Birth of Speed: The Harry Miller Engine Collection
Just about every mechanically inclined teenager fancies dropping out of school to get on with life. I certainly did. So did a Wisconsinite named Harry Miller. The only difference between him and me was that he actually went for it, a first step of many in what amounts to, likely, the most profound legacy in American motorsports.
After learning the ropes in a local machine shop Miller worked for a few upstart auto makers, among them Ransom E. Olds. Afterhours he patented two things critical to his career: a carburetor and spark plugs, the latter of which he sold to finance a move to California where he and Frank Adamson established the Miller Carburetor and Manufacturing Co. But making carburetors couldn’t satisfy Miller’s intense creativity. He and his brilliant cadre, among them draftsman Leo Goossen (who reportedly understood engineering to a far greater degree than Miller) and crack machinist Fred Offenhauser, began building entire cars from scratch under the Harry A Miller Mfg. banner.
Peugeot’s revolutionary dual-overhead-cam engine didn’t just win Indy in 1913; it gave Miller and his crew a mandate. Racer BarneyOldfield commissioned one of the first, a single-overhead-cam four that displaced a whopping 289 cubic inches. But it was a 182-inch twin-cam, 32-valve straight eight that put Miller, Goossen, and Offenhauser on the map. It propelled JimmyMurphy’s Duesenberg chassis to the checkered flag at the ’22 Indianapolis 500.
A succession of engine variants followed, among them V-16s and supercharged models. Miller did the same with the cars themselves by at one point flipping the engine and transmission around to drive the front wheels (see above). In total Miller-built-or-powered cars won the Indianapolis 500 five times from 1922 to 1929, the year Miller retired. He ended his career as he began it: early. He was only 54.
Unfortunately hard times Miller and forced him back into the game. He and the old crew developed a 151-inch four that dominated dirt-track racing. Though Miller’s old eight won Indy from ’30 to ’32 (seven times since ’22) a larger-displacement version of his new four proved its merit by winning at Indy in ’33.
It wasn’t all roses though. Insurmountable financial issues forced Miller to file bankruptcy that year. It wasn’t the end for Miller’s legacy; his machinist, Fred Offenhauser, bought the remains and hired draftsman Leo Goossen to continue producing engines. Though Offenhauser sold the engine operation in ’46 to develop a business that casts parts for production cars (the company still bears his name) the engines that Miller designed and Offenhauser refined enjoyed a run that nobody could’ve predicted.
In short Miller/Offenhauser engines won every 500 from 1933 to 1938 and again in ’41. In ’47 Miller/Offenhauser engines began a jaw-dropping 17-year winning streak that lasted from 1947 to 1964. Though Ford’s V8 proved superior the following year, Goossen’s adaptation of a turbocharger put the Offy back on the map in ’68 and led yet another streak from 1972 to 1976.
Sadly Miller couldn’t appreciate the full significance of his designs: he died of a heart attack in 1943. But we can get a good idea of Miller's importance to engine development thanks to the Smith Collection at the Museum of Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska. It amassed what may be the largest collection of Harry Miller designs, including the table on which Leo Goossen drafted most, if not all, of the parts on display. And the room dedicated to Miller, Goossen, Offenhauser, and their successors is but one display in a 135,000-square-foot museum dedicated to American motorsports and innovators. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Standing in that room makes one question the merits of a formal education, I certainly had my doubts - or was it that Miller was just that much of a genius? Engines designed by a high-school dropout won America’s most prominent race some 39 times in 50 racing years, a full 74 percent of every race held from 1922 to 1976. Maybe I should’ve quit school after all!
See the Harry Miller Engine Gallery for yourself at:
Museum of American SpeedLincoln, Nebraskawww.museumofamericanspeed.com
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