1949 Kurtis Sports Car. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Frank Kurtis was one of the most successful and prolific race car builders of all time. He built his first car based on a Model T Ford in 1922 at age 14. After working in various racing shops including Don Lee’s, which also produced GM’s famous stylist Harley Earl, he opened his own race car facility in Glendale, California in 1933. He built midget racers before and after the Second World War, producing some 500 kits and complete cars.
But Frank was also interested in larger racers and in 1939 he produced his first full size Indianapolis 500 car. It was badly damaged in the Indy trials that year, and while the driver was not injured he called it quits. Kurtis rebuilt the car in time for the race and found another driver who drove it to tenth place, a remarkable feat for a new untried car.
After the Second World war Kurtis’s shop would become famous for its big competition cars, including the fast but star-crossed Novis, and the Cummins diesel Indy cars of 1950 and ’52. The 1952 diesel was among the first of what became known as the Kurtis “roadster” because of its low stance and high body sides. Kurtis laid the diesel six flat on its right side to lower both the frontal area and centre of gravity. With the heaviest part of the engine on the left side of the car it counteracted the weight transfer to the right that occurred in Indy’s constant left turns.
The Kurtis roadster spelled the end of the classic “upright” race car and revolutionized the Indy car. In a few short years Kurtises dominated the Indy 500, winning in 1950, ’51, ’53 and ’54. Of the 33 starters in 1953, the first seven finishers were Kurtises.
Frank also liked sports cars, and after the war built a sleek custom bodied personal car on a 1941 Buick chassis. Frank wanted to enter sports car production, and this special strongly influenced his first prototype Kurtis Sports Car built in 1949, a two passenger roadster with a 2,540 mm (100 in.) wheelbase and a removable hardtop with plexiglass side windows. It stood a svelte 1,219 mm (48 in.) high when the typical Detroit product was over 1,524 (60).
The full envelope body had a sturdy bumper/grille combination and was mounted on a 1949 Ford chassis. Power came from a supercharged Studebaker six-cylinder engine and the Kurtis weighed 1,043 kg (2,300 lb.). The full complement of instruments included a tachometer, and a telescoping steering column was fitted.
Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated tested it and was mightily impressed. He reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 11.5 seconds and a top speed of 169 km/h (104.6 mph), very good figures for 1949 and faster than any American production car. The Kurtis was also featured in the first issue of Motor Trend magazine dated September 1949.
To further consolidate its performance, a Kurtis powered by a souped-up Ford V8 engine was taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats in August 1949. It made a two-way average of 229 km/h (142.5 mph) over a measured mile driven by Wally Parks, co-founder and first editor of Hot Rod magazine, and founder of the National Hot Rod Association.
The Kurtis went into limited production in 1949 with plans to sell it completed or in kit form. It had a 1949 Ford chassis, suspension, brakes and V8 engine. Body panels were mostly aluminum over a steel frame, with some steel and fibreglass also used.
As Kurtis production proceeded, costs increased, pushing the price up close to $5,000. The new Jaguar XK120 available at some $1,000 less was very stiff competition indeed.
By the time Frank Kurtis had sold about 16 cars in both assembled and kit form it was apparent that it was financially unsustainable.
One Kurtis customer, Earl “Madman” Muntz, was very enthusiastic about the car. He had made a fortune selling used cars and manufacturing television sets, and harboured a dream of becoming an automobile manufacturer.
In 1950 Muntz purchased the Kurtis manufacturing rights, blueprints and tooling from Kurtis. He lengthened the wheelbase to 2,870 mm (113 in.) and turned it into a four seater. Christened the Muntz Jet, Muntz continued production in Kurtis’s Glendale shop until Kurtis needed the space, then moved to Evanston, Illinois. Muntz lost money on each car and stopped production in 1954 after a claimed 394 were built.
The Kurtis was a brave pioneering effort to produce a genuine, post-Second World War American sports car. While it failed, it’s a small but interesting chapter in automotive history. Kurtis would try again with cycle-fendered sports cars based on his Indy design, and although they were successful in competition, few were sold