Thursday Trivia

Thirsday Trivia Welcome to Thursday Trivia where we offer up a historical automotive trivia question and you try and solve it before seeing the answer after the jump. It’s like a history test, with cars! This week’s question: What was the first mid-engine car to qualify at the Indy 500? If you think you know the answer, make the jump and see if you’re right. Miller 1938 Gulf Miller SpecialThe last front-engine roadster to qualify at the Indianapolis 500 was Jim Hurtubise’s Mallard-Offy in 1968. Thus ended the era of front-engined Indy racers, leaving only the pace car (with the singular exception of the 1984 Pontiac Fiero) to carry on that Indy race-day tradition.  The roadsters had a good run, but during the sixties the benefits of putting the engine behind the driver – weight distribution, downforce, and pound-saving elimination of the driveshaft and separate differential – were too overwhelming to ignore. The period 1961 -1968 is considered the mid engine revolution, but did the first mid engine car to qualify for Indy debut in this decade? In fact the first mid engine car to qualify at Indy did so for the 1939 race, and its engine placement was only one of its technologically advanced features. From

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.

A year prior to Harry Miller’s cars’ debut another mid-engine car attempted to qualify for the race but failed to do so. Lee Oldfield brought his Oldfield Special to the track for the race but the last-minute withdrawal of funding by the car’s sponsor, Joel Thorne caused him to be unable to complete the car or to successfully qualify for the race. Image:

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