1938 Sparks-Thorne Little 6

1938 Sparks-Thorne Little 6 1938 Sparks-Thorne Little 6 1938 Sparks-Thorne Little 6 Racer
Chassis #: 2
This car was constructed in the amazingly short period of six months (beginning October 1937), in a cost-is-no-object effort to win the Indianapolis 500-Mile race. The collaborators in this project were an unlikely pair. A brilliant, self-taught engineer, Art Sparks and a highly eccentric, wealthy, Joel Thorne. With Thorne's unlimited backing, Sparks created two start-of-the-art racing cars with ideas he had gleaned from many years of racing experience. Built to the specifications of the day, the cars were powered by double overhead camshaft supercharged 180 cubic-inch engines mounted in rail-frame chassis with leaf spring suspension. From the moment of their arrival at The Speedway in May 1938, they were contenders. Unfortunately, they both broke down due to problems with their superchargers and valve springs.

Improved and re-entered in 1939, the number 10 car of Jimmy Snyder showed its true potential, qualifying on the pole for the '500' at a record-setting average of 130 miles an hour - a speed not equaled at Indy until 1948. A dispute between Sparks and Thorne, following Jimmy's death in a midget race, meant that neither of the two cars ran in 1940. However, Art again entered Snyder's former Number 10 in 1941 for National Champion Ted Horn, who drove it to an excellent third.

After the war, Joel Thorne sold number 10 to a private entrant named Bob Flavell from Los Angeles who ran the car at Indianapolis for the next three years. His drivers included Harry McQuinn, Mel Hansen, & Sam Hanks. Its last appearance was in 1949 when talented Tony Beltenhausen failed to qualify by less than 3 hundredths of a mile an hour. Flavell kept it untouched in his garage in Orange County until his death. This car passed through 4 other owners until purchased by its present owner in 1998, the car still in original condition. Beginning in 1999, Phil Reily & Co of Corle Madera, CA, completely restored the car. It had its modern debut at Laguna Seca Historic Races in 2001. It won the Monterey Cup, the Phil Hill Award and the Hulman Trophy at Pebble Beach.

1938 Sparks-Thorne Little 6 1938 Sparks-Thorne Little 6 1938 Sparks-Thorne Little 6 Racer
The first '500' to be held after World War II, in 1946, was won by a still-modernistic-appearing car that was actually eight years old. For 1938, designer/engineer Art Sparks had commissioned from car builder Clyde Adams two of these cars for eccentric millionaire sportsman Joel Thorne. Although Chicago's Jimmy Snyder set several records with one of the cars and was runner-up in 1939, it was English-born George Robson in 1946 who recorded the team's only win. The unique design featured a cockpit far to the left and the upright six-cylinder supercharged Sparks engine mounted at an angle in such a way that the driveshaft would run past the driver's right hip on its way to the transmission, located at the right rear.
Art Sparks was in movie stunts which led to racing, and then teaching machine shop practice at Glendale High School. He was a self-taught engineer who raced in many events in Southern California during the early- to mid-1920s in a Model T-based Racing Special. In 1927 he was involved in an accident at Banning which put him through the wall and into the hospital. After the crash, he retired from the sport and turned his attention to building and preparing cars. By 1930 he was a full time car owner and teamed up with Paul Weirick, forming the Sparks-Weirick partnership. The duo enjoyed much success, winning racing and earning tens of thousands at Legion Ascot and other West Coast tracks.

The first Sparks-Weirick racer was powered by a 16-valve 200 cubic-inch four-cylinder Miller engine. The engine was mounted in chassis, given four-wheel brakes and a slender body and painted in Cerulean Blue. The chassis and body had been created by Clyde Adams.

Next came the 'Catfish' Racing Special designed to compete in the 1932 Indy 500. It was aerodynamic and driven to speeds reaching 150 mph during testing by driver 'Stubby' Stublefield. These results earned them Earl Gilmore's sponsorship for the 1932 Indy race. The car qualified in 25th position at 118 mph and finished the race in 14th overall.

The Catfish was followed by the Lionhead Special which was so successful it won the 1933 Pacific Championship. A Sparks designed car followed, with an engine that featured many Sparks-designs such as the block and rods. The engine had only two valves per cylinder in true hemispherical combustion chambers. The result of this special was dubbed the 'Poison Lil'.

In 1936 the Sparks and Weirick union ended with Weirick getting the hard assets and Sparks receiving $8,500. With the funds and the end of the 'Junk Formula' limitations for the Indy 500, Sparks embarked on a racer designed specifically for the brick yard. The car featured six-cylinders, dual overhead camshaft, seven bearings, a displacement size of 336.1 cubic-inches, and a supercharger. The result was the 'Big Six' and had taken the entire eighty-five hundred bucks, an additional assets Sparks could get his hands on, and personal funds from a bank manger.

The frame and body was formed by Clyde Adams. Fred Offenhauser's shop did much of the machining. The car was driven by Jimmy Snyder and Takeo Hirashima to ride as mechanic.

At the Indianapolis 500 qualifying, Bill Cummings took the pole with an average speed of 123.455. Synder posted a single lap speed time of 128.570 but then the supercharger thrust bearings started to go and required a rework of the blower. The car missed its qualification attempt on pole day due to the mechanical failures. It was ready in time for the last day of qualifying and Snyder clocked at 130.494 mph. This was 5 mph faster than anyone had ever gone. At the end of qualifying, he had a four-lap average of 125.287 and had earned a new track record.

The car started in 19th position in the 7th row. As the race started, the car easily passed the competition and was in the lead after just three laps. In a short amount of time the car had lapped nearly all of the competition. The car ran brilliantly for the first 27 laps, but its day would end prematurely as all of the stock Buick valve springs had broken.

Sparks was left in very poor financial shape. He owed money and was fully mortgaged. Some salvation was had when Joel Thorne offered to buy the car. Thorne was a wealthy individual due to a very large inheritance. His father had died when he was ten and left Joel with $38 million. He had entered three cars in the 1937 Indy 500, but now he wanted the Big Six.

The car was sold for $12,000 and included an invitation to run Thorn Engineering, Inc, a company which built race cars and engine which was backed by $300,000 of Thorne's money. Sparks agreed and began a period of employment with Thorne.

For 1938, the AAA Contest Board ruled that engine displacement size was to be decreased, both for naturally aspirated and forced induction engines. The supercharged engines could displace 3 liters and unblown engines could be up to 4.5-liters. This made the Big Six obsolete. Thorne-Sparks began work on two 'Little Six' race cars for 1938.

The Bix Six was brought back to the Speedway in 1939 with Joel Thorne as the driver. Mounted under the hood was a 272 cubic-inch engine equipped with Winfield carburetors. The car qualified in 20th place and finished in 7th. The following year Thorne qualified in 10th and finished in 5th. The following year Thorne qualified at 121.163 mph. On lap number 5 he attempted to avoid Tomei and Andres who had collided, hit the wall and wrecked the car.

Racing was suspended during the Second World War, and resumed in 1946. Thorne had intended to drive the Big Six again, but had broken his leg in a motorcycle accident. The driving duties were passed to a German star driver named Rudolph Caracciola. Caracciola was supposed to drive a Mercedes-Benz W165 1.5-liter supercharged GP racer but it had not cleared customs in time for the race.

Caracciola drove the car in qualifying to speeds over 118 mph but was involved in crash when (reportedly) a bird him and he lost control of the car. Caracciola was injured and the car was badly damaged.

The car was rebuilt by Joe Silnes in his race car shop and brought back to the brickyard on five more occasions. In 1947 it was driven by Tony Bettenhausen and in 1948-1951 by Joel Thorne. On each attempt it failed to qualify.

Thorne decided to enter the car in the Carrera Panamerica Mexican Road Race. Many modifications were made to get the car ready for the event, including a 50-gallon fuel tank. In 1955 Thorne was killed in a plane crash and it was sold four weeks later by the mechanic, 'Sonny' Bohman to recoup expenses.

By Daniel Vaughan | Dec 2007

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