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Collection of Offenhauser patterns shows how the famed midget racing engine came together

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.

The midget motorsports craze of the 1930s and 1940s not only served as a launchpad for many drivers who’d go on to successful racing careers, it also ended up keeping afloat one of the greatest companies in American motorsports history via the Offenhauser midget engine, the original patterns for which will head to auction next month.

Not a year after Fred Offenhauser took over the operations of his former employer, engine builder Harry A. Miller — which consisted mainly of casting, machining, and selling racing parts, and rebuilding truck engines — a new business opportunity arose in the summer of 1934. Midget racing had taken the country by storm, offering cheap thrills for spectators and drivers alike in the depths of the Depression. Organizers soon capitalized on the new motorsport’s popularity by building dedicated tracks around the country.

One of those promoters, Los Angeles-based Earl Gilmore, grew dismayed with the frequent breakdowns and the unruly nature of the miscellaneous motorcycle, junkyard, and cut-down engines that powered the cars racing at his stadium, so he turned to Offenhauser for help.

“(The unreliable engines) made it difficult to run a show,” Gordon Eliot White wrote in Offenhauser: The Legendary Racing Engine and the Men Who Built It. “His patience exhausted, Gilmore sent his manager, David Koetzla, to see Fred Offenhauser about building a real racing engine for the little cars.”

Offenhauser didn’t have anything on hand at the moment, but he and Leo Goossen, the longtime draftsman for Miller’s creations and their successors, pulled up the plans for the 183-cu.in. straight-eight that Miller built for Harry Hartz’s 1932 Indianapolis 500-winning entry and decided to cut it in half to make a 97-cu.in. four-cylinder. As White described the engine’s construction:

The 183 was, as Millers went, relatively simple, that is, inexpensive. It had two valves per cylinder and was unsupercharged. Using half of the 183’s crankshaft left the midget engine with only three main bearings but it seemed to work alright.”

In addition, Miller had designed the 183 as essentially two four-cylinder engines sharing a common crankcase so, White conjectured, “Offenhauser could use 183 blocks already on hand, or at least casting patterns for the Hartz engine.”

But that’s not, apparently, what Offenhauser did, judging from the patterns in the collection coming up for sale that are labeled “Offenhauser 97” and dated July 1934. With not much turnaround time, Offenhauser had the first midget engine ready in time for Curly Wetteroth to place it in his midget chassis and subsequently hand the completed car off to Curly Mills for its debut in late September 1934. Mills not only won that race, he also reportedly won his next 16 races.

Though the five total engines he built that first year seems like small potatoes, he charged about $1,100 per engine, roughly the equivalent of $20,000 today. “Fred had a healthy profit margin on them, and with the help of those midget sales, the firm cleared $18,000 for the year,” White wrote. “They kept him in business.”

Perhaps just as importantly, the midget engine sales — White counted at least 180 during the time that Offenhauser ran the company — allowed Offenhauser to develop the larger engines that would go on to dominate Indy and many other forms of motorsport for decades to come. They also, as White noted, led to a number of other racing innovations from fuel pumps to quickchange rear axles.

When Offenhauser decided to retire shortly after the end of World War II, Louis Meyer and Dale Drake bought out his business in 1946 and continued offering the midget engine until about 1974. While it didn’t sell in great numbers — White recorded serial numbers up to 450 or so — it remained popular and powerful enough to warrant continued development through the decades. Meyer and Drake, in fact, sold most of their midget engines as 102-cu.in. variants and even offered the engine in displacements as large as 111 cubic inches.

In addition to the midget engine patterns, the collection offered up at Mecum’s Indianapolis sale includes patterns for various other Offenhauser and Meyer & Drake parts as well as miscellaneous pistons, camshafts, and other parts for Offenhauser engines.

The Mecum Indianapolis auction will take place May 14 to 19. For more information, visit Mecum.com.