June 16, 2005

Today in Automotive History

1917 Golden Submarine

Harry Miller completed the Golden Submarine, the first of his expensive custom-made race cars that would change the shape of things to come in American auto racing.

The Golden Submarine carried an unimaginable ticket price of $15,000 at its completion. Its gold color was the result of a combination of lacquer and bronze dust. Built for Barney Oldfield, America's most brash race-car driver, the Golden Submarine had an enclosed cockpit. Oldfield, who helped design the car, thought the closed cockpit would make the car safer if it rolled; he'd lost his close friend, Bob Burman, in a crash the year before.

The Golden Submarine was the first American race car to possess an all electrically welded steel chassis. Also unique to the sub was the liberal use of aluminum in engine and body components. The engine--the component that would later define Miller's career--contained four cylinders and a single overhead cam. It put out 130hp at 290 cubic inches of piston displacement, and, most remarkable for its time, it only weighed 410 pounds. Consider that the car's competition carried engines that produced around 300hp at over 400 cubic inches of piston displacement, and it is clear how forward-thinking Miller was.

Prior to Miller's designs, engines had just been getting bigger and bigger. With the use of alloys and revolutionary engineering, he began introducing light cars that handled well but provided enough power to push them down the straightaways at speeds comparable to those cars carrying the massive aircraft-type engines. Miller's engineering and Oldfield's daring were put on public display in late June of 1917, when Oldfield in the Golden Submarine raced arch-rival Ralph DePalma in a conventional Packard with a 12-cylinder aircraft engine. To start the 25-mile race, DePalma barreled past Oldfield in the first straightaway. After the first turn, though, it was clear that the lighter Golden Submarine was better suited to the track, and Oldfield won by an overwhelming half-minute margin.

The Golden Submarine never won the Indy 500, though it ran in 1919, pulling out with engine trouble; but its designs foreshadowed the future of American racing. Miller's design would dominate Indy for over 30 years.

Posted by Quality Weenie at June 16, 2005 09:45 AM