The Indy Car guru had many strings to his bow and achieved great success – so why isn't he spoken of in the same terms as Shelby, Cunningham or other US racing legends?
Much has been written about how the British turned the Indy 500 on its head back in the 1960s. Cooper, and then Lotus and Lola, uprooted the goalposts and ran away with them that decade, their mid-engined ‘cigar tubes’ beating up on the established Roadsters that suddenly seemed horribly archaic.
Except, that only tells you part of the story. Consider this statistic: of the 33 cars that started the 1953 running of the classic race, 21 were made by Frank Kurtis – and that includes the winner.
Innovation? There was no need for it. Prior to the European invasion, you could buy a body/chassis off the peg and acquire an engine from the likes of Fred Offenhauser. All you needed then was a battle-hardened race mechanic to piece it all together. For a decade at least, if you wanted to win at The Brickyard, driving a Kurtis was a step in the right direction.
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There was, however, much more to the extraordinary Frank Kurtis than just oval racing. His career encompassed everything from building custom cars before the term even existed, to hush-hush contributions to the Space Race. His life was rarely dull, that’s for sure.
Even more so when you consider that he spoke only pigeon English prior to entering school. Born Frank Peter Kuretic in Crested Butte, Colorado on January 25, 1908, the blacksmith’s son was of Croatian stock – and English wasn’t spoken at home. As a boy, he helped out in the family smithy, honing skills that would in time prove useful after the family upped sticks and moved to Los Angeles in 1921.
A year later, the rebranded Kurtis Sr landed a job at the Brokaw Auto Body Company, and then the famed Don Lee Coach and Body Works. His son quit school and joined him shortly thereafter, having lied about his age. Despite being only a child, he was already six feet tall – and imposing with it. The ruse worked.
The 14-year-old soon found himself under the protective cloak of the firm’s resident artiste, future General Motors styling chief Harley Earl. This design colossus was impressed with Kurtis Jr’s natural flair for shaping metal, and treated him as something of a protégé. Kurtis would go on to work on cars for Hollywood glitterati such as the doomed comic actor Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle.
Nevertheless, he left as the decade drew to a close, in part due to a downturn in demand for coachbuilt luxury cars as The Depression made its presence felt. Unbowed, the enterprising young man bought wrecks and straightened them out before selling them for a small profit.
He also customised mainstream production cars for himself and customers – one of his more extreme creations being a remarkably accomplished boat-tailed two-seater convertible that was based on an Essex frame and powered by an Oldsmobile engine.
Following sporadic bouts of working for Don Lee’s other automotive enterprises, and a spell making trailers, Kurtis set about building his first single-seater Midget track racer. He completed it in 1933 while simultaneously shaping one-offs and show queens as a subcontractor to the likes of Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin, albeit without much in the way of recompense or credit.
Nevertheless, he began offering his Midgets for general sale from 1938, but racing took a back seat during World War Two, when he turned over his skills to the war effort. Kurtis worked on several military contracts, and also had a profitable sideline making children’s toys. It was during this period that he also created a one-off Ford V8-powered three-wheeler, which he sold to Gary Davis. Davis, in turn, modified the prototype and launched it under his own name in 1948.
Much of Kurtis’ wartime work centred on making parts for aeroplanes, and in peacetime he introduced aircraft-building techniques into Midget construction (tubular spaceframes, Dzus fasteners and so on). Throughout the rest of the 1940s and the following decade, it wasn’t uncommon for a Kurtis-Kraft Midget to blanket the top ten finishers in races across the country. It is widely estimated that he made around 550 Midgets, usually with Offenhauser power, and he sold roughly the same number in kit form for self assembly.
However, Kurtis had bigger fish to fry. He had first conceived a car to compete in the Indy 500 as far back as the late 1930s, but it wasn’t until 1948 that a Roadster bearing his name first competed in the great race. Driver Jimmy Jackson was classified in tenth place.
Two years later, Johnnie Parsons claimed honours in a Kurtis 1000, and the marque would win again in 1951 before taking a hat-trick in 1953-’55. Kurtis’ cars were still in the hunt as late as 1965, with some 121 having been made of all types depending on whose estimates you credit.
One of Kurtis’ less celebrated enterprises was the construction of sports cars in a variety of different bodystyles and configurations. Kurtis built his own one-off, Buick-based device in the early 1940s, and followed though in 1946 with the Kurtis-Omohundro Comet, which is widely considered to be the first true post-war American sports car.
It was funded by Paul Omohundro, a California industrialist who was also trumpeted as being the co-designer. A press release from the time promised manufacture of the Mercury-engined car would commence the following year – with the full blessing and collaboration of the Ford Motor Company, which would supply the running gear. However, the scheme ultimately came to naught. It wouldn’t be the first time that Kurtis and a patron would part company in haste.
Three years later, the Buick-based motor plus corresponding tools, dies and assets were sold to entrepreneur and would-be automotive mogul Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz. The former used-car salesman in turn had Kurtis and future Indy 500 winner Sam Hanks redesign the vehicle for manufacture in volume to the point that it only loosely resembled the machine that bore it. Muntz’s brave new world ultimately emerged as the Road Jet – but it failed to sell in the numbers once envisaged, or even close.
Kurtis followed through and created sports cars under his own name. Most famous of them all was the 500S, a brutish-looking, cycle-fendered machine that was visually similar to an Allard J2 but which owed much of its architecture to the firm’s Indy weapons. Kurtis also offered the car in chassis-only form, for which customers had to fashion or obtain their own bodyshell.
Then there was the track-only 500X, and the altogether more civilised (all things being relative) 500M. This was developed in conjunction with financier Robert McCulloch, the chainsaw magnate who famously acquired London Bridge and moved it piece by piece to Arizona. PR bumf from the time stated: ‘We have attempted to build a machine combining the manoeuvrability and handling of a competition model with the beauty, dependability and all-weather comfort of a family car.’
While Kurtis’ sports cars didn’t attain quite the same level of track success as his oval racers, they nevertheless gave the thoroughbreds that had travelled over the Pond from ‘Yurup’ a bloody nose every once in a while. One early adopter was future NASCAR and Baja legend Bill Stroppe, who won several sports car races aboard one. Indy winner Troy Ruttman also tried his hand at ‘roundy-round’ racing in a similar car.
Unfortunately, Kurtis discovered that there was little demand for his wares purely as road cars, despite their explosive performance. They were offered with a choice of engines ranging from six-cylinder Ford to 392ci Chrysler V8. Road & Track magazine extracted a 0-60mph time of just 4.7-seconds when it tested one with 354ci Cadillac power. Even so, consumer interest simply wasn’t there.
If Kurtis’ cars lacked one thing, it was beauty. This was something of a mystery, given that he had hitherto created some fantastically elegant machines. He attempted to remedy the situation by dreaming up a Lincoln-powered coupe styled, in part, by the brilliantly monikered McKinley W Thompson Jr.
Although conceived as a road car, there were plans to build a competition variant. There was even talk of a Le Mans bid, but it’s widely held that work didn’t even start on the prototype despite a flurry of renderings appearing in the specialist press.
It didn’t help that Kurtis wasn’t business-minded. He and McCulloch soon fell out, which prompted the closure of Kurtis-Kraft Corp and the formation in 1956 of the Frank Kurtis Company. Sports cars were now a thing of the past and, by the early ’60s, so were IndyCars.
The firm subsequently became embroiled in making everything from go-karts to chassis frames for dragsters, and Bonneville streamliners to so-called ‘start carts’ for the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird project. The British were welcome to Indy. Kurtis told Car Life in 1961: ‘The Europeans have made tremendous strides technically and in terms of safety in the past few years… The manufacturers were forced to look for new ways to get more speed from less horsepower. And they did it!’
In 1968, Kurtis handed over the reins to his son Arlen, who continued the family tradition of building speed machines. These included a boat built for a World Speed Record attempt. He also revived 500S sports car production in the late ’80s, as original Kurtis cars began to go for big money during the first classic car boom.
Frank Kurtis died of a heart attack on February 17, 1987. He was 79. While his name isn’t uttered with the sort of awed tones reserved for the likes of Carroll Shelby or Briggs Cunningham, his cars won more races than theirs combined. What’s more, he got his hands dirty. The American motor sport landscape would have been less colourful without him, that’s for sure.