The Copper Kettle


The Copper Kettle
All photos courtesy of Christa Haley
Hilbert Ermer’s old helmet was displayed with the car.

Since it originally had a body formed out of copper, Hilbert Ermer, Sr.’s midget racing car was nicknamed the “Copper Kettle.” It was nearly 80 years ago when the Copper Kettle first went racing. Hilbert built the tiny racing car in 1938, the same year that he joined the Badger Midget Racing, Assoc Badger Midget; this was a Class C racing club because its members ran stock block motors in their midget racing cars.

Hilbert continued driving the car in Badger events until 1942, the year that the government shut down all racing in the United States due to World War II. Today, the car survives in the capable hands of Butch and Liane Ermer of North Prairie, Wis. They showed the car at the 2017 Milwaukee “World of Wheels.”

The Copper Kettle
The hood has a side panel ahead of the exhaust.

Butch Ermer formed a new body from 20-gauge steel when he restored the car. He painted it a copper color to make it look like the original sheet metal. To recreate the original body, Butch scaled all the pictures he had of the car in its original form. He made a drawing using a 1-1/2-inch to a foot scale and built the new body following the drawings very carefully.

Like many other racing car builders of the day, Hilbert based his midget on a reworked Model T Ford frame. “Buggy” type springs from a newer Model A Ford were used front and rear, but Hilbert narrowed them by 13 inches. A pair of Model A axles were likewise narrowed 13 inches for the front and rear of the car. The resulting racing car chassis has a small 72-inch wheelbase and a 50-inch thread width.

The Copper Kettle
Dual Carter carburetors feed the Willys engine.

Powering the car is a 134.2-cid 1938 Willys-Overland four-cylinder flathead engine with a handmade intake manifold and handmade exhaust header. Hilbert ran two single-barrel prewar Carter carburetors on the intake. Even the radiator is homemade, from Crosley top and bottom tanks attached to a new 3-tube core. To bring the compression ratio up from 6.4:1 to 8.5:1, Ermer used a later model Willys cylinder head.

Mounted behind the motor is a 1938 Willys-Overland three-speed manual gearbox. The torque tube from a Ford Model A was modified to mate it with the Willys-Overland three-speed. Hilbert used a “banjo” style rear axle fitted with 3.78:1 gears.

The Copper Kettle
Working on the car in the old days.

The steering box in the car was also pirated from a Model A Ford, but the pitman shaft is extended out to the left-hand side. Stock, cable-operated  Model A mechanical brakes are fitted at the rear only. They are operated by a brake handle on the left-hand side of the car. Hilbert built the 12-inch wheels using early V-8 Ford centers welded onto 4 x 12-inch rims. Ribbed farm tractor tires are mounted up front. The rear tires are “knobbies,” like those used on old garden tractors.

The car’s fuel system is pressurized using a hand pump, mounted on the left side, to put air pressure into the fuel tank. The pressure pushes the fuel to the carburetors. Once the car is started, the stock Willys fuel pump pushes air back to the fuel tank.

The Copper Kettle
Hilbert enjoyed driving his midget racing car.
About John Gunnell 117 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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