The creations of Miller, Goossen, and Offenhauser were designed for the American oval track. The cars were raced on board tracks, brick tracks (Indy), dirt tracks, and were utterly dominant.
Marine versions of the racing engines were also built and raced in Gold Cup and Harmsworth events and in world speed record attempts. Famous boat racing names like Gar Wood, Hacker, Crouch, Ditchburn, Chris-Craft, and Dodge all used Miller engines.
The Miller and Offenhauser engines of I-4, I-8, V-16, and W-24 design produced staggering power outputs: up to 3hp/cu.in. (193hp/l). They ranged in size from 91 cu.in. to 3300 cu.in. (1.5l to 200l).
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Harry Arminius Miller (December 9, 1875
- May 3, 1943)
Griffith Borgeson, Miller, Motorbooks International, 1993
Mark Dees, The Miller Dynasty, The Hippodrome Publishing Co., 1994
Copyrighted by the authors.
Edited by Harold Peters
In no way can this brief summary begin to tell the story told by 700 pages in these two books. Although both books are out-of-print, they are still available from the sources on the For Sale page and are a must-have for any pre-war racing enthusiast.
"Harry Miller was, quite simply, the greatest creative figure in the history of the American racing car.
His engines dominated American oval-track racing for almost half a century. Most of the speed records which there were to be had on land and water were held at one time or another by those engines. He created the school of American thoroughbred engine design, which was faithfully followed by those who sought to outdo him. He was the originator, in the United States, of the racing car as an art object. He had a passion for metalwork and machinery that soared above and beyond all practical consideration. Parts of his machines that never would be seen by eyes other than those of the builders were formed and finished with loving care. His dedication to artistic and noble workmanship drew to his organization other technicians who believed in these same values. A whole sub-culture spread from the Miller nucleus, to become a permanent and integral part of innovative, artistic Southern California culture as a whole. It spilled over into the aircraft industry and it shook the automotive industry worldwide.
Miller created the first really streamlined closed car in the United States, and one of the first in the world. That was in 1917, and he was already telling journalists about using airfoil sections for improving the traction of super-light cars. He created unsupercharged engines of fantastic efficiency. Then he became the master of supercharging, achieving far more fantastic results, making the world passenger-car industry look archaic. He gave the world front-wheel-drive as a practical reality. He created really tractable and practical four-wheel drive racing cars in the early Thirties, decades before almost anyone could appreciate the value of the principle. He always lived in the future, up to the time of his death in 1943.
He stood about 5 ft. 6 in., had blue eyes, black hair, fair complexion, ruddy cheeks, and red lips. He was shy, silent, and reflective. He was in the habit of lying awake at night, while his brain worked. He did not waste much time on sleep. He had little to say, unless the topic should be machinery or, preferably, engines, in which case he could go on forever, with an interlocutor on his intellectual wavelength.
"He was a funny man," his wife said, meaning that he was clairvoyant. "Someone's telling me what to do," he told intelligently sensitive Leo Goossen. "I have a control, and I count on it."
Harry Miller was born in Menomonie, Wisconsin, on December 9, 1875. In 1894 he moved to Los Angeles. During the early 1900s, Miller had been developing an original design for an improved carburetor. With the aid of a used lathe and drill press and a few essential tools, he began production. He filed for a patent to protect his carburetor design in 1909 and received it that December, five days after his 34th birthday. His business career took off with a rush.
In 1912, Miller's carburetor company and assets were purchased by the sons of Charles Fairbanks and moved to Indianapolis in April. Miller continued to invent and file patents and in 1913, he incorporated the Master Carburetor Company, for the manufacture and sale of a new and very different carburetor. With brush-fire rapidity, the Master came overwhelmingly to dominate racing in the West, and then spread all the way to the Atlantic Coast. It was a resounding commercial success in the passenger-car, aeronautical, and marine fields.
Early in 1912, Miller had developed - with carburetors bodies in mind - an original blend of aluminum, nickel, and copper, which he called Alloyanum. Continuing his experiments, Miller found that his new alloy was good for much more than light, strong carburetor bodies. He found that it made marvelous pistons and by in late 1913 he began pioneering their sale. His pistons swiftly became a virtual necessity for high-performance and aero engines. And, in spite of the Master sale, he continued to design and fabricate special carburetors and inlet manifolds for high power output. These factors, plus a fine machine shop that could duplicate the most exotic parts, served to make the roomy plant of the Harry A. Miller Manufacturing Co. the west coast mecca for anyone and everyone in the country with an interest in optimum performance on land, water, or in the air. By 1915, at age 40, Miller had made it.
The first original Miller engine was commissioned in 1915. It was an inline 6, single-overhead-cam aircraft engine designed in the current aero Mercedes manner. An engine followed for "Wild Bob" Burman whose connecting rod broke in his 1913 Grand Prix Peugeot. Aside from a few bits, which could be recuperated from the scattered Peugeot, an entirely new engine and chassis was constructed.
Pleased with the result, Bob ordered a totally new car with a new engine, a combination he never saw finished as a result of his horrific fatal accident at Corona in 1916. The second Burman engine was a very different engine design from any other twin-cam engine of the time - it incorporated a totally enclosed valve gear, predating Ballot by three years.
Miller followed these engines with a series of 289-ci single-overhead camshaft 16-valve fours constructed of Alloyanum extensively. The engines employed wet steel liners - the world's first, at least among racing engines. One of these engines was placed in what remains to this day as one of the most dramatic racing cars of all time: the Miller Golden Submarine. Designed and built in 1917, the entirely enclosed and aerodynamic racecar was sensational wherever it went. On a sister car, Miller fitted hydraulic front brakes for 1919, making it the first known appearance of such brakes on a racing car.
Miller's last car of the decade was the TNT car with a 183-ci four. It was the world's first twin-cam engine to use light-alloy construction along with wet cylinder liners. Its patent shows flat-spoke wheels, five years ahead of Bugatti; four-wheel brakes and lightened brake drums; the engine as a stressed chassis member; and the profile of what would become the classic shape of American oval track racecar bodies for at least a couple of decades to come.
1920 opened the decade in which Miller would become the supreme American racecar constructor. In order to exert the most rigid control over the balance between the strength and the lightness of parts, Miller broke with the established practice of adapting production-car components to racecar use. Practically every part of every Miller car was always made in his own plant. For every part, an engineering drawing existed. The importance of esthetic effect was of fundamental importance. It took about 6,000 to 6,500 man-hours to build a complete car. Between 700 and 1000 hours went into beautifying - just putting the finish on each machine.
In 1921, incorporating the best of the world's racing engine designs along with his own innovations, Miller designed and produced the 183-ci engine. A twin-cam, four-valve, straight- eight, it eventually produced 185 bhp at 4400 rpm. As soon as the engine was sorted out, Miller began constructing complete racing cars in which to mount the engine. About a dozen 183s were built before the 122-ci formula was enacted in 1923.
From the beginning, Miller tested carburetors with two, four, or eight throats. Miller and his team experimented with ram tuning of induction systems, using a stopwatch and cut-and-try methods at the Beverly Hills board track. The result was beautiful ram-tuned intake runners and carburetor throats for each individual cylinder.
A Miller 183 driven by Tommy Milton won the 1921 national championship - Miller racecars won every annual national championship thereafter. By mid-1922, the Miller 183 had become the hottest thing on wheels. It was in March that Jimmy Murphy placed an order with Miller for a 183 to be installed in the Duesenberg racecar with which he had won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans the previous July. Murphy won with that combination at Indy in 1922 - and with that victory, Miller became a figure of international importance. From this breakthrough, Miller almost overwhelmingly reigned at Indy through the 1920s. Millers won five 500s and never placed less than six cars in the top ten.
In the summer of 1922, Miller began the design of a new engine and car for the 122-ci class. The new engine was only slightly changed: primarily the adoption of a two-valve hemispheric head and a five-main-bearing crankshaft. The bodies of the 183s had been remarkably narrow and lightweight, but those of the 122s seemed to be more so, the drawings calling for a maximum width of 18 in and a total weight of 1350 lbs. Aerodynamically, they were slippery projectiles, as the record list confirmed.
The Miller 122 was the first pure racing car to be series produced and about fifteen cars were completed. Three cars were built for European Grand Prix use, driven by Zborowski, De Alzaga, and Murphy. In 1923, 46% of the Indy starting field was Millers; by 1925 it was 73%.
Early specimens of the Miller 122s developed around 120 bhp at 5000 rpm. In response to the Duesenberg supercharging innovation, Miller designed a centrifugal supercharger for the 122. It raised the output to 235 bhp at 5800 rpm.
In 1924, a Miller 183 chassis set two international speed records: 151.26 mph with a 183-ci engine and 141.17 mph with a 122-ci engine. Many records continued to be established by the 122s in ensuing years.
As a result of a request for something uniquely superior to anything in the world, Miller designed and produced the 122 front-drive racing car in late 1924. Two were built before the 91-ci formula was enacted in 1926. If Harry Miller had done nothing more in his highly creative career than give the world front-wheel-drive as a practical reality, his significant place in history would be assured.
The Miller front-wheel-drive car seemed to be a perfectly integrated harmonious whole, as machine and sculptural object. There was something about it that was close to being sublime. Without the driveline through the cockpit, the driver sat some nine inches lower than in the comparable rear-drive car. Miller further reduced the height of the radiator and the result was a low, rakish car of unsurpassed beauty. The long low hood of the new Millers bespoke nothing but power and established a virtual mandate among stylists for a long hood, or the illusion thereof, for decades to come. It was without doubt the greatest single milestone in the development of the appearance of the automobile between the end of the Edwardian era and the streamlining fad of the 1930s.
The Miller front-drive was a bombshell of engineering and styling ideas tossed at a somnolent Detroit. There ensued a frenzy of speculation and research into front-wheel drive, which eventually abated after a few front-drive cars were placed into limited production. Only racing cars, rather than passenger cars like the Cord L-29, demonstrated the best possibilities of front-drive until the famous Citroen Traction-Avant of 1934 proved its entire practicality and merit for the road.
Harry Miller's fortunes remained steadily ascendant throughout the Roaring Twenties. He made a great deal of money. He had a comfortable house in town, a ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, and enjoyed the friendship of leading businessmen, sports figures, and Hollywood stars.
In response to the new 91.5-ci formula, Miller designed a new engine and racecar. The heart of these cars was a straight-eight engine and body similar in outline and form to the 122. However, every single component, except for proprietary parts, was designed and built anew just for the 91. The Miller 91 rear-drive was built in series production and nine cars were completed. Ten Miller 91 front-drives were built, each an individual design.
Factory engines started out with an output of 154 bhp at 7000 rpm. Intercooler innovations and internal refinements by Frank Lockhart pushed the output to 285 bhp at 8000 rpm.
If you wanted to win, you had to buy Miller - if you could afford it. A factory rear-drive cost $10,000 and a front-drive cost $15,000. It was the price of admission: from 1926 to 1929, between 71% and 85% of the Indy starting field were Millers.
In 1927, a Miller 91 rear-drive set an international speed record of 164.84 mph, including a one-way speed of 171 mph, and an international closed-course speed record of 147.729 mph. In 1930, a Miller 91 front-drive achieved 180.9 mph. Many other international speed records were established.
As a result of Miller's car racing dominance, boat owners approached Miller to produce powerplants for racing and sport boats. Miller responded with marine versions of the 122-ci and 91-ci car engines and with new designs of 310-ci straight-eights and 620-ci V16s. One design in particular, that of a simple and reliable 151-ci four-cylinder, was a popular seller and a constant winner.
Unfortunately, the looks, durability, and quality of the Miller racecars, those qualities that made them so successful, eventually led to their demise. A Miller chassis was the dream of every racer and would-be racer in the country for dirt track use or, later, for widening to use as a two-man Indy car. Eventually, every rear-drive 91 and all but two 122s were re-engined and otherwise altered so greatly that their original identity was lost.
Just weeks before the crash of 1929, Harry Miller took associates' advice and retired from his business. A $60,000 retainer from Cord and the sale of his business for $150,000 allowed him a life of luxurious comfort. But, at the age of 54, he was still a vigorous man, and marvelous ideas kept coming to him. And so, in 1930, he set up a new engineering business and soon hired back most of his old staff. However, the world had changed from the Twenties: it was the Depression, there was little money for racing and his wealthy patrons were gone. In three years he would be bankrupt.
At the start of the decade, a prominent racecar owner decided to try one of Miller's successful four-cylinder, 151-ci marine engines in his racecar. It was successful beyond all expectations. The prototype established a new international speed record of 144.895 mph. Miller, asked to design a racecar version, developed an economy racing engine to suit the hard times. A logical development of the well-tried marine engine, it was the twin-cam, four-valve, 220-ci four.
Unfortunately, a throwback four-cylinder, although clearly showing the path to a successful future, did not interest Miller in the least. It hardly sold at all and, following his bankruptcy, his company assets were sold at auction. It was Miller's long-time chief machinist, Fred Offenhauser who picked up this engine design and continued to produce and refine it - the design quickly became the indomitable Offy, the most victorious racing engine of all time.
What entranced Miller was the idea of building a super road machine to impress the titans of Detroit with whom he hobnobbed at the Speedway. He was commissioned to design and build the finest and fastest sports car yet seen in the United States - for the sum of $30,000. Of course, the dream machine would be front-drive. A one-off 310-ci, twin-cam, supercharged, V8 of 350 bhp was designed for it along with a new front-drive transaxle. The hand-built car was completed in 1930.
While others would perpetuate certain of Miller's concepts for decades to come, Miller was eternally in pursuit of improved solutions to design problems. Unlike its highly specialized predecessors, the 1931 series Miller racecar chassis was conceived as a sort of go-anywhere racing machine. It was intended to perform outstandingly, whether skimming over speedways or slogging it around the dirt tracks, which were totally replacing the board tracks.
Only four cars were built: one with a 303-ci V16 and three with 230-ci straight-eights. The cars performed well, winning the national championship in 1932, winning at Indy in 1933, and repeatedly placing in the top five in races around the country. Considering the very small number built, the performance and racing record of these cars must have been a source of pride to Harry Miller and his staff.
Those who knew him said that Harry Miller was a man who would gamble his last dollar on the drawing board. Naturally, the first worthwhile four-wheel-drive racing car design was his brainchild. That he designed and constructed such a project in the gloomy fall of 1931 proves that he was in thrall to the passion of the machine, for the creditors were swarming around.
Extrapolated from the front-wheel-drives of the Twenties, and the four-wheel-drives had the same De Dion drive system at both front and rear. A new 308-ci, twin-cam, V8 along with the complete drive system was designed and two cars completed - at a cost of more than $30,000. The cars raced unsuccessfully, due both to bad luck and design flaws, at Indy and elsewhere in the early 30s, and the new cars had no opportunity to demonstrate what they could do. In 1934, one of the cars was raced in the Grand Prix of Tripoli and in the AVUS Grand Prix in Berlin. The other car raced in hill climbs for a while before its retirement.
In the midst of building the four-wheel-drive racecars, Miller also designed and produced his last road car, one of the most incredible supercars of all time. It was a Roots-supercharged, twin-cam, V16 of nearly 500 bhp, four-wheel-drive speedster - built at the remarkable price of $35,000. However, without series production to work out the bugs, it was a driving disaster - an ill-conceived car that looked better on paper than at any later stage in its existence.
The failure image of four-wheel-drive became deeply etched in the mass mentality and Miller was left to his rendezvous with financial ruin. It is said that the four-wheel-drive cars were the cars that clinched his imminent bankruptcy.
On July 8, 1933, the inevitable moment of reckoning arrived: outside creditors filed suit and Miller was placed in involuntary bankruptcy. He was wiped out - out of business, home, and ranch. His world was smashed, but so were the worlds of loyal friends who had stood by him through thick and thin and who had made it possible for him to become supreme in his domain. Crushed by humiliation and guilt, Miller turned his back on the region and culture that he had helped to build and that December migrated east.
Upon arrival in New York, his old crony, Preston Tucker, sought Miller out. Tucker felt that a stock-block engine in a modern, independently sprung chassis might have a chance to win. He knew that Miller certainly could design such running gear, and that he, Tucker, master salesman, had the chutzpah and contacts throughout Detroit to sell the package to a major automobile manufacturer. It was to Edsel Ford that Tucker grandly and eloquently pitched the idea. At the end of February 1935 a deal was struck for the construction of ten cars for the upcoming Indy 500, at a cost of $75,000. The machines and equipment to build the cars didn't arrive until March, leaving less than sixty days to outfit the shop, complete the design and drawings, build the avant-garde racecars, and test and develop them.
The inevitable happened. The cars were rushed together in an environment of unrelieved panic, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. Only four cars qualified for the race and all retired early for the same reason: a seized steering gearbox overheated by its proximity to the exhaust. It could have been rendered perfectly operational if but a few minutes of practice time had been available.
After the race and the fiasco, Henry Ford himself ordered the ten cars hauled away, to be gotten out of sight for a couple of years or so. The Miller-Ford dealt a devastating but passing blow to the Ford image. Harry Miller was the fall guy for the unrealizable fantasies of others, in which he had allowed himself to become enmeshed. What remained were the most beautiful American racing cars of the decade. The harbinger of a new age, they were low, rakish, streamlined beyond belief in every detail except the elegant radiator grill.
After the Miller-Ford debacle, Miller formed a business venture with the internationally renowned automotive stylist, Tom Hibbard. Hibbard's vision was a trim speedster based on a shortened Ford V-8 chassis; Miller's vision was a 91-ci straight-eight, mid-engined, fully independently sprung sports car. Nothing came of either of their dreams.
Then, in early 1937, Miller's very first client for a straight-eight engine reappeared in his life. Ira Vail commissioned the design and construction of a pair of new four-cylinder machines to compete against the old pre-World War I technology, which then reigned on the dirt tracks and at Indianapolis. Miller's design of a lightweight aero engine, deep chassis members, and independent suspension, included another truly Miller first: disc brakes. Shortly after Miller began construction of these cars, the Gulf Oil Company approached him and bought out the project. Justification for the Gulf involvement in a racing car project was to furnish a test-bed and showcase for the company's current gas and lubricants. The racecars were completed but testing and attempts at qualifying revealed severe cooling problems. They were disposed of and never raced again.
A program was launched immediately for the design and construction of a team of much more ambitious, cost no-object, racecars suitable for Grand Prix and Indianapolis competition. The aging, unhealthy Miller took a deep breath and plunged into the last great effort of his career. The car would be 180-ci six-cylinder, supercharged, four-wheel-drive, mid-engined, independently sprung, disk braked technical tour de force. The engine was the world's first to have oversquare bore/stroke dimensions. The extremely complex car was rushed to completion and failed to qualify for the 1938 Indy.
Miller radically redesigned the concept and three new cars were completed for 1939. One crashed and burned dramatically, one was withdrawn, and the other failed to complete the race. At the end of summer, Miller's honeymoon with Gulf dissolved. He could never bring himself to do things in the ways that large corporations required. Were Miller to have played his cards right, he could have established a sinecure for himself at Gulf in which to dabble on various projects during his declining years while playing the role of elder statesman to the racing community. But, of course, he was too independent and too beguiled by his own reputation and constant luck to do so. There had always been an angel in the wings to bankroll him in another venture.
Harry moved, by himself - his wife returned to California - to Indianapolis where he engaged in various aircraft projects involving Preston Tucker. All ended badly and a year later Miller moved to Detroit. He set up a small business making test fixtures and tools and spent the last two years of his life in near penury. At age 65, having suffered from diabetes for years, and having acquired facial cancer, the end was near. In early 1943 he suffered a heart attack and died on May 3. His ashes were interred in Los Angeles with little fanfare, a sad passing for this flawed but vital man."
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