13-15 August 2009
1927 Miller 91 Rear Drive Racing Car
$400,000 - $650,000
Est. 155 – 250 hp, 90.2 cu. in inline eight-cylinder engine with supercharger, three-speed Miller transmission, tubular front axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, four-wheel drum brakes. Wheelbase: 100"
The Miller 91 was a true tour de force in rear-drive racing car technology. It was so successful and its domination on speedways of the 1920s so complete, that it was effectively responsible for its own demise. In fact, the AAA’s rule change for 1930 to the “Junk Formula” was adopted to stop the Miller 91’s winning streak.
When the rule change to 1 ½ liters (91 cubic inches) was announced for the 1926 racing season Harry Miller could have shortened the stroke of the nearly unbeatable 122 cubic inch engine and continued producing and selling the rear-drive race car, which he first introduced in 1923.
Instead Miller’s staff of extraordinarily talented men was assigned to design and build an entirely new car. There was no commonality of parts between the 91 and the 122 except for the outside purchased parts such as wheels, tires, instruments and electrical components. A few changes were made for reliability, such as taking the gear drive to power the supercharger off the flywheel. Most others changes, however, were carried out to attain an ever more pleasing visual design, on which Harry Miller placed great emphasis. Yet to the untrained eye, the 122 and 91 rear drive cars were virtually identical in appearance, with the exception of the 91’s three-piece radiator and grille assembly.
All of the new 91 cubic inch engines were supercharged. Upon its introduction, this engine produced 155 horsepower at 7,000 RPM but on-track development work resulted in refinements that eventually boosted output to well over 250 horsepower at 8,000 RPM.
Chuck Davis of Chicago, IL began assembling a collection of Model T Ford Speedsters, race cars and 1920s speed equipment with names like Rajo, Roof and Frontenac which provided an introduction to racing’s Golden Age. Chuck’s research verified that the Model T was king of the dirt tracks but he also learned that the bricks of Indianapolis and the board track speedways were dominated by the cars built by Harry A. Miller. Miller’s history had fallen into obscurity, kept alive chiefly by old-timers and historians. Chuck’s interest was piqued and learning about Miller fascinated him. The more information Chuck gathered, the more his passion was fueled.
Conversations and visits with drivers and mechanics from the era brought the unpleasant realization to Chuck that the probability of finding a complete intact Miller race car was akin to finding the Holy Grail. He remained undeterred. If he could not buy a complete Miller race car, he decided, he would search the country from coast to coast to find whatever pieces and parts remained. These would be purchased and assembled to create a complete car, manufacturing the parts he could not find. A few other enthusiasts had also decided on a similar path but no one else had Chuck’s drive, tenacity and negotiating skills.
Owning a 91 rear drive was very high on Chuck’s list of Miller priorities. His dragnet for parts was turning up bits and pieces of 91s in numerous places. Everything that could be bought was either going be incorporated in his project or used as trading stock. If the part could not be bought he would borrow it and have it duplicated. There was one discovery that cast the die for what car would be built. Chuck found an original intercooler that had been made by one of the greatest heroes in the Miller racing story, Frank Lockhart. With Lockhart’s intercooler in hand Chuck could give his 91 an identity, the 1927 Perfect Circle Miller, the car in which the intercooler had in fact been used.
The story of Lockhart’s 1926 rookie victory at Indianapolis is one of the Speedway’s most enduring legends. Besides being a driver with natural skill and daring that many believe has never been seen since, Lockhart had an innate gift for engineering.
Over the winter months of 1926-27, in shop space on the top floor of the Howard Buick Agency in Los Angles, Lockhart and the Wiesel brothers, John and Zenas, designed, built and developed a special manifold to cool the fuel charge between the supercharger and the carburetor. The resulting increase in horsepower was amazing. Termed an intercooler, Frank was granted a patent for its design.
At Muroc Dry Lake in April with the still-secret intercooler in place, Frank was clocked by the AAA at a two-way average speed of 164.02 mph – a world record for 1.5-litre cars. His one-way time of 171.02 mph fueled his passion to capture the land speed record, a passion that led to his death.
In 1927, Lockhart, driving his 1926 winning car, now intercooler equipped and sponsored by the Perfect Circle Piston Ring Company, took pole position at Indianapolis with a speed of 120.100 mph. He completely dominated the race until a connecting rod failed on the 120th lap. In addition, he drove the car to nine major wins in the remainder of the 1927 season. Lockhart died on April 25, 1928 in his Stutz Blackhawk trying to set a new land speed record.
After Lockhart’s death the Perfect Circle Miller was renamed the Stutz Blackhawk Special and passed to driver Tony Gulotta who finished 10th in the 1928 Indianapolis 500. It was next purchased by Alden Sampson who put Louis Meyer in the seat. Meyer won both the 1928 and 1929 AAA Championships in the car and finished 2nd at Indianapolis in ’29. In 1930 the engine, sans intercooler, was paired with another 91 in the twin engine Sampson Special.
The ex-Lockhart chassis was repowered with a 230 cubic inch Miller Big 8 and driven at Pacific Coast dirt track events by Meyer. In 1931 the chassis was parted out with the axles probably going into a Jadson Special Dirt Car and the frame, steering and cowl used as the basis for Bill White’s Ascot Sprint car. White’s driver, Ernie Triplett, won the 1931 and 1932 pacific Coast Championship in this car.
By 1935 the White/Triplett car had passed to Russ Garnett who modified the frame and suspension to a three-spring set up. Driver Harris Isinger was killed in the car at Oakland. The engine was saved but the wrecked chassis with lineage to the 1926 Indianapolis winner and 1927 Perfect Circle Miller passed into oblivion – a sad fate that befell every 91 cubic inch rear drive.
With such a compelling history, Chuck dedicated his full attention to making the car as authentic as possible. He found a useable engine, purchased two N.O.S. ex-Duray cylinder blocks from a Bugatti collector in England and turned up a complete original transmission in Indianapolis.
Bob Sutherland, a Colorado sports racing car and Miller enthusiast was also building a 91 Rear Drive from parts, the 1929 Majestic Special. He and Chuck developed a mutually beneficial arrangement so that efforts on making parts were not duplicated. Sutherland, through his Maserati connections had met several English restoration specialists who were enthusiastic about Millers and both Miller projects traveled across the Atlantic to take advantage of their craftsmanship. Peter Shaw built the frames and chassis bits while Paul Weldon at Church Green Engineering formed the bodies.
Chuck’s efforts culminated in a complete and viable car ready for cosmetics. Olendorf Restorations was selected to handle the paint. While the car was being painted Chuck met Dave Hentschel, a highly skilled restorer. After the painting Dave took over the project, rebuilt the driveline and conducted the final assembly, bringing the car to completion. The spectacular result made its debut to the enthusiast crowd at the first ever Miller gathering held at Monterey in 1993.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this car could not be duplicated today. With no known original Miller 91 rear drive cars surviving, this is quite simply a once in a lifetime opportunity to own the best of recreations, carefully assembled by an incredibly dedicated Miller enthusiast and containing many original parts. The fact that the intercooler connects it to the Lockhart saga and Louis Meyer makes it singular and irreplaceable.
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