Monthly Archives: June 2015

Louis Chevrolet’s Indianapolis racing exploits

Before achieving success in building automobiles, Louis Chevrolet gained fame as a racing driver. In his first race in 1905, he defeated Barney Oldfield. On June 19, 1909, Chevrolet drove a Buick to victory in the first 400 mile Cobe Cup race in Crown Point, Indiana. He then won the inaugural 10-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 19, 1909.

In 1911, with the encouragement of William C. Durant of General Motors, Chevrolet developed the first automobile to bear his name—the Chevrolet Classic Six retailing for $2,150. By 1913 there was a growing rift between the two individuals over the type of car that should wear the Chevrolet name. He left the company, but General Motors retained the rights to the “Chevrolet” name.

Cornelian 1915 Louis Chevrolet
Louis Chevrolet at the wheel with Joe Boyer in the 1915 Cornelian race car. Chevrolet brothers Arthur and Gaston are standing at the extreme right.

In early 1915, he went on to design the lightweight Cornelian race car with four-wheel independent suspension and a monocoque chassis for the Indianapolis 500 in 1915. Both innovations proved to be successful about 50 years later, appearing on the rear-engine cars used from the 1960’s to the present. The little car weighted only 920 pounds. The Cornelian engine had a 103 c.i.d. compared with the other 298 c.i.d. entries. Chevrolet qualified the car at 81.01 m.p.h. Unfortunately, valve trouble sent him to the sidelines prior to the halfway mark.

During the next year, Louis built a number of Frontenac racing cars with a generous use of aluminum that he and his brothers, Arthur and Gaston, drove to many victories.

For the 1920 Indianapolis 500, William Small of Indianapolis contracted with Chevrolet to build four Monroe and three Frontenac race cars. Gaston Chevrolet won the race driving one of the Monroes and became the first driver in Indy history to go the full 500 miles without changing tires. Another Chevrolet-design Frontenac, with Tommy Milton as the driver, won the 1921 Indianapolis 500. With this victory, Chevrolet became the first car builder to win two Indianapolis 500 mile races. Additionally, he accomplished that feat with new four-cylinder and eight-cylinder engines of his own design.

Gaston Chevrolet in 1920 Monroe
Gaston Chevrolet in the winning 1920 Monroe

Later, Louis and Arthur Chevrolet and Cornelius W. Van Ranst developed a new overhead valve cylinder head that would develop higher horsepower from a Ford Model T engine and make it competitive in races on dirt tracks. They also incorporated the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis to produce “Fronty-Ford” cylinder heads in 1922. They produced over 10,000 units during the next five years that dominated dirt track racing across America.

Louis Chevrolet’s motto was “Never Give Up.” He never did.

For more information about Louis Chevrolet follow this link.

Frontenac, 1921 – 1925

In 1921, after achieving the distinction of becoming the first car builder to win two Indianapolis 500 mile races, Louis Chevrolet (who had been building race cars under the Frontenac name since 1915) allied with Stutz Motor Car Company executives to form the Frontenac Motor Company, a Delaware corporation. The company was capitalized for one million dollars and secured the former Empire Motor Car Company plant (323 West 15th Street) for production.

Frontenac brochure
Frontenac brochure

The Frontenac was designed by Chevrolet and Cornelius W. Van Ranst (noted engineer, who later contributed to the design of the Cord L-29, and worked at Paige-Detroit and Packard). It featured a chain-driven single overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine, four wheel brakes, with front and rear bumpers constructed as an integral part of the frame, all on a 120-inch wheelbase chassis. The 196.8 c.i.d. engine with thermosyphon cooling, developed 60 h.p. It featured a Delco ignition, starting and lighting system.

The car was formally announced at the New York Auto Show and the Chicago Auto Show in 1922. The Frontenac prototype made its official debut at the 1922 Indianapolis 500. The economic conditions during the post World War I recession in the early 1920’s, resulted in the inaugural Frontenac never reaching production, and the corporation filed a bankruptcy petition in May 1923.

A short time later, a second Frontenac of Louis Chevrolet’s design featured a 140-inch wheelbase chassis with an 80 h.p., single-sleeve valve, straight-eight-cylinder engine. Again, Chevrolet was unable to obtain sufficient financing to commence production. During the 1924 – 1925 period, Frontenac also produced four units of an export car named Anahauc.

In the 1920’s, the Chevrolet brothers, Arthur & Louis owned the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Company at 410 West Tenth Street, that made cylinder heads for Fords and racing cars called Fronty-Fords. The Fronty-Ford creations consistently won at smaller race tracks across the country. In seven years, the company filled over 10,000 orders for cylinder heads and race cars.

For more information about Louis Chevrolet follow this link.

1965 Ford double-overhead-cam V-8 racing engine

Following the 1964 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, Ford Motor Company decided to develop its 500 horsepower 1965 Ford double-overhead-cam V-8 racing engine. Many of the 1965 Indy 500 participants designed or purchased vehicles built around this now famous engine. Here is the story from my collection of mid-1960s Indianapolis 500 Mile Race press kits.

1965 Ford dohc engine
1965 Ford d.o.h.c. V-8 racing engine
Copyright © 1965 Ford Motor Company

Ford Engineering was assigned the task of preparing the basic double-overhead-cam engine for production. It was primarily a job of redesign for production, plus durability improvements based on findings from the 1964 race. For instance, the 1964 engine experienced valve-spring failure due to excessive interference of inner to outer springs. This situation was corrected by a controlled select fit.

The engine’s lubrication was improved to protect against anticipated higher RPM and greater loads in 1965. The oil pressure was increased from 65 to 115 pounds. The entire lubrication system was enlarged to allow for freer flow and better cooling.

The connecting rods were strengthened and the crankshaft redesigned for 100 percent internal balance. As a result, the loading of the main bearings was improved.

In addition to the push for increased engine durability for 1965, considerable time was spent improving fuel economy. The 1965 version had two basic fuel systems – the modified Hilborn pump used in 1964 and a Ford injection system using a boost venturi in place of an injector nozzle. Economy was improved as much as 20 percent with the second system.

Since the selection of fuel for the 1965 race was at the discretion of the car owner, Ford calibrated fuel systems for blends of 80 percent methanol and 20 percent toluene, benzol, or gasoline. Additional tests were run on methanol with small percentages of nitro methane added, because most owners used some nitro in qualifying. These tests yielded information needed to determine calibration of the fuel system and spark requirements.

The 1965 Ford double-overhead-cam V-8 racing engine developed close to 500 horsepower at 8,600 RPM and 333 pound feet of torque at 6,700 RPM, an increase of over six percent over the 1964 offering. The engine’s operating limit was raised to 8,800 RPM.

Considerable attention was given in selection and training of personnel to assemble the production engine. A service manual was prepared to aid the car builders and mechanics in maintaining engines, and facilities were established for factory rebuilding engines if desired by owners.

The Meyer-Drake firm was the sole agent for the sale and servicing this engine. The company established an Indianapolis facility for parts and equipment for the racing fraternity.

Ford hosted a 10-day seminar for race mechanics in Dearborn, MI, devoted to care and maintenance of the engine. They observed engine disassembly, reassembly, and explanations of all design phases. Ford personnel were available at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to provide technical assistance and parts selection to meet owners’ performance requirements.

All of this pre-race preparation paid-off for Ford in 1965. Seventeen of the 33 cars in the starting field had this engine. Jimmy Clark drove his Lotus powered by Ford to first place in the Indianapolis 500. In fact, The 1965 Ford double-overhead-cam V-8 racing engine captured positions 1-4 and 7-9 finishing positions.

The 1965 Ford double-overhead-cam V-8 racing engine in various configurations enjoyed success in Indy Car racing and other venues for a number of years.

Duesenberg wins 1921 French Grand Prix

On July 25, 1921, Duesenberg was the first American car to win a European Grand Prix. Let’s take a look at how an Indianapolis-built car accomplished this feat.


British Pathe film with Jimmy Murphy in his Duesenberg winning the 1921 French Grand Prix.

After realizing some racing success in the United States, brothers Fred and Augie Duesenberg decided to enter four new straight-eight entries in the French Grand Prix in 1921, the first Grand Prix since 1914. They chose George Robertson as team manager. Robertson’s racing experience dated back to prior to winning the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island in the “Old Sixteen” Locomobile.

The team entered American drivers Jimmy Murphy and Joe Boyer and French drivers Albert Guyot and Andre Dubonnet. Then new 183 c.i. engines featured single overhead-camshafts with three valves per cylinder producing 120 horsepower at 4250 r.p.m. The racers also had hydraulic brakes which performed flawlessly.

The racers set off in pairs, with #6 Albert Guyot in fourth place, #12 Jimmy Murphy in fifth place, #16 Joe Boyer in tenth place, and #13 Andre Dubonnet in eleventh place. The first lap showed Boyer first and Murphy in third. In the second lap Murphy and Boyer moved into first and second places. In a short time the track broke up into loose gravel and flying stones. Guyot’s riding mechanic was knocked unconscious and had to be replaced.

By the tenth lap Duesenberg held first, third and fourth places. On the seventeenth lap Murphy regained the lead with Guyot in second. On the twenty fifth lap Dubonnet moved up to fourth. Jimmy Murphy in the #12 Duesenberg finished first with a 15 minute lead over Ralph De Palma’s #1 French-built Ballot.

Thompson Pattern Shop
Duesenberg racers at Thompson Pattern Shop

All of the Duesenberg race cars were built in the second floor of the Thompson Pattern shop across Washington Street from the Duesenberg plant complex in Indianapolis. Today, the #12 Duesenberg is displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.