1938 Miller Gulf Special news, pictures, specifications, and information
High bid of $65,000 at 2015 Mecum. (did not sell)
Following the first-ever appearance by a rear-engine car at Indianapolis during practice in 1937, Harry Miller was commissioned by the Gulf Oil Company to build three such cars. Extremely futuristic for the time, they featured four-wheel drive and a six-cylinder supercharged Miller engine, tilted over at an angle. Only one arrived in 1938, too late to qualify. Of three in 1939, only George Bailey was able to qualify, although he did so in sixth place, the first rear-engine car ever in the Indy 500 race-day line-up. Of the handful of starts by these cars between 1939 and 1947, none traveled further than Bailey's 47 laps in 1939. Originally intended to run on pump gasoline, they featured side-mounted pontoon tanks, which proved to be very dangerous. After a pair of serious fires, the cars appeared in 1941 minus the pontoon tanks.
Harry A. Miller created some of the more advanced designs and engineering marvels of the early 1900s. He was born in Menomine, Wisconsin in 1875. His fathers German surname was Mueller; when Harry was old enough he changed his last name to Miller, to simplify the spelling. He left school at age thirteen to pursue in job in the local machine shop where he repaired steam engines and other mechanical devices.
By the early 1900s, he and his wife were living in San Francisco. While there, he created a simplistic car without a clutch or gearbox. He later created and patented a type of spark plug. This patent was later sold to the Peerless Motor Car Company. With the profits, he left California and headed to Toledo, Ohio in pursuit of a career in the automotive industry.
By 1908 he was a riding mechanic in the Vanderbilt Cup Races on Long Island. The car had disappointing results and he would never again get into the cockpit of a racer for competition purposes.
The early 1910s were blissful for the master engineer. He managed to secure investors to help with his endeavors. His Master carburetor, which he had first built in 1907, was very popular, and would remain a widely used item until the early 1920s. This success in the carburetion business led to other automotive endeavors. When Bob Burman, a race car driver with some fame, requested Miller to build him a replacement engine for his damaged car, Miller accepted. The engine was originally created by Peugeot; Miller made many modifications including using aluminum alloy pistons which dramatically reduced the overall weight while increase its strength and durability. With the newly tuned engine, Burman won the 200-mile Southwest Sweepstakes Road Race at Oklahoma City, and many other victories.
Many of the 122 Millers produced have wonderful and colorful histories. Such is the case with the front-drive 122 Miller created by Jimmy Murphy and Riley Brett. It was dramatically different than other cars, as the power was sent to the same wheels that carried the bulk of the weight, and was responsible for the steering. The idea was that front-wheel drive may help in powering through turns.
Leo Goossen turned the idea into engineered drawings. The shop foreman of Miller, Mr. Fred Offenhauser, oversaw the production and Harry A. Miller made sure the project had all that was needed.
The Front Drive #1 was intended for competition at Indianapolis and on the board tracks. A second car was created for land speed record attempts. It was given as small of a frontal area as possible with the brakes concealed with the disc wheels. This car has become known as the 'Outboard Brake' car, or Front Drive #2. Unfortunately, plans changed after Murphy died at Syracuse in 1924.
Front Drive #2 was brought to the 1925 Indianapolis race where it was driven by Bennett Hill during practice and qualifying. Hill was unable to adapt to the cars handling and was unsatisfied with its handling. Ora Haibe was given the opportunity to qualify the car for the race, but was unable to do so.
Front Drive #2 was later purchased by the Packard Company to determine the feasibility of a front drive system. The car was later sold to Stanley Reed who brought the car to the speedway in 1927 with Bruce Miller behind the wheel, but was unable to qualify the car. In the hands of Sam Ross in 1928, the car qualified 16th with a speed of 106.757 mph. After 132 laps the car experienced timing gear problems and was forced to retire prematurely. In 1929 the car returned to Indy with driver Albert Karnatz piloting the machine; it qualified but retired early due to a gas leak. The following year the Junk Formula rules were put into place and made the car obsolete. Changes were made to the car to accommodate the new rules. It was widened to allow for a riding mechanic. At Indy the car qualified 33rd, but on race day it proved to be very competitive. It ran at the front of the pack most of the race and finished in an impressive 6th place.
At the 1931 Indy 500 it was driven by Frank Brisko and his riding mechanic Floyd Wiese. On lap number 138 a steering arm failure had the car retire early from the race. It returned a year later with Brisko as the driver and Floyd Sparks as the riding mechanic. The qualifying speed of 111.149 earned them a start of 13th place. But on lap number 61 they had a blown clutch and again, ended the day early. A wheel came off on lap 146th the following year, but neither driver or mechanic were hurt.
In 1937 the car was given a DOHC 6-cylinder engine designed by Frank Brisko. Brisko qualified at 118.213 which gave him a mid-pack start. He was joined during the race by riding mechanic Lester Brown. An oil leak on lap 105 meant the car would return to the pits early, and credited with a 23rd place.
Rule changes in 1938 eliminated the need for the riding mechanic. Brisko had the car narrowed and brought back to single seat configuration. It was still powered by Brisko's 271 cubic-inch six-cylinder engine which was powerful enough to qualify the car in 11th place that year. On lap number 39, an oil problem and broken line ruined the cars chances once again. Returning in 1939, Brisko again sat in the 11 spot but on race day it would be an air pump failure that took him out on lap number 38.
In 1940 the car completed the 193 lap race and finished in 9th place. For 1941 the car made it 70 laps before a broken valve spring sidelined the attempt. The car and Brisko returned in 1946, having been treated to mild restyling but still with the six-cylinder engine, driven by Louis Tomei and wearing the name 'Boxar Tool Special', traveled 34 laps before a broken oil line formed him to quit.
The impressive Miller car had lasted 21 years in major competition which is a feat unheard of in modern times as most cars barely last a season. It has one of the longest major racing careers in history and a true testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the Miller automobiles.
Tommy Milton piloted a Miller 122 to another victory at the Indy 500 in 1923, averaging 100 mph. With this success, Millers popularity continued to escalate. He was supplying more cars to more teams than any other marque.
As time progressed, so did his engines, cars, and accomplishments. He would become one of the most successful race car builders of all time.
By Daniel Vaughan | Mar 2011
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