Miller Fords Back in the Day at the Indy 500

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Lou Natenschon’s early formula Ford still races in the vintage circuit.

In a day before Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems, Harry A. Miller’s successful creation of eight he had promised to build for Ford Motor Co. were amazing. He built the eight cars in only four months was even more proof of Miler’s uncanny car-building skills.The early ‘30s were the “Junk Formula” years at Indy. The American Automobile Assoc. was the sanctioning body for the 500, and the AAA Contest Board wanted to get American automakers interested. Stock-based racing cars with Studebaker, Buick, Graham, Hudson and De Soto badges were seen. Studebaker coined the sales slogan, “From the Speedway comes their stamina.”

After the release of its hot-performing flathead V-8, Ford joined the list of brands running in Junk Formula venues. Preston Tucker—a promoter who made his own car after World War II—cajoled Henry Ford into ordering 10 racing cars from Harry Miller as part of a corporate effort to win the 500 in 1935.

The Miller Fords were Ford’s only real shot at winning because several Ford V8 powered cars were too slow to qualify, while Duke Nalon withdrew his car and Doc Williams wrecked his in practice. The first of the Miller Fords came out looking splendid in a red and cream paint job. Up front was what looked liked a cut down Ford passenger car grille. The car caused lots of excitement, but Miller was behind and could promise only five more cars before the time trials.

Almost seven decades after it caused a stir at Indy this beautiful Miller-Ford caused a stir at the Harry A. Miller meet in Milwaukee.
Almost seven decades after it caused a stir at Indy this beautiful Miller-Ford caused a stir at the Harry A. Miller meet in Milwaukee.

George Barringer posed for photos with the first car. The other Ford drivers were Peter DePaolo, Cliff Bergere, Billy Winn, Dave Evans and rookie Ted Horn. The cars were supposedly “85 percent stock,” but only the 220.5-cid engines were related to production cars. The block, crank, rods, valves and push rods were standard Ford V8, but there were lots of Miller innovations. The engines were put in backwards to mate up to Miller’s front-wheel-drive system.The racing engine had a 9.5:1 compression ratio and special 4-ring pistons. The cam had a special grind and the water pump was driven directly off the rear of the crank. An oversized, finned oil pan was used and a continuous-tube oil cooler was employed. Other Miller-Ford racing car features included a custom-shaped radiator, a 15-gal spherical fuel tank and special exhaust parts.

With a quarter-elliptic spring at each corner, the cars featured a four-wheel independent suspension, Miller-designed friction shocks and very rigid structure with three sturdy cross members. They weighed under 1,950 lbs. or about 650 lbs. less than a production roadster and had a good power to weight ratio.
The mechanical brakes were sheathed in Duralumin arms and the steering linkage was inside the frame. The cars had aluminum steering boxes and bronze gears. Stock Ford bits included the brakes and banjo steering wheel. A 160-mph speedometer was fitted. The cars had two-tone paint finish that was applied in a down-sweeping style like that used on many Ford trucks of the era.

Most of the Fords at Indy were front-wheel-drive Millers and their engines were mounted in the chassis backwatds to mate with Miller’s FWD system.
Most of the Fords at Indy were front-wheel-drive Millers and their engines were mounted in the chassis backwatds to mate with Miller’s FWD system.

The first Ford was among 34 cars lined up at the speedway on May 14, 1935. The next day DePaolo, Bergere and Barringer took turns driving the car and the top lap speed was 107 mph. On Friday May 17, Rex Mays turned in a 121-mph practice lap. The good news that day was that a blue Ford Special arrived at Indy for driver Dave Evans, but the bad news was that Bergere quit. He decided the cars didn’t have enough power or speed to win the race.

On May 18, nine of 12 cars making qualifying runs made the field for the race, but the two Fords weren’t among them. That same day, mechanic Jimmy Jackson hauled a third Ford in from Detroit. DePaolo also quit the Ford team, saying the cars weren’t safe. On Sunday May 19, a fourth Ford arrived. Winn practiced in it and hit 106 mph, but days passed and though a fifth Ford racer arrived, with a week to go, not one of the Ford Specials had attempted to qualify.

By May 24 there were eight Miller-Fords at the speedway and everyone was talking about the Miller-Fords. Three days before the race, none of the Miller-Fords had made qualification runs. Then, Ted Horn and his riding mechanic Bo Huckman qualified their black-and-white Miller-Ford at 113 mph. By the end of that day, a Ford driven by newly hired Johnny Seymour qualified.

Race car collector Tom Malloy, of California, enjoys sharing hids cars—like the No. 35 Ford Miller—with other enthusiasts across the country.
Race car collector Tom Malloy, of California, enjoys sharing hids cars—like the No. 35 Ford Miller—with other enthusiasts across the country.

This left six positions in the race open for the Miller-Fords to shoot at and another of the replacement drivers—George Bailey—qualified at 113.432 mph. Then it rained and slowed things down. Billy Winn failed to qualify the white car and managed only 97.5 mph. George Barringer completed five laps in the red and cream car but only made 105 mph—not good enough. By this time the deadline was getting close and Bob Sall and riding mechanic Doc MacKenzie pushed the gold Ford to 110.5 mph, which was fast enough to bump Emil Andres from the race. Dave Evans went next but his blue Ford managed only 109.9 mph. Ford drivers Wes Crawford and L.L. Corum did not attempt to qualify and the 10th Ford was not ready and had no driver assigned to it anyway. It was the very first time that all cars qualified to race the Indy 500 and had done so at over 110 mph.

The 22nd Indy 500-Mile race was held on May 30. Bailey’s car—the fastest of the four Ford qualifiers—was still getting repairs because it was not going into gear. He and riding mechanic Arthur Chevrolet could not be pushed to the starting line. Ted Horn’s black-and-white No. 43 was staged in the center position in the ninth row next to Seymour’s No. 42 car. There was an empty spot for Bailey’s car in the middle of the 10th row. Sall’s gold No. 46 was in the last row. The starting bomb exploded as the Ford pace car crossed the starting line at 10 am and Bailey’s car joined the race after the entire field was done with lap 1.

By lap 10 Horn’s car was in 23rd position. Seymour was 25th, Sall was 28th and Bailey was 30th. Before the 125th mile, Sall dropped out with steering problems. Horn was in 20th . Ten laps later, a driver change put George Barringer in Seymour’s car with Jimmy Jackson riding shotgun. Bailey came in for a long almost five-minute pit stop and then, five minutes later, he dropped out with a frozen steering system. A few minutes later Barringer was out, also with steering issues. Horn lasted until the 145th lap. By then he could no longer steer his car.

Racecar fabricator Harry A. Miller had to rush to get the Miller-Fords ready for the 1935 Indy 500 and this was the downfall of the effort.
Racecar fabricator Harry A. Miller had to rush to get the Miller-Fords ready for the 1935 Indy 500 and this was the downfall of the effort.

It was later determined that the aluminum steering boxes used in the car were positioned too close to the exhaust manifold to last for 500 miles. The heat of the exhaust gases caused the bronze gears inside to expand and eventually seize up. The cars ran a little bit better in later 500s, when Miller engines were installed to eliminate the steering box heat ups. Herb Ardinger drove one of the cars to a sixth place finish in 1936 and Cliff Bergere took another to third in 1939.
The car in our photos is the first one completed and has chassis No. 5. This is the car that George Bailey eventually drove in the race and is part of the Tom Malloy racecar collection. This is believed to be the car that Ardinger and Bergere used to place high in the 1938 and 1939 races, respectively. In addition, Danny Kladis drove the car as the Granatelli brothers’ Grancor Special in 1946 (with a reworked Ford V-8 under the hood) and qualified at 118.890 mph. The car was restored by Jim Stranberg of High Mountain Classics and has appeared at the Harry A. Miller Club (www.harrymillerclub.com) and at Road America.

About John Gunnell 104 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.
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