1928 Miller Front-Wheel Drive Racer. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Racing cars have been built with front-wheel, rear-wheel and four-wheel drive. But in spite of the current popularity of front-drive passenger cars, it has not transferred to the world’s top race tracks.
There was, however, a serious attempt beginning in the 1920s to make front-wheel drive racers a viable alternative to rear-drivers, and at no less a venue than the famous Indianapolis 500. The man behind it was Harry Armenius Miller.
Harry Miller was born in 1875 and grew up in Menominee, Wisconsin. He was an ingenious natural engineer, and in the early 1900s, his mechanical talent took him to Indianapolis, which was developing into a major automotive centre.
Miller invented a low-restriction carburetor, and soon moved to California where his carburetors became well known by being fitted to successful airplanes and racing cars. The carburetor operation was bought out and moved to Indianapolis, but it wasn’t long before Miller had invented a better carburetor called the Master, and organized the Master Carburetor Co.
His next development was an aluminum piston, and his well equipped shop was soon supplying them for many racing engines used in cars, boats and airplanes.
Miller was ready to take on the production of a complete engine, and had two very able allies in Fred Offenhauser and Leo Goossen, who went on to become legendary Indy 500 engine builders. An early engine order came from Bob Burman, a prominent race driver. Unable to obtain parts for his wrecked French Peugeot engine, he asked Miller to build a replacement engine based in part on the Peugeot design.
The Miller shop succeeded, and continued building engines influenced by the Peugeot, and by the Bugatti double overhead cam V16 aircraft engine they had worked on during the First World War. When war work ended, Miller decided to concentrate on building racecars.
Miller produced a double overhead cam, four-valve-per-cylinder, straight-eight racing engine for the American Automobile Association Contest Board’s new 1920 3.0-litre (183 cu in.) Championship car formula. Miller engines won the Indy 500 in 1922 and ’23, much to the chagrin of rival Duesenberg, who along with Miller would dominate American racing for a decade.
Then, for 1924, Duesenberg came back with supercharging, winning the ’24 and ’25 Indy 500s.
The Indy engine formula was to change to just 1.5 litres (91 cu in.) in 1926. American racing driver Jimmy Murphy had won the 1921 French Grand Prix in a Duesenberg, and had made the Miller engine famous by fitting one to his Indy-winning Duesenberg in 1922.
He decided that under the new formula a lighter, front-wheel drive car would pull through the corners faster, and thus post quicker lap times. He commissioned Miller to design a front-drive racer for him.
Unfortunately, Murphy was killed in September, 1924, but Miller was enthusiastic about the front-drive racers, and built three of them. Although a Duesenberg won the 1925 Indy, a front-drive Miller would have won except for a pit stop error.
The front-wheel drive Miller racer was daringly engineered. To keep the drivetrain short, the combination differential and transmission, now called a transaxle, was mounted transversely ahead of the engine, concentric with the front axle. The three-speed transmission’s gears were “downstream” from the differential, which subjected them to the final drive’s torque multiplication.
This put a tremendous strain on the transmission, but it survived because oval track racing required the use of intermediate gears only when exiting the pits.
A solid de Dion front axle tube was mounted on quarter elliptic springs, and the big drum brakes were inboard. The straight-eight engines had a large centrifugal supercharger that spun up to 40,000 rpm, and by the late 1920s would be fitted with air-to-air intercoolers that enabled them to produce an estimated 225 horsepower.
A Miller came second to Duesenberg in the 1925 Indy, and Miller’s books swelled with orders for his new front-drive racers. Miller front-drivers posted Indy wins in 1928 and ’29.
The end came for the jewel-like Miller racers when the AAA Contest Board changed the formula to 6.0 litres (366 cu in.) in 1930, and banned supercharging and four-valves-per cylinder. This so-called “Junk Formula” was designed to reduce the cost of racing by replacing tiny, precision 1.5-litre (91 cu in.) engines with modified stock car powerplants.
Although front-drivers would have some later successes, rear-drive predominated in Indy type, Grand Prix, and Formula One racing, first with front engines, and later with mid rear-engined layouts. The imaginative, beautifully crafted front-drive Millers proved to be an interesting but temporary aberration.