Friday, July 21, 2017

1930’s Muroc Record breakers

Part three

In our last chapter about the land speed record (LSR) attempts conducted on Muroc Dry Lake during the 1930’s we traced the early history of  the Clyde Adams built “Catfish” race car designed by renowned Stanford aeronautics professor Elliott Grey Reid. The car dropped off  the 1932 AAA (American Automobile Association) national  championship trail- why?  

After the July 2 race at Syracuse race where “Stubby” Stubblefield finished second,  the current Class C world speed record holding car was purchased from Art Sparks and Paul Weirick by the 1932 Indianapolis winner Fred Frame who used it on a nationwide barnstorming tour. According to author Gordon Eliot White, Sparks and Weirick used the $8500 proceeds from the sale to buy a pair of Miller 220 engines stroked to 247 cubic inches which they used in their successful AAA Pacific Southwest circuit ‘big car.’

The “Catfish” & Fred Frame

On Saturday October 29 1932, Frame and the “Catfish” appeared in a match race sanctioned by the AAA against the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner George Souders who returned to racing after three years.  Severely injured in a dirt track crash at Detroit July 1928 in which he suffered a compound skull fracture and broken bones in both arms, Souders retired as race driver the following February.

The first race on the 5/8-mile West Texas Fairgrounds in more than two years was promoted and officiated by local petroleum products trucking company owner D.H. Jefferies, who imported the 1925 Indianapolis winner Peter DePaolo to act as the official starter. The 75 laps of racing action was scheduled to be divided into three heats- the first heat distance of 30 laps, the second 25 laps, and the last heat 20 laps. 

The interesting twist in Abilene was that the “Catfish” was driven by Souders, not Frame who drove his Miller-powered Duesenberg with which he had finished second at the 1931 Indianapolis ‘500.’ Frame purchased the blue-painted Duesenberg from owner Harry Hartz after the 1931 season, entered it for Billy Winn at Indianapolis in 1932, and then drove the car himself for the balance of the 1932 AAA season. Sometime prior to its appearance at Abilene, Frame had replaced the original Duesenberg engine with a Miller power plant.  

The Frame cars arrived in the Abilene area early in the week and were placed on display. The “Catfish” was parked at Christian’s Super Service the local Firestone tire distributor, while Frame’s Miller-Duesenberg was on display in the showroom of the Fulwiler Motor Company, the local Ford dealer  On Wednesday October 26, as the “Catfish” was towed behind a truck to the race track it bumped the back of the truck which “dented its snout.”

With the damage quickly repaired, Souders practiced the “Catfish” extensively on Thursday while Frame took a local newspaper reporter, Harold L. “Prexy” Anderson, along as a passenger for a few fast laps around the 5/8-mile dirt track. After the run, “Prexy” a long-time Abilene fixture self-described as “one of the most widely read and quoted sports writers in the southwest” wrote that it had been his “first racing ride - and last” while Frame for his part, noted that he had been running “at a snail’s pace.”

The Abilene Morning News reporter noted that while the “Catfish” was super-streamlined which allowed it run faster on the long straightaways at Indianapolis, it had “no advantage on the Abilene short course.” On Friday morning after a few practice laps, Souders directed mechanics to install a lower rear end drive gear in preparation for the following day’s race.

The race program which began at 3 PM on Saturday was very well attended but turned out to be not very competitive. Souders in the “Catfish” which still carried its Gilmore sponsorship logos suffered a flat tire during the first 30-lap heat race and George finished two laps in arrears. Souders was more competitive in the remaining two heat races, but Frame swept all three heat races wins that day.  

Frame and Harry Hartz at Muroc in 1933

This photograph from the June 1934 issue of Popular Science magazine
show a crew readying the Union '76' Special at Muroc Dry Lake

In March 1933  the “Catfish” powered by a Miller 255 marine engine reappeared at Muroc Dry Lake prepared to set new records driven by Frame and Harry Hartz.  Leading up to the record runs in early March 1933, newspaper articles ran across the country with a photograph of Hartz seated in the “new ultra-streamlined car” which “resembles very much a prehistoric monster.” Sponsorship for the record attempt was provided by with Union ‘76’ gasoline.

The Union Oil Company founded in 1890 in Santa Paula California sold its products through independent and company owned service stations. Union introduced its ‘76’ grade of gasoline on January 2 1932 and on February 6 1932 filed a trademark application which was rejected by the examiner of trademarks. The reason given was that “the number `76' applied to gasoline would doubtless indicate to the purchaser the octane rating….or Baumé gravity (density).”

An affidavit filed by the company responded that “said numeral `76' was not affixed by said Union Oil Company of California to the gasoline to indicate its gravity or octane rating or any other grade, characteristic or quality of the gasoline, but merely as an arbitrary trademark." This dispute clearly outlines the confusion over Union’76’ gasoline, as even 85 years later, there remains the public perception that Union ‘76’ gasoline had a 76 octane rating.

Union newspaper advertisements were carefully worded but bragged of the gasoline’s performance advantages. For example an advertisement in the San Bernardino Sun published in September 1932 read in part “Union 76 gives extra performance - this fresh gasoline broke and still holds every American stock car speed record from 1 to 500 miles.” This is a reference to the records set in July 1932 by Eddie Miller and Earl Cooper in a pair of V-12 powered Auburns.   

The Union ‘76’ ad went on to state “under all motor operating temperatures on the road, new Union 76 Gasoline has the highest anti-knock or octane rating of any non-premium gasoline sold!  Qualities vary in different gasolines. You will find Union 76 with its superior qualities of quick starting, anti-knock and power gives you the economy of greater mileage and smoother performance.”

After numerous appeals and rejections in 1937 the tribunals of the Patent Office affirmed the decision of the Commissioner of Patents’ rejection of the registration. The decision stated that the “numerals ‘76’ are mis-descriptive of a grade or quality of oil and do not indicate origin. It appears that the mark "76" might be understood by the purchasing public to be a grade or quality mark so the appellant should not be given the right to use these numerals to the exclusion of all others engaged in the trade.”

Even today Unocal (Union’s predecessor) states that “in 1932, the company introduced a new high-octane gasoline with the brand name 76. The number 76 is no ordinary number but was incorporated to mark a token of respect to the Declaration of Independence of United States of America dated 1776.”

Harry Hartz, the 1926 AAA national champion had retired from racing after suffering severe injuries and burns in a 1927 crash on the Rockingham board track in Salem New Hampshire. Hartz became a car owner and won the 1930 Indianapolis ‘500’ in car he modified.  

The following year, defending champion Billy Arnold in Hartz’ car led the first 155 laps of the 1931 Indianapolis ‘500’ before he crashed out with a six-lap lead, and Hartz’ second car driven by Fred Frame finished second.  In the 1932 ‘500,’ Frame returned in a Hartz owned machine and won after he led the final 58 laps.

On March 9 Hartz set new International Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) records for the “flying” one kilometer and one mile at 148.70 Miles per hour (MPH) and 151.10 MPH respectively. The following day Hartz set the new 10-mile Class C record of 146.71 MPH as he covered the distance in a scant four minutes and 5.39 seconds which broke John Godfrey Parry-Thomas’ record which had stood since 1926. 

On March 11, Hartz set the new five-kilometer standard at 145.93 MPH which broke Stubblefield’s record set in the same chassis by more 12 ½ miles per hour. Fred Frame then took the wheel for the five-mile run that same day and he broke Stubblefield’s nine-month old record by over fourteen miles per hour.

The following day Sunday March 12 1933 Frame set new International Class C standards for 50 kilometer and 50 mile distances from a standing start. Kaye Don had set the old records in 1929 on the high-banked Brooklands track in England, but on a circular course set up on the flat dry lake surface, Frame smashed the old records. Frame’s new 50-kilometer speed of 136.52 MPH broke Don’s record by nearly 13 MPH, while his 50-mile average speed of 139.64 MPH bettered Don’s record by over 15 MPH.

The “Catfish” after the Muroc Class C records
Johnny Seymour and Frank Hinkley celebrate qualifying
for the 1934 Indianapolis 500-mile race
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The Clyde Adams built “Catfish” did not appear at any AAA championship races in 1933, but it was entered by Fred Frame as the unsponsored “Streamline Miller” for the 1934 Indianapolis ‘500’ for driver Johnny Seymour.  Johnny, himself a former land speed record holder on an Indian motorcycle had four previous starts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all behind the wheel of front-wheel drive machines.  

Fred Frame entered three cars at the Speedway in 1934 - the “Catfish” with the Miller engine de-stroked to just 200 cubic inches of displacement, the old Miller-powered Duesenberg for rookie Rex Mays and the 1930 Indianapolis winning front wheel drive car purchased from Harry Hartz for Frame himself.  Seymour struggled through practice to find sufficient speed, while Mays comfortably qualified on the third day of time trials at 113.639 MPH.

On Monday May 28 the last day of qualifying disaster struck during Frame’s 10-lap qualifying run when a steering arm broke and the front wheel drive entry crashed into the wall and was damaged beyond immediate repair. Frame and his riding mechanic Aloysius ‘Al’ Theisen, a young dirt track racer were shaken but otherwise uninjured.

Frame watched from the pit area as Seymour posted a ten-lap qualifying average of 108.591 MPH to become the slowest car in the starting field. Seymour and his riding mechanic Frank Hinkley started the “Streamline Miller” last in the 33-car field but they were sidelined on lap 22 by either a burnt rod bearing or broken pinion gear 

Frame later sold the “Catfish” to Charles Worley around the time that its International 1-mile, 1-kilometer and five kilometer records were smashed by Rudolf Caraciola in a modified Mercedes W25 Grand Prix car. The record car funded not by an oil company but by the Nazi party, was fitted with a canopy over the driver and powered by a 205-cubic inch straight eight double overhead camshaft engine that developed a reported 430 horsepower. 

On October 28 1934 on five-kilometer stretch of specially constructed roadway known as “the Gyon record stretch” between Budapest and Kecskernet Hungary, Caraciola posted an astonishing two-way average speed of 197.35 MPH for the “flying kilometer” and 196.78 MPH for the “flying mile.” In an enormous jump in speed, both runs were nearly 50 miles per hour faster than Hartz’ records set just a year and half earlier  Caraciola afterwards compared the W25’s ride on the 18 feet 6 inch wide concrete to racing a limousine and the car forever become known as the “Rennlimousine"
The 1934 Mercedes W25 Rennlimousine
photo courtesy of Daimler AG

On December 10 1934 the “Rennlimousine” modified with a lower canopy, a wider windshield and a set of air intakes and outlets made its attempt at the five kilometer record at the AVUS (Automobil-Verkehrs und Übungsstraße) track in the Berlin suburbs which was composed of two six-mile long straightaways connected by tall banked brick curves. At the end of the day, Caraciola smashed Hartz’ record by 46 MPH and establish the new AIACR Class C five kilometer standard of 197.86 MPH
Frank McGurk and Karl Hattel pose before the 1936 Indianapolis 500 start
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 

The “Catfish” returned to Indianapolis in 1936 powered by a Ford Model B engine with a ‘DO’ (double overhead camshaft) Cragar cylinder head conversion as the ‘Abel’s Auto Ford Special.’  Frank “Wildman” McGurk a Legion Ascot Speedway veteran but a rookie on the Indianapolis bricks was selected to pilot the car he also drove Worley’s ‘big car.’

Karl Hattel a talented 21 year old midget racer served as McGurk’s riding mechanic and the pair qualified the “Catfish” with a ten-lap average speed of 113.102 MPH on the busy second day of time trials to take their place as the 22nd starter. On Race Day, the number 52 “Catfish” was sidelined after 51 laps after the crankshaft broke in the Ford engine.

Before the 1937 Indianapolis ‘500’ ownership of the “Catfish” passed to another of the era’s multi-talented men, Frank Brisko who was a race driver, mechanic, engine and car builder. Brisko first raced on the Indianapolis 2-1/2 mile brick course in 1929 and had introduced his own engine design in 1936. Brisko fitted one of his own 271-cubic inch six-cylinder double overhead camshaft engines between the frame rails of the “Catfish” for rookie driver Dennis “Duke” Nalon. After “Duke” could not get the #21  “Elgin Piston Ring Special” up to speed, veteran Dave Evans, who first raced in the ‘500’ in 1925 gave it a try but fell short as the car could not complete its qualifying attempt.


According to Gordon Eliot White, the “Catfish” was driven by Emil Andres in the 1938 Indianapolis 500-mile race but the car was unrecognizable as the “Catfish” as it had been re-bodied with a one-man body after the end of the AAA “junk formula” rules following the 1937 season.  The “Catfish” was gone but it had spawned some similarly styled machines; in 1938, Floyd “Pop” Dreyer built a Harley-Davidson powered midget race car that was a small-scale homage to the “Catfish.”  

Wilbur Shaw's winning "Pay Car" in 1937  
note the similarity to the "Catfish"
photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The most famous of the cars inspired by the aerodynamic “Catfish” was the Wilbur Shaw “Pay Car.”  Built by Myron Stevens who rode with Shaw in the car’s debut in the 1936 Indianapolis ‘500,’ the pair lost ten minutes during the race when the hood came loose and the “Gilmore Speedway Special” finished seventh.   The following year the “Pay Car” returned;  Shaw started second, led 131 laps and recorded his first of three “500’ victories.   

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