REVISED AND UPDATED — The midget racer Frank Kurtis built for Charley Adams back in 1938 was so beautifully crafted it was known as the Jewel Box. This midget, one of the last built by the master craftsman in 1958, is every bit as exquisite. Check it out.
In the years 1956 though 1958, the famed Indy and midget race car builder Frank Kurtis created somewhere around five to ten (depending how you count them, including kits and incomplete chassis) offset-engine, roadster-style midgets like this one. Kurtis was permanently intrigued with the offset driveline concept and tried, in vain, to persuade Charley Adams to employ the layout in his first midget back in ’38.
Of course, In the early 1950s, the offset configuration was adopted with great success at Indianapolis, and Kurtis is recognized today as the father of the Indy roadster. His roadster midget design, designated the M-100 series, is essentially a miniature version of the 1957 Kurtis-Kraft KK500G2 Indy car chassis, the Kurtis experts say, with the engine and driveline offset 5 1/2 inches to the left.
Transplanted into the midget category, the low-profile roadster concept, with its engine and driveline offset to the left and the driver to the right, was not nearly as successful as on the big Indy cars. It worked very well, it is said, on the smooth pavement tracks, especially the larger ovals. But unfortunately, the layout wasn’t nearly as effective on the rough, rutted dirt bullrings where the bulk of the midget racing took place in the 1950s. Reportedly, the two handicaps were insufficient suspension travel and excess weight, around 100 lbs. more than a conventional upright midget. Still, the midget roadsters are among the most beautiful race cars ever created by Kurtis. Truly, these are miniature masterpieces.
Just as the Kurtis-Kraft midget roadster was essentially a big Indianapolis roadster in miniature, the Offenhauser midget engine that powered it was a pocket version of the big Offy engines used at the speedway. Initially displacing 97 cubic inches, later expanded to 110 CID in standard form, the Offy midget was simplified in key areas with a reduced parts count to to reduce costs and ease maintenance. For example, the baby Offy used two valves per cylinder instead of four, based as it was on the tooling from the front half of the 1932 Miller-Hartz 183 CID straight-eight Indy engine. In the golden age of midget racing, the Offy was king of the heap—painfully expensive in up-front cost, but powerful and nearly bulletproof when maintained properly.
The Kurtis-Kraft midget roadster featured here is owned by Fred Johns and Carolyn Hartley Johns of Roanoke, Indiana. According to Fred Johns, it’s one of six roadsters constructed by Kurtis himself, and it was tucked away in storage for 25 years after the engine blew up, fortunately preserving the car for prosterity. MCG encountered and photographed the little jewel at the Sloan Museum Auto Fair in Flint, Michigan in June of 2012, where it made quite a memorable impression. The build quality and attention to detail speak for themselves, as the photos show. Gallery below—click on any image to start a slide show.