Another look at the Indy roadster era

REVISED AND UPDATED — Mac’s Motor City Garage takes a fond look back at maybe the greatest Indy cars ever, the fabulous roadsters. Here’s a brief history and giant photo gallery. 

 

 

There’s an entire generation of American gearheads for whom, when you say the words “race car,” one image appears in their minds: the classic Indianapolis roadster. Icon is surely one of the most overused words in motor writing, but the roadster truly qualifies. The look, the sound, the yards-long exhaust header, the acres of chrome: The roadsters have it all.

California builder Frank Kurtis is generally credited as both the creator of the design and the originator of the term “roadster” to describe it. (Others insist driver Bill Vukovich launched the name.) To better manage the size and mass of the gigantic 401 CID inline diesel six used in the 1952 Cummins Diesel Special, Kurtis laid the engine on its side, offsetting the driveline to the left and the driver’s seat to the right in the chassis.

1952 Cummins Diesel Special—Frank Kurtis at left, Don Cummins center, and Freddie Agabashian in driver’s seat 

 

To Kurtis, the low, wide stance that resulted said “roadster,” and while the Cummins Special was far too heavy to be competitive, shredding its tires at a prohibitive rate, the superiority of the basic layout was immediately obvious up and down Gasoline Alley. Along with the car commissioned by the Cummins Diesel Company, Kurtis-Kraft offered a chassis  for more conventional engines, the KK500. In a few short years the entire Indy 500 field was made up of roadsters, rendering the old upright cars obsolete.

The two most prolific roadster builders were Kurtis-Kraft and A.J. Watson, but there were others, including Trevis, Salih, Epperly, Lesovsky, and Kuzma, to name a few. Their chassis could be copies, official or otherwise, of Watson or Kurtis designs, adaptations, or original creations.

A.J. Watson with roadster chassis, 1960

 

The engine—usually the classic Offy four, with some interesting exceptions—was installed upright or inclined at any angle up to a full 90 degrees, and driveline/driver offsets were swapped left/right to suit the theory of the moment. Almost invariably, the suspension consisted of beam axles and torsion bars front and rear—a simple, rugged setup. A typical roadster chassis was competitive at Indy for years.

We all know the eventual fate of the roadsters: done in by the rear-engine revolution.  The Cooper of Jack Brabham in 1961, Mickey Thompson’s Buick specials in 1962, and Colin Chapman’s Lotus in 1963 obsoleted the roadsters, just as the roadsters had put the old uprights to pasture a decade earlier. In 1964, A.J. Foyt was the last driver to wheel a roadster into victory lane at Indy.

There were two swan songs in the roadster story. In 1966, crafty Herb Porter grafted an outboard turbo setup to a Watson-Offy for driver Bobby Grim, who qualified 31st and finished in the same position. In 1968, Jim Hurtubise was the last driver to qualify (30th) a front-engine car in the Indy 500 with the Mallard-Offy, an updated, lightweight version of the classic roadster he designed himself. You’ll find all these cars and more in the gallery below.

 

1957 Kuzma Jimmy Bryan Dean Van Lines Special
1953 Kurtis KK500A Bill Vukovich  Fuel Injection Special '53 Indy winner
1961 Trevis Watson AJ Foyt Bowes Seal-Fast Special
1962 Trevis Watson AJ Foyt Bowes Seal-Fast Special
1964 Watson AJ Foyt roadster chassis
1954 Kurtis KK500A Bill Vukovich '54 Indy 500 winner
1968 Mallard-Offy Jim Hurtubise last roadster to qualify
1960 Christensen Jim Hurtubise Travelon Trailer Special
1965 Novi Jim Hurtubise Tombstone Life Special
1962 Watson Jim Rathman Simoniz Smokey Yunick wing car
1955 Kuzma  Jimmy Bryan Dean Van Lines Special
1956 Kurtis KK500E Bob Veith Federal Engineering Special
1952 Kurtis Fred Agabashian  Cummins Diesel Special
1959 Moore Bob Veith John Zink Heater Special
1961 Watson Rodger Ward Sun City Special
1960 AJ Watson with roadster
1961 Ewing Eddie Sachs with Ray Harroun Marmon Wasp
1952 Kurtis Freddie Agabashian 1952 Cummins Diesel Special
1955 Kurtis KK500C Walt Faulkner Merz Engineering Spl.
1962 Watson Eddie Sachs Autolite Special
1955 Kurtis KK500D Freddie Agabashian Federal Engineering Special
1963 Watson Paul Goldsmith
1964 Kurtis Novi Paul Russo
1962 Epperly Don Branson Mid-Continent Securities
1961 Kurtis KK500E Norm Hall Federal Engineering Special
1958 Ray Nichels Offy roadster
1963 Watson Rodger Ward Kaiser Aluminum Special
1962 Watson Len Sutton Leader Card Roadster
1964 Watson AJ Foyt Sheraton Thompson Special
1963 Watson Parnelli Jones race winner
1955 Kurtis KK500D Bob Sweikert Zink Special
1957 Kurtis Novi Tony Bettenhaussen
1961 Epperly Bobby Marshman
1955 Kuzma Jimmy Bryan with bodywork removed
1959 Watson Offy Rodger Ward Leader Card '59 Indy 500 winner
1956 Watson Pat Flaherty John Zink Special  '56 Indy 500 winner
1957 Salih-Offy Sam Hanks '57 Indy 500 winner
1966 Bobby Grim Watson Turbo Offy Racing Associates
1961 Trevis Don Davis Dart Kart by Rupp Special

1957 Kuzma Jimmy Bryan Dean Van Lines Special

1953 Kurtis KK500A Bill Vukovich Fuel Injection Special '53 Indy winner

1961 Trevis Watson AJ Foyt Bowes Seal-Fast Special

1962 Trevis Watson AJ Foyt Bowes Seal-Fast Special

1964 Watson AJ Foyt roadster chassis

1954 Kurtis KK500A Bill Vukovich '54 Indy 500 winner

1968 Mallard-Offy Jim Hurtubise last roadster to qualify

1960 Christensen Jim Hurtubise Travelon Trailer Special

1965 Novi Jim Hurtubise Tombstone Life Special

1962 Watson Jim Rathman Simoniz Smokey Yunick wing car

1955 Kuzma Jimmy Bryan Dean Van Lines Special

1956 Kurtis KK500E Bob Veith Federal Engineering Special

1952 Kurtis Fred Agabashian Cummins Diesel Special

1959 Moore Bob Veith John Zink Heater Special

1961 Watson Rodger Ward Sun City Special

1960 AJ Watson with roadster

1961 Ewing Eddie Sachs with Ray Harroun Marmon Wasp

1952 Kurtis Freddie Agabashian 1952 Cummins Diesel Special

1955 Kurtis KK500C Walt Faulkner Merz Engineering Spl.

1962 Watson Eddie Sachs Autolite Special

1955 Kurtis KK500D Freddie Agabashian Federal Engineering Special

1963 Watson Paul Goldsmith

1964 Kurtis Novi Paul Russo

1962 Epperly Don Branson Mid-Continent Securities

1961 Kurtis KK500E Norm Hall Federal Engineering Special

1958 Ray Nichels Offy roadster

1963 Watson Rodger Ward Kaiser Aluminum Special

1962 Watson Len Sutton Leader Card Roadster

1964 Watson AJ Foyt Sheraton Thompson Special

1963 Watson Parnelli Jones race winner

1955 Kurtis KK500D Bob Sweikert Zink Special

1957 Kurtis Novi Tony Bettenhaussen

1961 Epperly Bobby Marshman

1955 Kuzma Jimmy Bryan with bodywork removed

1959 Watson Offy Rodger Ward Leader Card '59 Indy 500 winner

1956 Watson Pat Flaherty John Zink Special '56 Indy 500 winner

1957 Salih-Offy Sam Hanks '57 Indy 500 winner

1966 Bobby Grim Watson Turbo Offy Racing Associates

1961 Trevis Don Davis Dart Kart by Rupp Special

13 thoughts on “Another look at the Indy roadster era

  1. Any car-crazed American kid from the fifties and sixties automatically thinks of these classic Indy roadsters when the phrase “race car” is mentioned. Thanks for sharing these great pics.

    • This was done primarily so the engines could be tipped towards the horizontal, thus lowering the center of gravity. There was also the added benefit of smaller frontal area.

      • I’m sorry, I should have been more specific. I meant why offset to the right instead of the left, which is the usual offset on roadsters. Oval-track cars generally run left side weight bias to to balance the load distribution in cornering. Offsetting the driveline to the right is counterintuitive and until today, I never knew there were roadsters built that way.

        • The engine is centered in the chassis, since it is on its side the crankshaft is not centered in that layout.

  2. These are wonderful photos. I’ve always thought these old Indy cars (along with mid 60s F1 cars) to be amongst the most beautiful race cars ever.

  3. Darn you Bill. An Indy-style roadster has been making laps in the back of my mind for some time. Now, I think I NEED to build one. How will I explain this to Kim? Great pics, beautiful cars.

  4. @KMC — Most roadsters are left offset (driveline to the left, driver to the right). Roadsters with opposite layout (Kurtis KK500G2 and others) are termed “reverse offset” but still run considerable left weight bias. It’s a packaging thing — reverse offset allows oil tank within body, accommodates big, heavy driver.

    There were also differing schools on engine laydown angle. Original Kurtis was 36 degrees; Watson was vertical; Salih/Epperly was 72 degrees. Some were nearly pure laydown– 5 degrees from horizontal, just enough to allow oil runback with engine shut off.

    Another intriguing detail: the Offy is made so the block/head can be reversed on the crankcase simply by changing a couple of oil galleries. So roadsters can be configured with the intake on right/exhaust on the left side of the car or vice versa. All these things make roadsters rather interesting to study in detail.

  5. The Fuel Injection Special is a 1952 Kurtis. 1953 is it’s first victory at the speedway.

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