Story and photo by Bill Vance

1935 Miller-Ford race car
1935 Miller-Ford race car. Click image to enlarge

As the 1920s were closing, the regulators of the Indianapolis 500-mile race were becoming alarmed at the upward-spiralling cost of racing. The fast, exotic, precision-built, jewel-like cars built by the likes of Harry Miller and the Duesenberg brothers were becoming too expensive for many participants. The result was a dwindling field of cars.

To counteract this, the American Automobile Association contest board implemented new rules for 1930 to attract stock cars. This so-called “junk formula” allowed engines up to 6.0 litres (366 cu. in.), and prohibited more than two valves per cylinder and supercharging on four-stroke engines. The rules also required two seats.

There were howls of protest from rich, established racers with their expensive equipment. But when the stock market crash of 1929 brought on the Depression, this new formula turned out to be right for the times.

Approximately half of the Indy racers in the early 1930s were modified stock cars from Studebaker, Stutz, Hudson, Graham, Reo and Chrysler. Many were little more than regular production cars with fenders, headlights, bumpers and other equipment removed, and with engines hopped up to sometimes twice their original output. Since they were almost stock cars and close to what customers could buy, winning was a real advertising bonanza for manufacturers.

The Ford Motor Company’s low-priced V8 introduced in 1932 had a strong performance reputation on the road and stock car tracks. Preston Tucker, a promoter and racing enthusiast, saw the potential for Ford V8s in the Indy 500, and teamed up with famed race-car builder Harry Miller. He had just declared bankruptcy and was ready for a deal.

This was the same Preston Tucker who would gain fame following World War II when he attempted to build a radical new car, named the Tucker Torpedo, with a rear-mounted flat-six modified helicopter engine. It failed, but not before giving Detroit’s automakers a scare.

Tucker amassed enough capital to have Miller and crew construct a batch of ten special Ford V8 racers in his Detroit shop. Assistance apparently came from Ford and was said to be in excess of US$200,000. Unfortunately, by the time approval came, Miller had only about five months to complete the cars.

The Miller-Ford racers were quite advanced designs. Since Miller was a specialist in front-wheel-drive, he reversed the V8 in the chassis and drove the front wheels through an aluminum two-speed transaxle mounted on the front (formerly rear) of the engine.

Ford engineers increased the output of the 3.6-litre (221 cu. in.) V8 from 85 to about 150 horsepower with aluminum cylinder heads, higher compression, a re-ground camshaft, and more carburetion. While doing this they managed to keep the engine 85 per cent stock.

Miller did a masterful job on the chassis. He designed four-wheel independent suspension using four quarter-elliptic springs. The brakes were stock, and the aluminum steering box was fitted with bronze gears. It was said to be the first Indy front-drive racer with four-wheel independent suspension.

This hardware was clothed in a sleek and attractive two-place body. Steering, brake and suspension parts were concealed inside the frame or body fairings. For identification, a shortened 1935 Ford grille was fitted. The racers weighed 885 kg (1,950 lb), some 295 kg (650 lb) less than a 1935 Ford roadster.

Due to the short development time, the Ford V8 Specials didn’t start arriving at the Indy track until May 12th, one week before the start of qualifying. Other teams had been testing for weeks.

Ford had assembled a good crew of drivers, all experienced except for rookie Ted Horn, a dirt track racer from California. It included Pete De Paolo, the 1925 Indy winner. Track lore has it that when De Paolo saw how close the steering box was to the exhaust manifold, he predicted that the Fords would burn out their lubrication and seize up. A man of conviction, De Paolo resigned from the team.

All ten of the Ford racers eventually arrived at Indianapolis. Although they were not as fast as had been expected, the team, including Horn, managed to qualify four of them for the race.

De Paolo’s prediction soon began coming true with stunning accuracy. One by one, the Fords dropped out with seized steering gearboxes. Ted Horn managed to keep going for 145 laps until he too succumbed to rock-hard steering. He had to brace himself against the frame to steer the car into the pits.

The 1935 Ford V8 Special racers had been a brave effort with very good potential. The rushed development was their undoing; the steering problem would undoubtedly have been identified with sufficient track time. The experience soured Ford on racing, and kept the company away from the track until the 1960s.

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