Leo Goossen
    Genius draftsman left his mark on decades of motorsport machinery

    Leo Goossen from Hemmings Muscle Machines

    December, 2008 - Daniel Strohl

    A man can find success in many ways. He can count on luck, charm, genius or basic good looks to guide him through life, but those always seem to run out at inopportune moments. He can work hard, whittling his fingers to the bone, but if he grasps success, he may have little idea what to do with it, so he might simply continue working. He can develop a multitude of talents, becoming the modern-day Renaissance man, but he will be thoroughly versed in none.

    Or, like Leo Goossen, he can find one thing--and only one thing--that he's good at and stick with it until he's mastered it. Sure, Goossen tried his hand, briefly, at cowboying, and it very well may have saved his life--but in the end, Goossen was a master draftsman and would always return to his trade to create dominating pieces of machinery. Though he was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1892, his parents moved him to Flint before he entered high school, and at age 16 Goossen took a job in the blueprint room at Buick to help with the family finances. All the while, he studied mathematics and mechanical engineering at night school.

    "He was an excellent draftsman and his work came to the attention of E.A. de Waters, head of Buick engineering, and Walter L. Marr, Buick's engine designer," Gordon Eliot White wrote in Offenhauser: The Legendary Racing Engine and the Men Who Built It.

    Marr and de Waters then promoted Goossen into experimental work for Buick, where--more often than not under Marr's general instruction--he drafted a number of high-performance engines and parts, including a V-6 engine, a V-12 engine and components for the Buick Bug racing car (see Vintage Racers, HMM#62, November 2008).

    Officially, Goossen left Buick's employ in 1919, but he had actually been out the door since 1917, when he attempted to volunteer for military service in World War I. Goossen's routine enlistment physical turned up a diagnosis of tuberculosis, forcing him into the Michigan State Sanatorium for a good chunk of the next two years. According to White, Buick continued to pay Goossen during his illness, but terminated his salary when Goossen left for the drier climate of New Mexico under doctor's orders.

    After a few months as a ranch hand, and after his tuberculosis cleared up, Goossen moved on to Los Angeles in the summer of 1919, where he nearly immediately found the job that would come to define the rest of his career. White wrote that a letter of recommendation from Walter Chrysler, then one of the head honchos at Buick, helped Goossen land a post with Harry Miller (see Hot Rod Hero, HMM#10, July 2004), the carburetor manufacturer who had already started building race engines.

    "Goossen had more technical knowledge and experience with stresses, bearings, fasteners and the engineering details of engines and chassis than did Miller or anyone else in his plant," White wrote. "Miller was fond of imagining a project, giving it a general, indeed often quite brilliant, outline, then leaving it to others to execute." Rather quickly, it became Goossen's primary task to execute Miller's ideas, which he did with spectacular precision.

    The most famous of those ideas, what would eventually become the Offenhauser engine and all of its variations, Goossen laid out, but he penned a wide variety of other technological innovations during that time as well, including a number of overhead-valve and overhead-camshaft aftermarket heads for the Ford Model A and Model T, along with the front-wheel-drive system to which E.L. Cord eventually bought the manufacturing rights. But what most of the world remembers him for are the race engines, mostly of dual overhead-camshaft design with hemispherical or pent-roof combustion chambers and perhaps the world's most complex gear-drive system, all documented carefully in White's book. The engines powered a variety of Indianapolis 500 winners, midgets, open-wheel and oval-track racers, and even land-speed and drag racing cars.

    "Leo was to go on to become the only American to make his living designing racing engines or chassis for the next half-century," White wrote. "In Europe, only Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was in Goossen's class."

    Yet that living wasn't always prosperous. Sensing the pending collapse of Miller's business, he left Miller in 1928 to begin freelancing, though he still penned nearly all of Miller's designs for the next several years. At one point, according to White, Goossen followed Miller around the Northeast, "living in YMCAs and eating for 50 cents a day." Not until World War II would Goossen return to regular employ, this time for Fred Offenhauser, who picked up the pieces of Miller's bankrupt company, and later for Lou Meyer and Dale Drake, who bought the business from Offenhauser shortly after the war.

    Goossen continued to refine the Offenhauser four-cylinder over the next few decades, attempting a desmodromic version for Lance Reventlow's Scarabs and successfully adapting turbochargers to it. He even drafted a thoroughly revised version of the Offenhauser, to be called the Drake-Goossen-Sparks engine, over the winter of 1973-1974, but, at the age of 82, fell ill as he completed the design. He died in December 1974.


    Leo Goossen

    February, 2016 - Jim Donnelly

    The Teens and Twenties marked the era when the design of American racing cars began catching up with the rest of the world. The process of doing so had consumed a decade and then some. Long, deadly open-road races were all the rage in Europe for a time, and their racing cars reflected the speed and distances to which they were subjected. It was 1905 when Delahaye of France came up with what many believe to be the world's first double-overhead-cam engine. Then Peugeot took that basic architecture and enhanced it for racing. By 1913, a twin-cam Peugeot had won the Indianapolis 500, over American iron that was generally heavier and more ponderous than the European invaders.


    One of those brawny American cars was Oldsmobile, whose Vanderbilt Cup race team was managed in 1906 by a native Wisconsinite named Harry Arminius Miller. After a time, Miller left, headed for Los Angeles, and set up a factory that produced carburetors of his own design. When Eddie Rickenbacker grenaded the engine in his racing Peugeot in 1915, Miller eagerly bought the remains and tore them apart to see how it worked. He rebuilt the Peugeot, the first in a line of engines and cars that were not only incredible performers but also aesthetically wondrous, a largely unbroken chain of innovation that stretched from World War I through the Vietnam years. Only, Miller was a somewhat flighty artisan with generally poor business skills. He didn't create anything on his own.

    Miller believed in clairvoyance and, by many accounts, claimed that his designs were supernaturally inspired. We're in no position to argue with him. But somehow, he lacked many of the basic skills to turn his soaring concepts into reality, although he was a talented foundry operator. The success of Miller's designs can be traced to a trio of men--Miller himself, the fabulously gifted draftsman and engineer Leo Goossen, and Fred Offenhauser, who went from being an apprentice at the Pacific Electric Railway shops in Los Angeles to a toolmaker and ultimately, a master of machinists.

    Miller, Goossen and Offenhauser formed the legs of the stool upon which the great age of racing creativity rested through the 1920s and beyond. Goossen, in particular, is responsible for turning the supercharged Miller straight-eight engine, awesome as it was, into the four-cylinder Offenhauser racing engine after Miller's prized little screamer was outlawed and his company went bankrupt. Goossen, therefore, is the true father of the modern American racing engine as it then existed. The Offy's record is nothing less than astonishing. It won every single Indianapolis 500 from 1947 through 1964, a time span during which the entire field in some years used Offy power. Then, as Ford invaded Indianapolis during its Total Performance campaign of the 1960s, Goossen did the drafting and design work that gave the Offy a second career, thanks to forced induction. With no restrictions on turbocharger boost levels or concerns about fuel consumption, the Goossen-massaged Offenhausers routinely thundered out more than 1,000hp and led the charge to the first 200 MPH lap at Indianapolis during the 1970s.

    By necessity, the Offy is the biggest part of this story because of its decades of dominance. What compares to it? Well, we would first suggest the small-block Chevrolet V-8 in all of its iterations from a longevity standpoint. Same for the generations of turbocharged Porsche racing engines. The Chrysler Hemi and, yes, the flathead Ford V-8 also belong on that list. But the Offy rocked it longer than anything.

    Who was Leo Goossen? He was born in 1892 to Dutch immigrants who lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and later moved to Flint, which became Buick's famous hometown. When Goossen was 16, family finances forced him to leave school and find work. He signed on with Buick around 1908 as a clerk in the engineering blueprint room while taking courses in math and mechanical engineering at night. No less than Walter Marr, Buick's first chief engineer, took note of Goossen's prodigious drafting skills. Goossen's first steps into auto racing came when Marr assigned him to make drawings of parts for the Buick Bug, a streamlined race car from 1910, two of which were built. When World War I erupted, Goossen volunteered to join the U.S. military, but was rejected when examining physicians found a spot on one of his lungs.

    It turned out to be tuberculosis. After several months in a sanitarium, Goossen moved to Silver City, New Mexico, where he pursued the cowboy lifestyle enthusiastically in the dry Southwestern air. With him, he carried a letter of recommendation and introduction from Buick general manager Walter Chrysler, who had met him through Marr. His tuberculosis improved enough by 1919 that Goossen was able to move on to Los Angeles and begin seeking work. He found it with Miller at the Miller Carburetor Company, where he was hired on the spot.

    It's difficult today for some to appreciate just how profoundly the cars of Miller, Goossen and Offenhauser changed the face of motorsport. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been bricked over by then, and a series of wooden speedways with dizzyingly high banked turns sprung up in locales that included Beverly Hills, Atlantic City and outside Miami. Miller's great legacy was building race cars that were low and narrow enough to take maximum advantage of aerodynamics, at least as it was then known. The board speedways were utterly lethal and insanely fast. With Goossen's drawings and Offenhauser's machining aptitude, Miller produced a lineup of rear- and front-drive cars with straight-eight power, eventually using centrifugal superchargers, ranging in displacement from 91 to 183 cubic inches. The cars were exquisite, taking more than 6,000 hours to build, truly rolling sculptures. Their performance was amazing. Millers won the Indy 500 four times during the 1920s, making up 83 percent of the starting fields between 1922 and 1928, and never had fewer than six cars in the top 10. They also won national championships and set international speed records. Today, a Miller designed by Goossen--any Miller--is an extremely valuable car for the serious collector.

    To gain perspective on Miller and his men, we turned to longtime author and racing historian Gordon Eliot White, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and auto racing advisor to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1996, Gordon authored the landmark history Offenhauser (now being reprinted and available from the author; write to the author at P.O. Box 129, Hardyville, Virginia 23070), and shared his opinion that none of the three men could have accomplished as much as they did without the other two. "Before Leo got there--and Offenhauser had gotten there before he did--the stuff that Harry Miller designed didn't last very long," Gordon explains. "He had some ideas that just weren't practical. But Leo, who had worked with a fairly brilliant designer in Walter Marr, knew how to make Miller's plans work. He understood how to approach them from a stress-analysis standpoint, knew how to use fasteners properly, pressures of the valve springs, bearing sizes. He could tell Miller, 'Harry, this isn't going to work.' Miller was a dreamer, but he had to have a team. When Miller went back east, he did things like have a decorative bunch of tubing as a radiator with no fins on it. Some engineers thought that Miller walked on water. Leo and Fred knew he didn't."

    Miller took on a variety of projects, some more successful than others. Today he gets credit in some corners for designing the front-wheel powertrain of the fabled Cord L-29, but Goossen actually did the drawings that ensured the radical system would function. By this time, Miller--whose small-bore blown eight-cylinder engines were legislated into obsolescence by Rickenbacker once he took control of Indy--had sold his business to the Schofield Corporation, but in 1930, set up his own engineering business again with Goossen as head designer. But the Depression sapped many of Miller's high-flying projects, and within three years, he was bankrupt.

    Regardless, another creation from Goossen's drafting table ensured the decades-long heritage of all three men, after Offenhauser revived the shop with Miller's erstwhile machining gear. Following Miller's bankruptcy, Goossen worked as a freelance designer, occasionally coming onto Offenhauser's payroll before joining the company fully in 1944. The commonality among all Miller and Offy engines and their successors was that they all used a cast-iron block with the head integral to it--with no need for a head gasket--bolted to a separate, barrel-shaped crankcase. One such engine was a 151-cu.in. marine inline-four that Goossen designed in 1926. Offenhauser adapted that crossflow, long-stroke four-cylinder for auto racing beginning in 1934, first as the Miller/Offenhauser, before he dropped the Miller name for 1935, when Offy-powered cars swept the top two spots at Indy. With the coming of the Midget craze, Offenhauser enjoyed strong success. Displacements commonly ran from 220 for sprint cars to 255 and 270 cubic inches at Indy, depending on the displacement rules at the time. Racers came to love the engines for their bounteous torque, very handy on restarts.

    Fred Offenhauser retired just after World War II, selling the business to three-time 500 winner Louis Meyer and his former riding mechanic, Dale Drake. Goossen went on to create designs for a variety of racing engines, including the famed Novi V-8, Thorne and Lencki straight-sixes, and even worked on a desmodromic (no valve springs) version of the Offy. The Offy itself strongly dominated Championship-style racing for some 20 years after the war. When he died in 1974, Goossen was working on an entirely different version of the Offy. He didn't live to see Drake-Goossen-Sparks close five years later, or the last Offy-powered car attempt to make the Indianapolis 500 in 1983.


    A lifetime with the Offenhauser

    "MY GOING to work for Harry Miller was an act of God!" With these words, Leo Goossen described the beginning of a remarkable career as America's foremost designer of racing engines. Goossen had left a promising position as protégé to Walter L. Mart, Chief Designer of Buick Motor Company, to go west to New Mexico. A tuberculosis spot had been found and the only answer was a change of climate. After six months Goossen's health improved and, before returning to the east, he ventured to Los Angeles where he visited the establishment of Harry Miller, a carburetter manufacturer and racing expert. From that day in 1921 forward Goossen's life has been wrapped up in the design of racing cars and engines. By his own personal count he has designed over two dozen engines and one dozen complete cars. Now in his seventies and with no intention of retiring he still works regular hours over the drawing board at Drake Engineering in Santa Ana, California continuing the longest job of his life, looking after the Offy which he designed in 1930 and has accompanied ever since.

    "Harry Miller was a genius" according to Goossen, and everyone else interested in American racing. Miller's head was full of ideas all the time but when words were not enough to explain what he wanted to do he was powerless. His natural intuitive design talent was not reinforced by any formal engineering training and the arrival of former draftsman Leo Goossen in Miller's factory with a letter of recommendation from Walter P. Chrysler, head of Manufacturing at Buick, provided Miller with a vital part of his design team. Goossen was more than just a draftsman working for Miller for he applied his own limited formal education, obtained from tutors and night schools, and his own intuition. "Miller had the ideas and I laid them out on paper", says Goossen but he adds "I used a lot of my own judgement."

    Goossen cut his teeth on two lesser engines for Miller before the first big one was undertaken, the Miller 183. The numbers assigned to Miller engines corresponded to their capacity in cu. in., usually the limit of the existing American Automobile Association formula. The 183 was a straight 8, with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder which employed all that was good from contemporary engines. This meant that features from Peugeot, Ballot and Duesenberg found their way into the 183 but from among them were the basic characteristics of future Miller and Goossen designed engines which in a refined state are found in the immortal Offy fifty years later. These included the barrel-type crankcase, integrated cylinder head and Goossen's meticulous layout of the valve gear. In its first race at Indianapolis in 1921, incidentally the year that Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in a Duesenberg, the best finish for the Miller 183 was 7th but the following year, Murphy's Duesenberg was fitted with the straight 8 Miller engine and led a one-two finish for the Duesenberg-Miller combination.

    The following year the formula was changed by AAA and Goossen designed a scaled down Miller 122 whose valve train was changed to a two-valve hemispherical combustion chamber set-up. A 122 chassis followed and the Miller era which began with Murphy's win at Indianapolis the previous year was under way as Tommy Milton who had instigated the original 183 won the 500-mile classic in a Miller 122 called the HCS Special, after its owner Harry C. Stutz a very familiar name.

    The 183 and the 122 were just a prelude for when the formula changed again to 91 cu. in. for 1926 Goossen commenced what many believe to be the masterpiece of his lifetime, the Miller 91. The straight-8 engine was available in supercharged and normally aspirated forms while the engine was fitted to a Conventional rear-drive chassis or a front drive chassis. The front-wheel-drive supercharged Miller 91 was a work of art. Miller had long since given up the formality of approving Goossen's drawings and once the original concept was settled, Goossen created the masterpiece he lovingly refers to as "my baby".

    Historians have called the 1920s the Golden Age of racing in America and in part this was due to the fabulous Miller 91. Goossen's layout was a work of art with its compact front drive layout, inboard front brakes and De Dion front suspension, the first ever on a racing car. The 91 went into series production, selling for $10,000 in rear drive form while the front drive model was $15,000. The engine at $5,000 was included in the above prices. The beautiful format of the front drive Miller 91 later provided the pattern for the Cord front drive passenger car.

    At racing, Miller was a genius but as a businessman he was a failure and in his lifetime, which saw the production of numerous brilliant racing creations, he made and lost several fortunes. The last great financial failure was that of 1932 when he went bankrupt but Miller's ability to pick the right people to work for him was to keep his racing creations alive. Miller's greatest period was the twenties from the time that Leo Goossen joined him. With concepts coming from Miller's great brain and Goossen to translate them into fine drawings, the third part of the team was works foreman Fred Offenhauser. From the old school of artisan machinists, Offenhauser in his craft equalled Miller and Goossen in theirs. The greatness of Miller's creations became fact in metal through Offenhauser's skill. Through his several financial upsets, Miller was able to pick up the pieces by reacquiring the services of Goossen and Offenhauser. After the bankruptcy of 1932, Offenhauser acquired some of the assets of Miller's company and formed his own engineering company with Goossen as consultant designer. This keeping together of the basics of the old team, minus Miller, has kept the Miller tradition alive ever since. When Offenhauser was ready for a deserved retirement, the company was acquired by former Indy winner Louie Meyer and Dale Drake, becoming Meyer Drake Engineering. When Meyer and Drake split in 1965, Meyer taking over the production and sale of the Ford Indy engine, Drake carried on his company, Drake Engineering and Sales Company which has been run by his son since Drake's death last summer. The common factor in all these efforts was the design talents of Leo Goossen. In 1926, Goossen laid out a 310 cu. in. 8-cylinder marine engine which was basically the old 122 scaled up. The 310 was later developed into a 620 cu. in. V12 as well as a 155 cu. in. four-cylinder. The 155 fourcylinder with its barrel-type crankcase and integral cylinder head in 1926 was the first stirrings of the engine that became the Offy.

    The economic depression which began in 1929 severely affected the racing business in America. The racing formula opened up to 366 cu. in. in 1930 to permit the use of cheaper production based engines and it looked like the heyday of the twenties was over forever. At the instigation of his works foreman Fred Offenhauser, Miller who had built such fabulous eights looked down his nose at fours but consented to build a fourcylinder, dual overhead camshaft, four valve per cylinder engine of 220 cu. in. This was the Offy which went on and on. It first won at Indy in 1934 as a Miller.

    While the 220 four-cylinder was suffering its growing pains many racers avoided the possibilities of production block engines in favour of enlarged versions of the various Millers. With pride, Goossen still remembers the exciting days when in March of 1932 Harry Hartz ordered a scaled up 183 cu. in. version of the original eight-cylinder 91 engine. In less than two months from drawing board to fitting in the chassis the engine was completed. With no previous running it was fired up for the first time on May 15. It won the 1932 500-mile race in the car driven by Fred Frame. Half of this engine in fourcylinder form later became the Offy "Midget" (91 cu. in.) which together with the 220 forms the roots of the present Offy.

    Miller never fully recovered from his bankruptcy although he undertook a number of marvellous racing cars and engines but Goossen as consultant to Offenhauser and freelance designer was off and running free. Engines and complete cars poured from his drawing board with remarkable frequency, some of them as significant in their time as the Miller 91 had been in its. But of them all, he is proudest of the Novi, a marvellous front wheel drive, four overhead camshaft V8 of 255 cu. in. which powered Jim Clark's Granatelli, the immensely powerful V8 was an unsuccessful challenger to the Offy's three decades of supremacy in American oval track racing. The engine that really upset the Offy was Ford's pure-bred four overhead camshaft V8 of 255 cu. in. which powered Jim Clark's Lotus to Indianapolis victory in 1965. Ford's threat only served to unleash unknown reserves of strength in the old Offy for it was supercharged and finally turbo-charged into the winning form shown in 1972 and all the while, the Offy was being nursed by its original designer, Leo Goossen.

    Drake Engineering is not a research and development oriented company. This fact is a source of concern to Goossen who has lived with it for years. Research and development is instigated from outside and then it falls to Goossen to begin work. A series of connecting rod bolt failures produced requests for an increase in rod bolt size from 1/2 to 9/16 in., which Goossen had been recommending for some time to no avail. Once the customers requested larger bolts the necessary changes were made. Similarly gudgeon pin size went up from 1 1/16 to 1 1/8 in. when the requests came from outside. In 1972, Dan Gurney's Offy engines had two oil pumps where the normal Offy has only one. Goossen made the drawings, Drake Engineering made the necessary changes and All American Racers has exclusivity until April of 1973. This is the way that Goossen has been improving the Offy since its inception. In this way the present 159 cu. in. engine produces over 900 horsepower at 10,000 r.p.m.

    Goossen's formal engineering background was very slight and he frequently laid out intuitively. "I just knew what to do," he says. "It seemed as if some inner person told me what to do." But in the half century of laying out things intuitively, often to others specifications, he rarely had a design that was a failure. His first answer to this question is a modest, "I suppose I did, but I can't remember". Then later after some careful thought he remembers one single engine of all the projects that was a flop, a four-cylinder air-cooled prototype. Among those that were never fully developed was the four-cylinder desmodromic valve Scarab Formula One engine for Lance Reventlow.

    Goossen's great love even now as it has always been is to produce his "beautiful drawings" and to some it must seem that this was often all he could do for there was rarely any feedback to the designer as to what was happening with the finished product. But although the engineering feedback was not there it was often not needed, so thorough in its detail was the first product.

    Looking back on the exciting and glorious days gone by when he worked from 7.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. plus overtime when he "used to have to slap the drawing out as fast as I could", Goossen has only one regret, but it is without a trace of bitterness that he says "I made all the drawings and somebody else got the glory and the money."—F.D.S.