Bob's Resource Website (2007)
Studebaker Indianapolis 500 Novi Race car


The Novi was called the greatest car never to win the Indianapolis 500 mile race, yet it became an Indy icon without ever entering the winner's circle.

In 1937, Indy ended its "Junk Formula" that allowed engines up to 6.0 litres. It was instituted in 1930 to permit cheaper stock block engines, and it was superseded in 1938 by international Grand Prix rules permitting displacements of 4.5L naturally aspirated or 3.0L supercharged.

Brothers Ed and Bud Winfield, makers of racing carburetors, wanted to build an Indy car for the new formula. They landed sponsorship from Lewis Welch of Novi, Mich., who made Ford parts and rebuilt Ford engines.

Welch wanted a V8, and asked that it be named after his home town of Novi. The Novi engine would be installed in a Harry Miller-designed Ford front-drive chassis that raced at Indy in 1935.

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Work on a 3.0L supercharged Novi began in 1940 in the shop of legendary racing engine builder Fred Offenhauser, with design by Leo Goosen, America's only full-time racing engine designer.

It was a 90-degree, oversquare (bigger bore than stroke), 16-valve V8 with gear-driven double overhead camshafts and hemispherical combustion chambers. A large front-mounted, intercooled centrifugal supercharger was spun by a horizontal shaft from the rear of the engine. It breathed through three Winfield carburetors, and, at 8,000 rpm, the blower was turning at 42,000, producing up to 30 psi of boost.

Almost miraculously, the Novi engine was ready for the 1941 race. It was rated at 450 horsepower when a typical Offenhauser had 300. The front-drive Novi was always heavy, thirsty and hard on tires, and it qualified in 28th place at 194 kilometres an hour. Ralph Hepburn finished the race in a trouble-free fourth position.

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In 1945, following the Second World War interruption in racing, Welch had Goosen design a new front transaxle that allowed lower engine mounting. Emerging racecar builder Frank Kurtis produced a new chassis and a low, sleek body, and the car, not just the engine, was now called the Novi.

In the Novi Governor Special, Hepburn did the four-lap qualifying at 216 km/h for the 1946 Indy. No car had ever done more than 211, and although late qualifying placed it 19th on the grid, the Novi was touted as a shoo-in winner. By Lap 12, Hepburn was leading, but brake woes on Lap 56 and a long pit stop dropped him to 13th. He climbed to fourth by Lap 122 when a broken valve finished him.

In 1947, the two Novi Governor Mobile Specials qualified. One broke a piston on Lap 62, and the other finished fourth.

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Tragedy struck in 1948, when one of the Novi Grooved Piston Specials hit the wall in qualifying, killing Hepburn and launching a jinxed reputation for the Novi. Dennis (Duke) Nalon took over and qualified fastest at 212 km/h. Nalon drove well, but he came in third due to a refuelling glitch. It would be the Novi's best finish. In spite of Nalon and Rex Mays qualifying first and second in 1949, the jinx struck again during the race when Nalon hit the wall and Mays' engine failed.


The Novis failed to qualify in 1950 but were back for 1951, when Nalon broke all records, gaining the pole at 220 km/h. Chet Miller's Novi qualified but, unfortunately, both drivers failed to finish. For 1952, Nalon and Miller returned, and Miller stunned Indy with a fastest-ever 224 km/h qualifier. But both Novis broke their supercharger driveshafts during the race. Nalon and Miller had stronger supercharger drives installed and removed the intercoolers for 1953. Miller was attempting 225 km/h during qualifying when he hit a wall and died. This took heart out of the effort, and though Nalon qualified, he was never in contention. He spun out on Lap 191.

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The 1953 race would be the last Indy for a front-drive car; the Novi front drivers failed to qualify in 1954 and '55. For 1956, the Novi engines were fitted to Kurtis rear- drive chassis. New rules reduced displacement to 2.7L in 1957. Modifications were tried, but in

1961, after 20 years of attempting to win at Indy, Lou Welch sold the Novi assets to Andy Granatelli of Studebaker's Paxton supercharger and STP additive divisions. Granatelli and crew coaxed the Novi to more than 700 hp, without a win. In 1964, Granatelli applied its power to four-wheel drive. It proved inconclusive. In any event, four-wheel drive was made unnecessary by new, stickier tires and the change to rear-engined cars. Novis didn't finish in 1964 or '65, and they failed to qualify in '66. Thus ended the exciting but ill-fated Novi's odyssey, one that had promised so much but delivered so little.

The Novi engine was a Dual Overhead Cam Supercharged V8 engine used in the Indianapolis 500 designed by Bud Winfield and built by Fred Offenhauser. It was first used in 1941 under the "Winfield" name and produced over 450 hp, an amazing output for the time, but it was very difficult to handle.

After World War II, the Novi returned in 1946 with 510 horsepower (fitted in a more advanced Kurtis Kraft front-wheel-drive chassis) and performed beautifully, setting the track record and leading 44 laps in a car driven by Ralph Hepburn. Drivers such as Paul Russo and Duke Nalon later drove the engine at notable speeds, but were unable to win. In 1949, Nalon's Novi figured in a memorable crash, in which leaking gasoline created a 'wall of fire' across one of the Speedway's banked turns.

The engine's crowd-pleasing 'shriek' of its supercharger unit became as legendary as its dangerous reputation, particularly after veterans Hepburn (in 1948) and Chet Miller (in 1953) both died in practice trying to control the overpowering vehicle. In addition, the engine's own power often caused it to break down prematurely, ending several promising victory chances.

After not being entered at the Indianpolis 500 in the last years of the 1950's, the Novi received its 'last hurrah' when colorful car owner Andy Granatelli purchased the rights to it. Granatelli's team put the crowd-attracting shrieking legend back into the race from 1961 to 1965, developing a 4-wheel-drive version in 1964 in an attempt to effectively harness the extreme power. Its notable drivers during this period were Jin Hurtubise, Art Malone, and Bobby Unser. The engine was last used at the race in 1966, when a qualifying crash finished its career.

Despite never powering a Championship Car race winner, few engines have become as much of a 'celebrity' in automobile racing as the Novi.

Frankly, there was very little wrong with the Novi V8 engine, as one might expect from a Leo Goosen-engineered engine, designed by him to spec's given by the Winfield brothers.

The failures, as such with the Winfield project (the engine was known as the "Winfield V8" in 1941 and 1946, BTW) stemmed first from the pretty inadequate 1935 Miller-Ford FWD chassis in which it was installed for the 1941 Indianapolis 500, then the monstrously large Kurtis FWD chassis built in 1946-47--550-600 hp was clearly too much for a front-drive race car, even at Indianapolis.

Additionally, the Novi engine had but one racetrack on which to run, though 1955, and that was Indianapolis--the front drives ran nowhere else, save for an attempt at an endurance record at Bonneville with the legendary Ab Jenkins driving. This was less than successful, primarily due to the Novi engine's being set up for left hand turns on ovals, and international rules for LSR endurance runs requiring running clockwise on a circular course. This of course, played hob with oil scavenging in the crankcase, and caused a lot of oil throwing due to the placement of the crankcase vents. With but one race a year, it is frankly amazing that the Novi V8 did as well as it did, given such limited development time even over the 24 years of its career, and their never being more than 2 of the engines running at Indy until 1964, when 4 cars made the show.

A "Big Budget" flop? I don't think so. For starters, I believe only 5 Novi engines were ever built, and I believe all 5 still exist today. I believe the record also shows that not a single Novi engine ever blew up, rather they suffered from such things as crashes, broken supercharger drives, failures of refueling systems, and drivers unable to control such a charging beast of an engine in a front-drive car.

Bear in mind, that as postwar racing at Indianapolis unfolded, there were rather few really good front-drive race drivers left in competition--arguably the best were Mauri Rose, rookie Bill Holland, Duke Nalon, Chet Miller and Ralph Hepburn. the latter having been around since the late 1920's.
At Indianapolis, where a rear-drive car truly has a 4-straight racetrack on which to run, the idiosyncracies of front wheel drive reduced that to just the two 5/8 mile straightaways, drivers having to treat the south and north short chutes as another turn in between those plotted by the race course itself--no straightening out, stabbing the gas coming off turns 1 and 3, but a very smooth, almost delicate touch was required (that told to me by none other than Duke Nalon, and later confirmed by none other than the late Louie Meyer). To complicate things, Bud and Ed Winfield, Frank Kurtis, and the long-time chief mechanic of the Novi's. Jean Marcenac, had to deal with the ever eccentric and demanding Lou Welch, who did bankroll the cars from 1946-60. Welch's insistence on such as the front drive chassis, built hell-for-stout and heavier than any other race car on the Speedway save for the 1952 Cummins Diesel Spl., and a locked front differential only served to make things extremely difficult for all. Big budget? Not when one considers that in the 14 years of Welch's ownership of the Novi effort, 4 chassis and 5 engines were built--hardly indicative of a bottomless pit of money, it seems to me.

Even when the Granitelli's took over the Novi team in 1960, they didn't really spend all that much money--regardless of what Andy Granitelli's autobiography states. Two new Kurtis rear drive chassis were ordered, and by Frank Kurtis' account, never paid for. Granitelli had to buy a set of new cylinder blocks (the Novi is built on the Offy/Miller plan, barrel crankcase with separate iron cylinder blocks that are blind-bored)due to the reduction in supercharged displacement to 161cid, and did some supercharger work, but that was pretty much it.

Add in two new 4wd chassis, the first in 63, built by Ferguson Ltd, the second as a home-built copy of the Ferguson in 1964, and we pretty much sum up Granitelli's investment beyond operating expenses, through 1965.

The continuing saga of the world famous Novi race cars from their sale to the Granatelli brothers in 1961 through temporary retirement after the failure to qualify for the 1966 race and their definitive retirement in 1968. By 1968, the fabled front engine cars were no longer considered competitive due to the evolutionary changes in Indy car construction. The dramatic changes began with the appearance of the rear engine Cooper/Climax car in 1961 and extended through the success of the English built Lotus. The Granatellis countered with four wheel drive to tame the powerful, supercharged Novi V-8 engine. Yet, it was not enough to withstand the rear engine revolution. Thus ended the resurrection of the Novi as a feared Indy competitor.

During the 1960s, the Novis were piloted by several "young lions": Jim Hurtubise, Jim McElreath, Art Malone and Bobby Unser. They challenged stars such as A.J. Foyt, Jimmy Clark, Parnelli Jones and Rodger Ward. Many considered the Novis as "jinxed" cars, yet during their long history (1941-1966), they captured the racing public's fancy as they established an enviable number of records at Indianapolis, the Bonneville Salt Flats and at the Monza, Italy track. In 1963 and 1964, three Novis were in the starting field. In 1963, a Novi started from a front row position after being one of only four cars to break the magical 150 m.p.h. qualifying mark. Yet, the glory and glamour were rapidly fading as the dream of an Indianapolis victory went unfulfilled. The study also includes details of the Ganatellis' early years in racing prior to their acquisition of the Novis; the founding and early years of STP (a strong Novi benefactor) and Studebaker's long term involvement with auto racing that culminated with the purchase of STP. The Novi has become a part of the rich racing lore that has enraptured fans for years. As long as the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race continues, it is inevitable that the Novi history will be studied and discussed with considerable fervor.

One significant early product that Paxton Products developed was the supercharger used on the Novi cars raced at Indianapolis. These were engine oil cooled conventionally mounted superchargers which were gear driven at a ratio of 5 ľ to 1 and had impellor speeds of up to 40,000 rpm. The supercharged Novi V8 engines were capable of producing up to 650 hp from 180 cubic inches, however power is not everything and they were generally unsuccessful in racing, although this was not attributable to the supercharger. The Novi name, and itís connection with Paxton, still lives on today as Paxton Automotive currently produced high output gear driven Novi superchargers.