A couple of my recent posts on the Lotus Cortina and Ford GT40 covered cars that were part of Henry Ford II’s effort to dominate motorsports in the 1960s. Ford Motor Company’s racing history in fact predates the company. Founder Henry Ford’s “Sweepstakes” car’s 1901 victory, with Ford at the wheel, made it possible for him to stay in the automobile business after the failure of the Detroit Automobile Co. Though racing helped create the foundation for the Ford company, Henry Ford II’s racing efforts in the 1960 actually represented a return to motorsports decades after his grandfather, embarrassed by a very public racing failure, withdrew FoMoCo’s official support for racing. Since that failure took place at the Indianapolis 500 race, and since “the greatest spectacle in racing” is taking place this weekend, it’s an appropriate time to take a look at the front wheel drive Miller flathead Fords of 1935. The cars’ creation involves three of the 20th century’s most fascinating automotive personages and I also happen to think they’re some of the most beautiful cars that ever raced.
There are different accounts and all the principals are long deceased so it’s impossible to say exactly how the project got started. Some say that it was Henry Ford’s idea but it was more likely Preston Tucker who approached either Edsel Ford or Henry himself with the idea. After he married his wife Vera in 1923, Tucker worked on a Ford assembly line and then as a cop before starting to sell Studebakers. He’d spend the next decade or so in a variety of sales jobs in the auto industry, including being a regional sales manager for Pierce-Arrow. In the early 1930s, Tucker developed an interest in auto racing and started spending each May in Indianapolis, eventually taking a job there overseeing a beer distributorship’s truck fleet. In time he met Harry Miller, the most successful maker of Indy racing engines at the time.
A gifted engineer whose name appears somewhere in the history of most Indianapolis race cars that have ever competed, Miller was not a great businessman. He had to declare bankruptcy in 1933, selling his assets, including his new four cylinder engine design, to his shop foreman and chief machinist Fred Offenhauser. Offenhauser continued to develop the engine, the famed Offy motor that dominated Indy racing for decades and was used into the 1970s.
Miller and Tucker became close friends. In fact, when Harry Miller died in 1943, Preston Tucker helped his widow pay for the funeral. Ten years earlier, after Miller’s bankruptcy, Tucker suggested to him that they go into business building race cars. “Miller and Tucker, Inc.” was formed in 1935. Their first project was to be an Indy racer powered by Ford’s flathead V8, introduced in 1932.
Regardless of whose idea it exactly was, somehow Tucker convinced the Fords to ante up $75,000 to build ten cars for the 1935 Indy 500.
It was one of those efforts that theoretically should have been successful. Talented people with sufficient funding. Not just talented people but Ford and Miller were giants in their respective endeavors and Preston Tucker was the perfect promoter for the effort. Not only was Miller one of the best engine builders of his day, he also had access to the technical resources of the Ford Motor Company.
What he produced were undoubtedly the most technically advanced cars that had raced at Indianapolis up to that time. They had front wheel drive and independent suspension at all four wheels. It’s not readily apparent who was responsible for the shape of the cars’ bodies, who came up with the two-tone paint scheme and clever Ford V8 graphics or whose idea the asymmetrical cowl was, but it’s aesthetically beautiful and simply looks the way that a race car of the streamlined era should look. This particular Miller Ford is in the Racing in America exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum’s Driving America display. One of its neighbors in the museum is Jim Clark’s #82 Lotus 38 that won at Indy in 1965 and tolled the death knell for front engined open wheel race cars. Clark’s Lotus is a beautiful race car but the Miller Ford loses nothing to it in the looks department.
One reason why it looks so good is that it was significantly lower than contemporary cars. Miller’s front wheel drive layout had the flathead V8 flipped around with the transmission and final drive in front of it. That meant no driveshaft and allowed for a very low and sleek car. The way the Ford V8 logo on the side looks like an arrow pointing forward also gives the impression of speed.
The Miller Ford V8s had everything they needed to be successful. Well, everything but time. Since the contracts with Ford weren’t signed until February of 1935, Miller and Tucker only had a matter of months to build they cars. Getting needed equipment further delayed the project and in the end they had just eight weeks. Though they completed all ten cars in time for qualifying, there simply was not time for the kind of development a brand new race car needs. While all the cars were completed, only four qualified for the race, in the back of the pack, no higher than 26th, with the slowest of the Miller Fords starting dead last in 33rd. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough for Henry Ford, all four cars DNF’d, placing no higher than 16th, finishing 145 of the 200 laps. The other three cars didn’t even make the halfway mark. Their fatal flaw was a steering box too close to the exhaust manifold, the heat causing the steering gear to seize, making it impossible to steer.
That’s a problem that likely would have been noticed and fixed with normal development. The chassis was sound and a number of the ten cars built continued to compete at the Indy 500 for over a decade, up through the 1947 race, with Ford, Offy and Novi engines, with the highest finish being a 4th place in 1941.
However, Henry Ford had not just invested money in the project. FoMoCo’s PR machinery had heavily publicized the 1935 effort and even made sure that a Ford V8 production car was chosen to pace the race. Henry Ford was deeply embarrassed by the very public failure. From that point until after his death, Ford Motor Company would not officially participate in organized racing.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS