Frank Kurtis, Wally Parks and Ray Brock inspect the ‘D-A Lubricants’ Teams new Kurtis 500H Offy ‘255’ to be driven by Johnny Thompson at Kurtis’ Glendale, California factory on 24 March 1958 …
Notable is the independent front suspension which Kurtis believed ‘although heavier than a tube axle, will provide better traction on the corners and give better control and less tyre wear’. In fact 500H chassis #715 was the only one of Kurtis’ Indycars fitted with ‘Dubonnet’ trailing arm independent suspension.
This later model Kurtis Roadster also has a ‘full-laydown’ and ‘offset’ ‘255’ cid 360bhp Offy to lower the cars profile and put more weight to the inside of the car, trends Kurtis started in 1952. The 500H was radical for its day and was widely reported upon in various magazines as here in ‘Motoring Life’.
Frank initially layed down the Cummins diesel in 1952, ’tilting’ the Offy’s fitted to the other two roadsters that year by 36 degrees from being straight in the frames.
Although he wanted the Offy ‘flatter’ Meyer Drake did not make the internal changes to the engine to allow that logical change. This feat was achieved by George Salih, a former Meyer Drake employee who built and modified an engine with Meyer Drake’s assistance which was fitted to a Quinn Epperly built chassis to suit in 1957, setting a new trend.
The 1958 ‘500’ was won by Jimmy Bryan’s Salih Offy, Johnson’s Kurtis Offy (in color below) started from grid 21 completing only 52 laps.
Thomson, one of the best drivers of the era, was innocently involved in a massive 15 car lap one crash which killed Pat O’Connor. He continued with bent front suspension but tyre wear, handling and steering problems forced his retirement in a tragic race.
Chassis #715 raced at Indy in 1959 driven by Duane Carter and in 1960 by Don Freeland results 7th and withdrawn respectively. Smokey Yunick bought and entered the car for Carter, converting it to a conventional beam front axle setup. ‘Twas a pity as the IFS was never really ‘sorted’, appropriate testing and development never really gave the car the chance it deserved in its original form. The car still exists albeit in beam axle spec, it was restored in 2007.
Thomson had a very successful 1958 season, he won four of the thirteen championship races at Springfield, DuQuoin, Syracuse and Sacramento, all were in the teams Kuzma Offy on dirt. He was 3rd in the USAC Championship behind Tony Bettenhausen and George Amick.
Johnny was killed in a sprintcar race at Allentown , Pennysylvania in September 1960, his car crashed and flipped into Allentown Fairgrounds infield.
Frank Kurtis is best remembered for his all-conquering midget and Indy racers but he also built sprint cars, sportscars, quarter midgets and karts…
The United States boomed in the late 1940s after recovery from the Great Depression and World War II. The racing world reflected better economic times; in 1942 the Indy 500 was canceled after the government banned motor racing. Restored after lack of use, the first postwar Indy 500 in 1946 was a ‘box-office smash’. Many new and innovative cars took to the track, amongst them Kurtis racers, the first of which appeared in the mid 1930’s.
Frank Kurtis, a native of Crested Butte, Colorado was born 25 January 1908. He moved with his Croatian born family, his real name ‘Kuretich’, he was one of 8 children, to Los Angeles in 1922. He began building cars as a youngster at his father’s blacksmith shop in Pueblo, Colorado which repaired cars and horse-drawn buggies. It was Franks talented father who instilled precision craftsmanship into the youths psychy.
His first car was a T Model Ford to which he added a special body. In the early 1920’s Kurtis began his car making apprenticeship with Don Lee Coach and Body Works, the local Cadillac dealer, broadcaster and racer nut who built custom cars for Hollywood stars. Father and son both worked at Lee’s, Frank improved his welding and metal shaping skills building some quite exotic car bodies.
Kurtis’ first work on a racing car seems to be the construction of a one-off radiator shell for a roadster run at Jeffries Ranch, a half-mile dirt track at Burbank, California. Work on the ‘Atlas Chrome Special’ and ‘Stagger Valve Fronty Ford’ followed.
Frank’s first complete Midget was built for Tommy Lee, Don’s son in 1936; a succession of cars followed including the ‘Jewel Box’ Offy and other Midgets for Charley Allen, Lou Fageol, Rex Mays, Bob Swanson, Roy Sherman, Ted Halibrand and others.
Post war, by 1946 he was building an assembly line of Offy engined midgets. Watching pre-war midgets bucking and bouncing through the turns he thought their centre of gravity too high and suspensions too stiff; his racers points of difference addressed these ills.
Frank’s chassis were stiff spaceframes made of ‘4130’ chrome-moly tube rather than the sheet steel ‘rail frames’ of his earlier cars and those of most of the competition. The suspension used torsion bars which reduced unsprung weight and allowed better road holding. He used Dzus fasteners which allowed the whole body to be removed in minutes which meant the Offy could be serviced more quickly between events. The cars were lower and more softly sprung which made his chassis’ easier to handle and gave superior traction so the powerful Offy’s could put all their horses to the dirt. He built hundreds of them.
The Midget craze was dying by 1948, race fans were losing interest in the smaller cars, being attracted by bigger ‘Champ Cars’ and Kurtis was there to service that market…
In 1949 a Kurtis-Kraft dirt car won the AAA title, in 1950 the same chassis driven by Johnny Parsons the ‘Wynns Oil Spl’ won the Indy 500.
In this period he built a one of a kind Buick and a production sports car which was later to become the Muntz Road jet in 1950. More of the Sportscars later in the article.
The 1951 Indy 500 was won by a ‘stretched midget’ built from Kurtis parts supplied to Meyer Drake, the Offy engine manufacturers.
It was allocated chassis # ‘327-49’. Originally powered by an experimental centrifugal-supercharged Offy Midget engine with a capacity of 106.81cid, weighing 280 pounds. So fast was the car their customers complained about unfair competition, so Meyer Drake sold it to Murrell Belanger. It won the ’51 500 in Lee Wallard’s hands with a ‘slightly undersized’ 241cid Offy. The engine was a combination of ‘270’ block and ‘220’ crank which they managed to squeeze into the chassis designed for the much smaller 107cid blown Midget engine.
In 1952 he Kurtis built three pioneering roadsters (‘500 Series’) with elongated wheelbases and both lowered bodywork and centre of gravity.
‘Popular Mechanics’ reported the cars weighed 1500 pounds, the frames were of chrome moly elliptical section tube plus a 9 inch deep aluminium sheet box that also served as part of the skin. To save weight the cowl and firewall were designed as structural parts of the frame. The front suspension system comprised two torsion bars mounted in a crisscross fashion instead of parallel to the frame.
Joe Scalzo ‘They showed up at the speedway looking like freaks among all the high bodied dirt track cars and antidiluvian frontwheel drives’.
The cars fates varied; the ‘Cummins Diesel’ was out early with a broken supercharger but its huge, tall 401cid straight-six, with the engine laid on its side, plonked it on pole despite weighing 2150 pounds dry. In so doing Frank Kurtis built the first ‘laydown chassis’ Indycar.
The ‘Auto Shippers’, an upright roadster (type 500A) didn’t start but oilman Howard Brighton Keck’s Offy 270 powered ‘Fuel Injection Spl’ driven by national midget champion Bill Vukovich dominated the race before a steering pin failure resulted in a kiss of the wall with 20 miles to run.
Vukovich won in the Kurtis 500A ‘Fuel Injection Spl’ in 1953/4.
Scalzo related the changes needed to make the car competitive; ‘Arriving…late for its debut, it was immediately hailed a disaster by Howard Keck’s longtime mechanics Jim Travers and Frank Coon…the ‘Toonerville Trolley’ had torsion bars behind the rear axle and in front of the front axle and the anchor points were wrong. It had a vertical steering shaft holding the two steering arms together and its steering geometry was off…the track surface made the out of balance ‘Fuel Inj Spl’ a flexing spastic. Travers and Coon rescued it with remedial repairs…Jim and Frank were rich in racing savvy and were veterans of weekly Midget brawls at Gilmore Stadium and Culver City Speedway, they were used to tricking out Keck’s stable of 110cid Offy’s’.
‘To overcome the flaws of the ‘Fuel Inj Spl’ they fell back on old speedway racing habits. Amongst other things they ‘jacked weight’ across its rear end and by deliberately misaligning its 270cid Meyer-Drake by one bolt and 36 degrees to the bell-housing they wedged hundreds of static pounds to the FI Spl’s left…All this worked like a charm…Additionally they and colleague Stu Hilborn had a reputation for…making Offy horsepower’ Scalzo said.
Kurtis cars won the 500 in 1953, 1954 and 1955. For the next 8 seasons through to 1963 when Kurtis made his ‘model 500L for lemon-Scalzo’, (the bulbous ‘American Rubber 73’ missed the cut) upwards of 60 KK’s raced at Indianapolis. Production of the cars appears as follows; 11 in ’53, 10 in ’54, 6 in ’55, 5 in ’56, 16 in ’57 and 7 between 1958 and 1962.
Scalzo; ‘The end of Frank Kurtis was sad. A disgruntled and embittered FK turned into an awful grouch pigeonholing Kuzma, Epperly, Lesovsky and especially AJ Watson as thieves who stole all his roadster ideas and became heroes at his expense’.
Frank Kurtis’ Indy Track Record is to be envied in the extreme; his Offy powered cars sat on the Indy pole 8 times, he won 5 times in 1950 (Parsons) 1951 (Wallard) 1953/4 (Vukovich) and 1955 (Sweikert). His cars were also 4th in 1947, 3rd in 1948 and 2nd in 1949 and 1952. 15 of the top 20 cars at Indy in 1953 were Kurtis chassis!
The last Kurtis chassis win in a National Championship event was Van Johnson’s victory at Langhorne on 14 June 1959 in Kurtis Kraft 4000 chassis #’368-53′.
One of the most famous and bizarre Kurtis appearances was Rodger Wards entry on a Kurtis Offy Midget in the inaugural F1 US Grand Prix at Sebring in 1959…
Promoter Alec Ullman was chasing ‘bums on seats’, the entry of Ward the 1959 Indy Winner made commercial sense. Ward had had some road racing success racing his Midget against sports cars, notably at a Lime Rock meeting during an F Libre race.
For the Grand Prix though, his 2 speed gearbox, 2 speed rear axle, hand braked, supercharged 1.7 litre Offy was at a severe disadvantage to the other front engined F1 cars let alone the revolutionary Coopers. The Kurtis was chassis ‘O-10-46’, yes folks it was built in 1946! The car raced on 12 inch wheels and Firestone slicks pre-dating their reappearance in F1 in 1971!
Ward qualified last and DNF with clutch failure after 20 laps in the race won by McLaren’s Cooper T51 Climax after Jack Brabham ran out of fuel on the last lap; his 4th place pushing the Cooper over the line gave him the title.
Whilst the focus of this article is the Indy cars Kurtis also built some fantastic sports cars…
In 1949 Kurtis built the ‘Kurtis Sports Car’ which featured on the cover of the very first ‘Motor Trend’ magazine in October 1949. Kit prices started at $1495, inflation drove costs up so much only 17 kits were sold, Kurtis sold the rights to Earl Muntz in the early 1950’s. Almost 400 of these steel bodied, Caddy/Lincoln engined ‘Muntz Jet’s were built.
In 1953 Kurtis built the 500S whose chassis and suspension took its cues from the 500A Indy ‘Roadster’. The chassis was a ladder-frame drilled for lightness, the solid front axle was tubular suspended by trailing arms and torsion bars. A live axle was also used at the rear again suspended by torsion bars.
The 500S could be supplied as a kit or complete ex-factory, the body was aluminium and with cycle-guards was aggressively handsome. The complete car sold for $4986 less engine and ‘box. Its estimated that 30 500S cars/kits were sold from 1953-5.
Bill Stroppe’s short-wheelbase, 282cid ‘flathead’ Mercury V8 powered car was the most successful racer, achieving many wins in 1953/4.
The 500X followed and was an evolution of the earlier car but with a much nicer spacefame chassis. Although live axle suspension remained the rear axle incorporated a Halibrand quick-change unit. Between 6 and 12 were built (quite a range!) the cars clothed in a very attractive aluminium body.
The 500M was designed for smaller engines, used a fibreglass body and the Kurtis 500KK kit chassis pictured below. 18-20 cars were built.
In the early 1960’s Kurtis laid down 3 cars which were essentially widened Indy Roadster chassis. One of these, Jack Lufkin’s 1964 Bonneville Streamliner was the fastest Kurtis ever topping 245mph in 1968. Several other racers were built including a ’62 Bonneville A Model pickup, a pair of dragsters and a Saab powered ‘H Modifed’ car also in 1962.
Kurtis designed and built the ‘start-carts’ for the Lockheed Corporations SR71 Blackbird, a project which continued into the 1980’s.
Frank Kurtis retired in 1968 but his son Arlen continued the business which diversified into high performance drag racing and water skiing. In more recent times he has built ‘limited production of a few models of cars and parts his dad once built.’
Joe Scalzo ‘Indianapolis Roadsters 1952-64’, ‘Popular Mechanics’ May 1952, Don Capps on ‘The Nostalgia Forum’, Gordon Eliot White ‘Offenhauser’
The Enthusiast Network, Racing One, David Kimble, John Wickhart, Frank Kurtis Collection, Louis Galanos, Max Staub