1935 Miller Ford V-8 Indy Car. Photos by Maggie Pinke, courtesy Mecum Auctions.
In 1935, genius race car constructor Harry Miller entered into a deal with Preston Tucker and the Ford Motor Company to produce 10 innovative racing cars that would dominate the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. Miller created arguably the most beautiful and advanced racing car of the day, but victory wasn’t in the cards, and Ford’s subsequent public humiliation at Indy kept the automaker out of racing for decades and nearly bankrupted Miller (though Tucker emerged unscathed). A reminder of what might have been, one of the 10 Miller Ford V-8 Special Indy Cars constructed for the 1935 race will cross the auction block on Friday, August 19, at Mecum’s Monterey sale.
Time has a way of altering both perspective and in some cases, remembered facts, and that certainly applies to the tale of the Miller Ford V-8 Indy Cars. Some sources report that Henry Ford himself sought out Preston Tucker and as a result, Harry Miller, to create a race car capable of winning at Indy. Others say that Tucker reached out to Miller with the idea of creating a stock block race car in a fully modern chassis, then pitched the idea to Edsel Ford, not Henry. Even the reported source of the project’s funding differs, with some attributing it to the Ford Motor Company and others crediting a group of Ford dealers.
What is certain is this: In February of 1935, a contract was signed between the Ford Motor Company and a Dearborn supplier named Miller-Tucker, Inc., to design and build a quantity of 10 race cars for the 1935 Indianapolis 500, each priced at $7,500. The needed equipment and parts didn’t arrive at the Miller-Tucker shop until March of 1935, giving the business the near-impossible task of designing, building and testing 10 potentially race-winning cars in less than 60 days.
Miller’s design called for front-wheel drive, which he’d utilized in a 1924 racing car based upon the successful 1922 Miller 122. The Miller Fords would also debut four-wheel independent suspension, and in an early attempting at minimizing drag, would use wing-shaped cast aluminum suspension pieces and a (somewhat) streamlined body that ended in a tapered boattail rear. The lack of a driveshaft meant the Miller Fords could be lower to the ground as well, dropping the center of gravity and enhancing stability in corners.
To use a 21-stud, 220-cu.in. flathead Ford V-8 (rated at roughly 150 horsepower in race trim), Miller spun the engine and two-speed transmission 180-degrees. The layout also moved weight rearward to create a better balanced race car, and on paper, the Miller Fords had everything needed to prove competitive on the track.
Working with such a compressed time frame, Miller had just hours, not days, to test his bold new design. Initially, things looked promising, but in qualifying the Miller Fords proved significantly slower than the competition, and just four of the cars qualified for the 1935 race. Had the cars occupied the front row and the start of the second row, perhaps the pressure on Miller would have been reduced, but instead the Miller Fords began the race in 26th, 27th, 29th and 33rd place, meaning that no car qualified higher than the ninth row, and one qualified dead last.
It would prove to be a moot point, as three of the four Miller Fords retired by the race’s halfway point, while the last dropped out on lap 145, ultimately finishing in 16th position thanks to the attrition of other cars. All Miller Fords shared a common fault, one that likely could have been remedied with additional pre-race testing: The steering box, located too close to the engine, heated to the point where the grease melted and the gears expanded, locking the steering wheel in driver’s hands.
Regardless of which Ford family member was ultimately behind the failed effort, it was a black eye for the automaker. Perhaps convinced of a guaranteed victory, Ford promoted its presence at the speedway in 1935 extensively, even providing a Ford V-8 (driven by Harry Mack) to pace the field. In the aftermath, Henry Ford reportedly ordered all 10 race cars back to Detroit, where they remained locked away in a warehouse for the next several years. Some would later surface in the hands of privateer teams, reappearing at Indy (usually with Offy power) with limited success (and modified steering boxes).
The Miller Ford in question isn’t described as having raced at Indianapolis, though it is said to be one of the 10 originally built by Harry Miller. Shown at Amelia Island in 2013 in the “Cars of Harry Miller” class, the red over white race car has been awarded an AACA Senior and Race Car Certification, and is eligible for a variety of vintage oval track events.
The last Miller Ford to sell at auction was the 1935/41 Miller Ford/Winfield V-8, which sold for a hammer price of $410,000 at a 2008 RM Auction. Given the rarity of Miller Fords and the scarcity of their auction appearances, Mecum is predicting a selling price between $450,000 and $550,000.
Mecum’s Monterey 2016 sale will take place from August 18-20 at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa Del Monte Golf Course. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.