1964-1965 Novi race car. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The Novi has been called the greatest car never to win the Indianapolis 500, yet it became an Indy icon without ever entering the winner’s circle.
In 1937, Indy ended the so-called “Junk Formula” allowing engines up to 6.0 litres (366 cu in.) instituted in 1930 to permit cheaper stock block engines. It was superseded in 1938 by international Grand Prix rules permitting 4.5 litres (274 cu in.) naturally aspirated or 3.0 litres (183 cu in.) supercharged. It also allowed single-seat bodies.
Brothers Ed and Bud Winfield, manufacturers of racing carburetors, wanted to build an Indy car for the new formula. They obtained sponsorship from Ford parts manufacturer and engine rebuilder Lewis Welch of Novi, Michigan. With his Ford connection Welch wanted a V8, requesting it be called after his home town of Novi. The new Novi engine was to be installed in a Harry Miller-designed Ford front-driver that raced in the 1935 Indy.
Work began on the 3.0 litre supercharged Novi in 1940 in legendary racing engine builder Fred Offenhauser’s shop; design was by America’s only full-time racing engine designer, Leo Goosen.
It was a 90-degree, oversquare, 16-valve V8 with gear-driven double overhead camshafts and hemispherical combustion chambers. A large front-mounted, inter-cooled centrifugal supercharger driven by a horizontal shaft from the rear of the engine breathed through three Winfield carburetors. At 8,000 engine r.p.m. the blower turned 42,000, producing boost up to 30 pounds per square inch (psi).
Almost miraculously the engine was ready for the 1941 race. It was rated at 450 horsepower when a typical Offenhauser put out 300. Although front-drive Novis were heavy, thirsty and hard on tires, it qualified 28th at 194 km/h, with Ralph Hepburn finishing in a trouble-free fourth position.
Following the World War Two racing interruption, in 1945 Welch had Goosen design a new front transaxle for lower engine mounting. Emerging race car builder Frank Kurtis produced a new chassis and low, sleek body. Now the car, not just the engine, was called the Novi.
In 1946, Hepburn in the Novi Governor Special (Welch made truck governors) ripped through his four-lap Indy qualifying at 216 km/h (133.964 mph). No car had ever done more than 211 (131), and although late qualifying placed it 19th on the grid the Novi was touted as a shoo-in winner.
By lap 12 Hepburn was leading until brake trouble on lap 56 caused a nine minute pit stop, dropping it to 13th. Hepburn climbed back to fourth by lap 122 when a broken valve ended his race.
In 1947 the two Novi Governor Mobile Specials qualified second and fourth. One broke a piston and the other finished fourth.
Tragedy struck in 1948 when one of the Novi Grooved Piston Specials hit the wall qualifying, killing Hepburn and launching a jinxed reputation for the Novi. Fearless Dennis “Duke” Nalon took over and qualified fastest at 212 km/h (131.603 mph). He drove well but finished third due to a refuelling glitch. It would be the Novi’s best finish ever.
In spite of Nalon and Rex Mays qualifying Novis first and second in 1949, the jinx struck again during the race when Nalon smacked the wall and Mays’s engine failed.
The Novis failed to qualify in 1950 but returned for 1951 when Nalon broke all records, gaining the pole at 220 km/h (136.498 mph), and Chet Miller qualified. Unfortunately both failed to finish.
Nalon and Miller returned in 1952 and Miller stunned Indy with a fastest ever 224 km/h (139.034 mph) qualifier. But both Novis broke their supercharger driveshafts during the race.
For 1953 Nalon and Miller had stronger supercharger drives installed and removed the inter-coolers. Manifold boost was increased to 35 psi to compensate. Miller was attempting 225 km/h (140 mph) during qualifying when he hit the wall and was killed. This took the heart out of the effort, and although Nalon qualified 26th he was never in contention, spinning out on lap 191.
The 1953 race would be the last Indy for front-drive Novis, which failed to qualify in 1954 and ’55. For 1956 the Novi engines were fitted to Kurtis rear drive chassis. New rules reduced displacement to 2.7 litres (167.8 cu in.) in 1957.
Many modifications were tried, but in 1961 after 20 years of attempting to win Indy, Welch sold the Novi assets to Andy Granatelli of Studebaker’s Paxton supercharger and STP additive divisions.
Granatelli and crew coaxed the Novi to over 700 horsepower, still without a win. In 1964, Granatelli harnessed the Novi’s great power to four-wheel drive but it proved inconclusive. Four-wheel drive was being rendered redundant by new stickier tires and the changeover to rear-engined cars. Novis didn’t finish in 1964 or ’65, and failed to qualify in ’66, ending an exciting but ill-fated odyssey that promised so much but delivered little.