Speed – Made in Los Angeles (Offenhauser)

This story appeared in the May 24, 1936, edition of the Los Angeles Times.  The speed being made in L.A. was the mighty Offenhauser, the engine that revolutionized racing, and it was named for this man:

And yes, I know there are others that share the credit for the Offenhauser (or “Offy”), men like Miller and Goossen, Meyer and Drake.  The definitive story about the men who built the Offenhauser has already been written by Gordon Eliot White (Offenhauser: The Legendary Racing Engine and the Men Who Built It), and if you haven’t read it, you should.  I’m partial to Fred Offenhauser himself, however. Quiet, steady, practical and competent, he isn’t the type of flamboyant showman who usually gets the glory in automobile industry history.

Fred Offenhauser was the son of German immigrants and he was drawn to machinery at an early age.  Employed as a machinist from the age of 14, he worked his way up to plant superintendent for racecar designer and builder Harry Miller.  So, for instance, when famed racer Frank Lockhart asked for an engine to use in challenging a world record in 1928, Offenhauser and crew made up a powerful 8-cylinder by hooking two 91-inch 4-cylinder motors together. With skills like this, Miller’s staff created engines that were dominating the race tracks by the end of the 1920s. When Miller went bankrupt during the Depression in 1933, Offenhauser bought Miller’s equipment and set up shop.  He made changes to the Miller, redesigning connecting rods and blocks, improving the crankshaft and crankcase and giving other new twists to the motors to enable them to withstand faster speeds and new fuel restrictions.  Offenhauser had never driven a race car himself, famously saying that he rode in one once as a mechanic and that once was enough.  His engines did revolutionize racing, however.

On the midget track, outboard motors, motorcycle engines and even washing machine parts were used before the Offy, often with disappointing results.   According to a 1937 newspaper story, once Fred Offenhauser turned his attention to the problem, “midgets began going places”.  The sport mushroomed and crowds were sometimes so large that spectators had to be turned away. 

By 1936, Offenhauser had been building engines for Indy for a score of years, but he didn’t witness his first Indy race until 1936 when ten of his engines were competing.  The previous year, his engines had finished first and second.  By 1937, he was ten for ten.  An Offenhauser won in 1941, the last race before interruption by WW2, and in 1946, when Indy started up again, 16 of 53 cars were powered by Offys.  Offenhauser sold his business to Miller and Drake in 1946, and they continued to dominate the world of racing.  One 1948 story about Indy put it this way: “As usual, it will be Miller, Offenhauser, Meyer and Drake against the world – with the world a minority.” 

So what made the Offenhauser so special?  It was a high-horsepower, reliable, 4-cylinder twin-cam engine.  The cylinder head and cylinder block were all one piece, making gaskets unnecessary.  One 1936 story described the original engine as weighing 345 pounds and having a displacement of 225 cubic inches (4 ¼ bore and 4 ½ stroke).  It was capable of producing 5200 rpms.  The crankcase was made of an aluminum alloy and the crankshaft was cut from a solid piece of steel and hollowed out for lightness.  The types of materials used were so important that Offenhauser was quoted as saying “I could give another machinist a complete set of our plans and he could not turn out the kind of motor that we do.”  The engine was also heat-treated three times to remove stresses within the metal, to keep it from literally flying to pieces.  

In the 1950s, the 251.89 Offy could produce 420hp.  After some alterations by race teams, the engines could produce up to three horsepower per cubic inch in an age when muscle cars were aiming for one.  The Offy’s domination of racing made it a target of jealous rivals, and so the engine was the victim of rule changes throughout its existence.  You’ve heard the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them”?  With the Offenhauser it was more like, “If you can’t beat them, change the rules”.  As a result, the Offenhauser today can mainly be seen in museums and vintage groups.  They are still a draw, however, and people frequently refer to the sound, that distinctive growl.  It must sound like the song of the siren to some, and that brings me to the story of this vintage 220 Offenhauser sprint car:

The most recent chapter in this car’s story begins with my friend Steve Lowe, who, like Fred Offenhauser, is a pragmatic and responsible type.  So pragmatic, in fact, that it is somewhat surprising he was inspired to rescue this Offy.  The car was located in Sooke, British Columbia, and he discovered it one night while surfing the net.  Sooke isn’t exactly down the street from Kearney, Nebraska, so he approached his friend Bill, thinking Bill would talk him out of it.  Instead, Bill assured him that it was a completely awesome idea (everyone should have a friend like Bill), and they were off on a 3400-mile round-trip road trip to pick up this vintage Offy.  Which, by the way, was in pieces.  Literally.  The rear end gears were in an old milk crate, and another milk crate held motor mounts and a shifter.  Still other parts were packed into plastic tubs, but at least it was a beginning.

Lowe contacted Bill Akin in Tennessee, whose name he had seen in Hot Rod magazine, and told him he needed someone to put the pieces together.   Akin told him “I’m not that guy,” and put him in touch with Steve Truchan of Gary Bridge & Iron in Gary, Indiana.  Truchan assembled the engine, and work on the chassis was performed by Jim Mann.

Consider, though, for a moment, the amount of racing tradition associated with this one sprint car. First, it is powered by an Offenhauser, likely the greatest racing engine of all time. Steve Truchan has worked on many Offenhausers and, in fact, had worked on this one before (a former owner apparently took it apart just to see how it worked, and then couldn’t put Humpty together again). Truchan himself grew up around the racetrack because his dad, also named Steve Truchan, was a racecar builder and driver. The elder Truchan was the real deal, and his name was all over the racing pages of newspapers throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Reporters described him as a “tall, sturdily built speedster,” an “ace of the flat track” and, in 1939, as the “sensational youngster who defeated a fast field at Hammond raceway yesterday”. The cars he raced were powered by Offenhausers, Millers or a “Truchan special” that he built himself. As if all that weren’t enough, Lowe has done his own research and has concluded that this car was actually one of the “McNamara Specials” owned by Lee Elkins and driven by racing legends like Mike Nazaruk. Talk about being steeped in history.

Lee Elkins and one of the McNamara Specials (1951)

This finished product is nothing short of a work of art.  And no, Lowe doesn’t want to race around a track any more than Fred Offenhauser did. He simply enjoys the beauty and craftsmanship of this growling, gleaming piece of racecar history that he now owns, and that makes perfect sense to me.

KODAK Digital Still Camera


Burgess, Dale. “Facts on Speedway Set Out For Junior.” The Arizona Republic [Phoenix], 30 May 1948, p. 2.

“Elkins Sends City’s Third Auto to Memorial Day Race.” The South Bend Tribune, 6 May 1951, p. 3.

“Familiar Race Faces Appear at Speedway.” The Dayton Herald, 6 May 1941, p. 17.

“Fred Offenhauser Builds Ten Racers.” The Indianapolis Star, 30 May 1936.

Hamilton, Andy.  “Speed – Made in Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, 24 May 1936, p. 3.

“It’s Offenhauser Motors Against World Again in Indianapolis Race.” The San Bernardino County Sun, 13 May 1946, p. 8.

Kimbrough, Bobby. “Offenhauser.  The Greatest Racing Engine Ever Built?” Enginelabs, 24 December 2012, https://www.enginelabs.com/features/offenhauser-the-greatest-racing-engine-ever-built. Accessed March 1, 2019.

“Mighty Midget Builder Mad.” The Los Angeles Times, 7 November 1934, p. 21.

Moore, Charles. “Offenhauser V-8 Prepared for Shipment to Indianapolis.” .” The San Bernardino County Sun, 22 April 1941.

“Ready for Next Races.” The Terra Haute Tribune, 5 October 1952, p. 49.

“Star Drivers Will Appear at Playland.” The South Bend Tribune, 3 July 1939, p. 6.

Swanson, Bob. “Cracker Box to Mighty Midget.” Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, 22 December 1935, p. 8.

“Truchan First Entry on Race Card Tuesday.” The South Bend Tribune, 28 June 1939, p. 1.

White, Gordon Eliot. Offenhauser: The Legendary Racing Engine and the Men Who Build It. Brattleboro, Vermont, Echo Point Books & Media, 1996.

1937 Packard

Packard’s production numbers soared in 1937, and with a grille like this, it’s easy to see why. The Packard was offered in four models in ’37, the Twelve, the Super Eight, the 120 and the new Packard Six.

1937 Packard models

The Twelve was powered by a 473.3 cubic inch V-block engine. Both the Super Eight and the 120 had straight-eights, with 320 and 282 cubic inches, respectively, and the new Six featured a 237 cubic inch inline-six.

The Six was the bargain of the bunch with prices starting at just $795. Prices started at $945 for the 120 and $2,335 for the Super Eight. The Twelve was the luxury model with prices beginning at $3,420 (that’s around $60,000 in today’s dollars)!

Packard’s famous slogan


Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr. Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942. Krause Publications, 1985.

“Packard Announces Four Complete Lines of Cars for 1937.” The Detroit Free Press, 6 September 1936, p. 8.

Packard. Advertisement. Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, 18 September 1936, p. 33.

Packard. Advertisement. The Enquirer [Cincinnati], 15 November 1936, p. 12.

Sam Hanks

Driver Sam Hanks in 1943, looking handsome in uniform:

Prior to the war, Hanks had primarily been a midget racer although he had appeared in a couple of Indy races. He had also worked as a “technical representative” for Fred Offenhauser. Once the war started, Hanks joined the ranks of automobile mechanics, designers, builders and racers who used their skills to help America win the war. The author of this particular story put it this way:

“The boys who used to used to roar around a dirt track in midget automobiles taking their lives in their hands everytime they sat behind a steering wheel of the bouncing bantams now are proving their worth to the war effort.”

When this story was written, Hanks had joined the army and was stationed at Wright Field where he was applying his technical knowledge of motors to aircraft engines. When asked about his post-war plans, Hanks replied that his racing equipment was in storage, and that he was heading back to the tracks once the war was over. He did just that and went on to win Indy in 1957. He retired after that win and was Director of Racing at Indy from 1958 to 1979.

Source: Howard, Bob. “Sam Hanks Stationed at Local Field.”Dayton Sunday Journal Herald, 20 June 1943, p. 2.