Although nearly twenty miles per hour slower than his record pace, it was still the fastest run of the day and earned Frank the 20th position in the starting field.

On Decoration Day 1926 Lockhart blazed his way to the front of the field, led 95 laps and scored a dominant victory in the rain-shortened 160-lap (400 mile) race with a two-lap advantage over second place Harry Hartz at the drop of the checkered flag. Lockhart used a portion of the $35,600 purse to buy the winning car from Kreis and with it scored four more wins during the 1926 AAA (American Automobile Association) championship season. 

The 1927 ‘500’
Copy of one page of the Lockhart intercooler patent application
Over the winter of 1926-1927 Lockhart and his crew dramatically modified the Miller 91 principally with the addition of a U-shaped intercooler which cooled the pressurized air that entered the engine and produced more horsepower.  Frank’s air-water intercooler, credited by racing historians as the first used at Indianapolis, later received United States patent # 1807042A in 1931.

With his more powerful Miller, Lockhart won the pole position for the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race as he set two new Indianapolis Motor Speedway track records with a best lap of 120.918 MPH and a four-lap average of 120.1 MPH. On Decoration  Day 1927, Lockhart led the first 81 laps of the race and was the leader on lap 119 when a connecting rod broke in his Perfect Circle Special’s four-cylinder Miller engine and ended his bid for a second consecutive ‘500’ victory.

Lockhart’s mechanical misfortune handed the lead to 1925 ‘500’ winner Peter DePaolo who was driving in relief of Bob McDonough in Earl Cooper’s new front wheel drive entry.  “Rookie” George Souders, who drove William S. White’s older Duesenberg chassis powered by 90-cubic inch double overhead camshaft supercharged straight-eight Duesenberg engine, surged past DePaolo into the lead on lap 150.
A 1927 portrait of George Souders
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

Souders a native Hoosier led the final 51 laps, and won over Earl Devore to become the second straight 500-mile race “rookie” winner. Devore had inherited second place when the Duesenberg driven by Babe Stapp in relief of Benton “Ben” Shoaff in a factory Duesenberg entry broke the pinion gear in the rear end and retired on lap 198.

With a margin over Devore of more than twelve minutes the 26-year old Souders (pronunciation of his name rhymes with “powders”) recorded the second largest winning margin in Speedway history; his margin was exceeded only by 1913 ‘500’ winner Jules Goux who won by 13 minutes. Despite his remarkable victory, George Souders’ racing accomplishment including his improbable 1927 “500’ victory is too often overlooked which this article is intended to rectify.  

George Souders’ early life and career

George R. Souders was born on September 11 1900 on his parent’s farm in Tippecanoe Township in Tippecanoe County Indiana four miles west of the historic Hoosier town of Battle Ground. The little town was so-named due its proximity to the site of the 1811Battle of Tippecanoe where General (and Governor of the Indiana territory) William Henry Harrison and his army of 1000 men defeated a group of warriors from local Native American tribes.

As a young man, George, his brother Richard and their parents, Charles and Cora, moved to a home at 1512 North Thirteenth Street in nearby Lafayette Indiana. George graduated from Jefferson High School as the 1918 class president, and then entered his hometown Purdue University as a member of the class of 1923 for the study of mechanical engineering. Sadly, Charles Souders passed away in January 1920 and George dropped of Purdue to work in a garage on Fourteenth Street in Lafayette to help support his family.

Legend has it that George became involved with automobile racing by happenstance when he accompanied an acquaintance who was entered in races held on July 4, 1922 in Danville Illinois.  The earliest recorded result uncovered by the author of George Souders as a race car driver was in the June 29 1923 edition of the Tippecanoe County Democrat newspaper which reported on a race held at the Tippecanoe County fairgrounds ½-mile track on the previous Sunday, June 24.  

Souders finished second behind SE Keith in the day’s first ten-mile race behind the wheel of a car owned by Elmer Schuck of Lafayette. The race was marred by an early crash which sent five spectators to the hospital - one with a broken leg, one with burns from the crashed car’s radiator and three after being struck with debris from flying timbers. Shortly after the completion of the ten-mile race, heavy rain and lightning forced the cancellation of the balance of the program. After the storm had passed, the estimated 5,000 fans attempted to obtain rain checks or refunds but found that the promoters of the race had disappeared.

Later during the 1923 racing season Souders behind the wheel of the ‘Schuck Special’ competed several times at the ‘new’ ½ mile oiled dirt Hoosier Motor Speedway which was located at the intersection of 38th street and Pendleton Pike on what is today Indianapolis’ near east side. George qualified twelfth fastest in the ‘Schuck Special’ the day before the scheduled July 4th 100-lap race which was rained out. The race was rescheduled for July 7th but was rained out again. 

Souders was one of 27 drivers listed as entrants for the 100-lap race rescheduled for Saturday August 4 1923.  The entries were to winnowed down through qualifying and heat races and apparently Souders was not among the eleven drivers that started the feature race   Earl Warrick in his own blue-hued car won the 100-mile grind in a time of 56 minutes and 15 seconds.

The Indianapolis Star reported that Warrick grabbed the race lead on the eighth lap and led the rest of the way and finished more than a lap ahead of second place finisher Chance Kinsley. Kinsley, who was the Hoosier Speedway track record holder in a Frontenac-Ford racer owned by Arthur Chevrolet, will be the subject of a future article on this site.    


George Souders’ racing results for 1924 are spotty and both the results the author uncovered came from the same track, the ½ mile dirt oval at the Macon County fairgrounds in Decatur Illinois. On September 23, George was the fastest qualifier in his #401 ‘Souders Special’ as he toured the oval in 33.2 seconds, then won the five-mile “fast” heat race and the 20-mile feature race

The following month on Saturday afternoon October 11, Souders who listed his hometown as Covington, a border town about 50 miles southwest of Lafayette, scored a second consecutive Macon County ‘clean sweep’ behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Special. George set the day’s quick time in qualifying as he sped around the oval in 31-9/10 seconds, and then won the first five-mile heat race and the 20-mile feature race over Charles “Dutch” Baumann.  


The 1925 season found Souders racing in Texas on the successful AAA southwestern circuit overseen by Abilene petroleum transporter D. H. Jefferies.  July 4 saw George racing on the dirt track at the West Texas Fairgrounds at Abilene “considered one of the best and safest dirt tracks in the country” in a “specially built Chevrolet special” owned by car dealer Earl Warrick of Covington Indiana.   

Souders who listed Lafayette Indiana as his home earned $1,200 in winnings on July 4 after he won both his 10-mile race and the 25-mile feature race. In local newspaper advertisements in the weeks following his victory, Souders credited his racing success to his use of gasoline from the Texhoma Oil and Refining Company of Wichita Falls, Texas and the fact that his car was shod with Dayton ‘Thorobred’ tires.
George Souders in his #401 Chevrolet Special in 1925
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

On August 8 1925 Souders raced in the AAA-sanctioned event on the 5/8-mile dirt track in Breckinridge Texas as part of the two-day opening of the “Oil Belt Fair” track that featured auto races and an aviation show. John Lee of San Angelo Texas was the day’s fast qualifier in Hoosier John Mais’ 16-valve ‘Dodge Special’ with Souders second fastest in his ‘Chevrolet Special.’ 

George won the second five-lap heat race over Harry Milburn in a Duesenberg with John Mais third in his own ‘Hudson Special.’  Souders won the 10-mile feature race over the two Mais-owned machines with Lee second and Mais third.  There were automobile races held the following day with many of the same drivers, but Souders was not mentioned in published reports of the race won by hometown driver Bob Stillwell.

In a race held on Wednesday afternoon September 23 1925 the “California Phenom” Frank Lockhart lowered his own West Texas Fairgrounds track record by 2 1/5 seconds as he circulated twice around the 5/8-mile track in 67 1/5 seconds.  George Souders meanwhile qualified fifth with a time of 69 2/5 seconds then finished as the runner-up to Lockhart in the first 10-mile 16-lap race for the day’s eight fastest cars. Lockhart won the day’s 30-mile 48-lap finale and led second-place finisher Souders across the finish line by 37 seconds.

Friday afternoon October 5 1925 found Souders racing on the Haskell County Fair Speedway in Haskell Texas about 50 miles north of his new hometown of Abilene. George qualified third fastest behind the new track record holder John Gerber, considered to be the original ‘outlaw’ racer. Souders won the second five-mile heat race on the 5/8-mile dirt oval then placed third in the fifteen-mile feature race and won $75.

George Souders closed out his 1925 season far west of his adopted hometown of Austin Texas as he raced on Christmas Day in Douglas Arizona on the 7/8 mile Cochise County Fairgrounds track. Souders finished fifth in the 50-mile race behind the winner, local driver Jimmy Randolph.

Part two of our series will trace George Souders’ path to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Thanks to fellow historian Bob Lawrence for providing information on several races during Souders’ 1925 season. Readers are encouraged to check out Bob’s work at



Monday, April 17, 2017

Dick Woodland's beautiful vintage
midget race car

On display in the Estrella Warbird Museum entry hall and gift shop area is this beautiful pre-war “rail frame” midget race car which is part of the Richard “Dick” Woodland collection.

Richard Sawin of Seekonk Massachusetts began construction of this car in 1938 or 1939 but sold it partially completed during 1940. Due to the shortages of World War II the  second owner did have the car ready for its racing debut until 1946. Mr. Sawin later sold plans to build a  similar front and rear cross spring midget race car during 1946 through a classified advertisement in Popular Mechanics magazine

The car is powered by a “flathead” Ford V8-60 engine which displaced 136 cubic inches from the factory and produced 60 horsepower with 6-to-1 cylinder compression. The output of this engine fitted with aluminum cylinder heads and fed higher octane gasoline through dual Stomberg 97 carburetors for racing would have been considerably higher. 

This car is displayed in the colors of the Bowes Seal Fast Company although Mr. Woodland is fairly certain that the car never raced in this livery. Mr. Woodland believes that at some point during its racing career, this car was owned by Roscoe Morris “Pappy” Hough famous for his team of “five little pigs” midget race cars that raced up and down the East Coast. 

At some time, possibly under Hough’s ownership the car was driven by William “Shorty” Cantlon a veteran midget driver who was killed in an accident on the 41th lap in the 1947 Indianapolis 500-mile race. Cantlon 43 years of age drove the front-wheel drive #24 bright orange ‘Automobile Shippers Special’ owned by Lou Rassey while wearing a matching bright orange shirt and helmet.

All photos by the author, who extends his appreciation to Dick Woodland for maintaining the Woodland Auto Display.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Locomobile and auto racing
Part three- killed by another empire builder
postcard of the Locomobile factory
As part of the Locomobile reorganization in July 1922, W.C. “Billy” Durant who had recently lost control of General Motors was named president of the Locomobile Company. Durant assured customers that production of the Locomobile ‘48’ would continue from the Bridgeport Connecticut harbor-side 40 acre factory. Later that month “Billy” formed Durant Motors and Locomobile joined the low priced Flint, Durant, and Star nameplates under Durant’s control as he began to build another automotive empire.
Photo by the author

This car, a 1923 Locomobile Model 48 Sportif is on display at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) in Hood River, Oregon. In addition to the 4-passenger Sportif, (athletic in French) body style, the standard 1923 Locomobile Model 48  142-inch wheelbase chassis could be ordered as a 7- Passenger Touring car, Touring Limousine with open driver compartment, Brougham (four-door sedan), Victoria Sedan, Enclosed Drive Limousine, and Cabriolet (a limousine with a top that could be lowered over the passengers).
Photo by the author

The 1923 Locomobile is powered by 525 cubic inch non-detachable T-head straight six-cylinder engine which produced 95 horsepower. The cylinders cast in pairs sat atop a crankcase made of manganese bronze with seven main bearings. As the car itself was assembled by crew of six men, legend has it that the man who assembled the engine stamped his initials into the main bearing caps.   
 Photo by the author

1923 Locomobiles of which only 116 were built featured two mounted spare tires and four-wheel brakes. The rear wheels used contracting brakes while the front axle used expanding brakes, and a four-speed manual transmission of which part of the case was also manganese bronze. This Sportif model sold for $9,900 ($139,000 today) as it featured balloon tires mounted on wooden wheels and nickel-plated trim. 
Photo by the author

Photo by the author

The Locomobile model 48 which weighed an estimated 3 tons was advertised as the 'Best Built Car in America’ and in 1923 advertised as the 'The Exclusive Car for Exclusive People.' The model 48 the only Locomobile offering was in such demand that the automobile was produced at a rate of two per day during 1923. Indeed the Locomobile Model 48 was one of the most expensive and elegant automobiles ever manufactured in the United States and counted Hollywood greats Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille as customers.

In 1925, Durant Motors brought out the all-new Locomobile “66” “Junior Eight” with a straight-eight 201 cubic inch engine rated at 66 horsepower. The Brougham and Touring cars were priced at $1,785, with the Roadster listed for $2150 and the Sedan sold at $2285. Only twenty surviving Locomobile “Junior 8” cars are registered with the Locomobile Society.

During the 1926 racing season, WC Durant advertised the new Locomobile ‘Junior Eight’ automobile through sponsorship of his son, Cliff’s pair of racing cars built by Harlan Fengler  powered by Miller 91 cubic inch double overhead camshaft (DOHC) 16-valve inline eight-cylinder engines with superchargers identified by researcher Michael Ferner as Miller chassis numbers 2609 and 2610.

The first appearance of a ‘Locomobile Junior 8 Special’  which was painted blue with a white frame and trim came at the high-speed 1-¼ mile Culver City board track on March 1 1926 driven by Ralph Hepburn to a sixth place finish which was probably considered a shakedown session. Hepburn appeared again in the Locomobile racer at Charlotte North Carolina three weeks before the Indianapolis 500-mile race but the engine blew a head gasket after just five laps around the 1-¼ mile high-banked wood oval.

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1926 '500,'  builder Harlan Fengler was originally entered as a team driver with Leon Duray as his designated relief driver. Fengler known as the “boy speed king” had been seriously injured at Indianapolis in a May 15 1924 practice crash and had sat out the entire 1925 AAA (American Automobile Association) racing season as he recuperated. Duray was signed up because there were doubts as to whether Fengler “would be strong enough to ride for the entire 500 miles” according to published reports.  

As the situation worked out, Leon Duray qualified his Locomobile for third place on May 27 1926 while teammate and team owner Durant started eleventh. On lap 33, Duray retired the #10 car with a terminal fuel leak, and on lap 42 Durant, who reportedly spent two months of physical training preparing for the race, needed a relief driver. Veteran Eddie Hearne, who first raced at the Speedway in 1910, took over for Durant and completed 18 additional laps before the #9 car also retired with a leaking fuel tank.

The pair of “Locomobile Junior 8 Specials” continue to appear through the 1926 AAA season, with Fengler and Hearne as the team drivers though the Altoona race in September after which the cars were raced by Hepburn, Wade Morton and Frank Elliott. At the end of the 1926 racing season, Cliff Durant disbanded the team and Harry Hartz took both the “Locomobile Junior 8 Specials” to California to sell for Durant.  

One car, identified by Ferner as Miller chassis #2609 was raced as the “Locomobile Junior 8 Special” in the first three 1927 AAA races by Elliott before it was sold to Cliff Woodbury for his “Boyle Valve” team. Under Woodbury’s ownership the car was raced by Fred Comer, Hepburn, Russ Snowberger, and Billy Arnold through the 1929 season. After the 1929 AAA season it was sold to Fred Frame who cut it down into a ‘big car; ’in this shortened condition the car reportedly was raced by a succession of owners into the nineteen fifties.

Norm Batten and the flaming former "Locomobile Junior 8 Special"
rolls past the pits engulfed in flames during the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
According to Ferner, Miller chassis #2610 was raced at Culver City Speedway on March 6 1927 by Fengler after which it was sold to Norm Batten. This car became renowned as the flaming car that Batten drove through the pits during the 1927 ‘500.’ 

Batten recovered from his burns,  completed the 1928 ‘500’ fifth place in the same car but later died along with his friend Earl Devore following the sinking of the SS Vestris in November 1928. Batten’s widow Marian entered the car in the 1929 Indianapolis 500-mile race for Wesley Crawford and later in the season for Jimmy Gleason and Gordon Condon at the two Altoona board track races. 

After the 1929 season the one-time ‘Locomobile Special’ disappeared until it re-appeared at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1938 with a different engine, entered by former driver Henry Kohlert for Dennis "Duke" Nalon. Kohlert was a friend of the Batten family from the time he and Norman shared a hospital room as they recovered from their injuries in 1927. The car was sold again after Kohlert’s 1939 death to an unknown owner and researcher Ferner surmises that the second Fengler car was “probably raced to death in the Midwest.”

In 1926 Durant Motors introduced the Locomobile ‘Junior Six’ in coupe, sedan, and brougham body styles, all priced at $2100. These cars offered for sale only one year were a failure despite mid-year price cuts. Also during 1926 the venerable Model 48 was replaced at the top of the line by the Model 90 which was powered by a new 371 cubic inch straight six cylinder engine built in Bridgeport that developed 86 horsepower. Built for three model years, these cars are exceptionally rare as only three model 90 cars are known to exist today.

The Locomobile ‘70’ model powered by a Continental 246-cubic inch (70 horsepower) straight-8 cylinder engine was introduced as a 1927 model. The engine was shared with Stutz, Elcar, Graham-Paige, Henney, and Jordan, Moon, Peerless, and the Reo and to many loyal Locomobile buyers a car powered by anything other than a smooth Locomobile engine merely cheapened the marque and sales continued to drop.

For 1929, two new Locomobile models known as the ‘86’ and ‘88’ powered by Lycoming 298 cubic inch "L" head straight eight engines (purchased from Cord) were introduced  but it was too late to save the company. Locomobile produced its last car during 1929 as its parent company, Durant Motors, was failing but hung on until 1933. That same year futurist Buckminster built his experimental Dymaxion cars in a section of the old Locomobile factory in Bridgeport.

Today the stately Locomobile Model 48 cars of which only 167 are known to survive, are among the most prized of collector antique cars, and the WAAA museum in Oregon is fortunate to have such a beautiful example on display.