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.