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Harry Miller helped make the '20s roar

March 02, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

How does a man with such a common name stand out from the crowd? How does he take a little ingenuity and transform it into massive amounts of energy?

And how in the world does Harry Armenius Miller from little Menomonie, Wisc., become the greatest creative figure in the history of the American race car, dominating the nation's biggest circuits for nearly 50 years?

All signs point to the steep hill, an innocuous parcel of land that separated a young Miller from his home and the machine shop where he worked.

Every day, Miller, the son of an artistic German immigrant father and a mother who was a teacher, would walk to work up that hill, then head back again at night.


Up and back. Up and back. Day after tedious day; mile after laborious mile.

Word has it, on one of those trips, inspiration formed and the world would change. On an anonymous morning, Miller would mount a one-cylinder engine onto his bicycle and, in one small step, create what some would later say was the first motorcycle in U.S. history.

"It was simply a solution," Miller would say. "Nothing more."

But there would be so much more.

If the motorized bicycle was extraordinary for a 20-something man in the late 1800s, what followed would be revolutionary.

Considered by many to be an eccentric genius and engineering visionary, Miller was a short, shy, silent and reflective man with black hair and blue eyes.

He seldom slept and often had little to say, unless the topic was machinery or engines. His brain, much like his hands, were constantly at work, perfecting theories and transforming engine blocks. From those hands and that brain, Miller would almost single-handedly transform American racing.

Miller meant speed. At one point his engines and cars owned almost every major speed and distance record in the United States, a feat unequaled by any other manufacturer before or since. On land, on water, through the air, Miller became the symbol of engineering excellence. To him, the racing engine and its cars were art in motion.

It was such a simple beginning.

After constructing his motorcycle, Miller would begin to build the first gasoline outboard engine in the country, a four-cylinder design that he clamped to the back of a rowboat. But it was after a move to Los Angeles with his wife in 1894 that Miller's genius really showed.

On the West Coast, he became enthralled in the burgeoning automotive industry, filing several patents for spark plugs and an original design for a carburetor, a device that cleverly blended gasoline with air to provide the fuel for internal combustion.

Miller opened a machine shop where he continued to build engines for racing boats and airplanes and then his first automobile in 1905. By the end of the decade, Miller's aluminum carburetors became standard equipment on American race cars and led him to the development of other lightweight components for high-performance and aviation engines.

Passionate and obsessive about cleanliness and order in his shop, Miller's innovation led to the development of light alloy metals, aerodynamics, supercharging (forcing air and fuel into an engine above normal atmospheric pressure) and both front- and four-wheel drive.

In 1916, after receiving his first order for a complete engine, as well as a request for a redesign of a Peugeot racing powerplant, Miller teamed up with master machinist Fred Offenhauser and a brilliant draftsman named Leo Goosen. Together, they would be unstoppable.

Based from the West Coast, the trio began the decade by competing against the big racers of the day - Dusenberg and Chevrolet - and building the fully enclosed and streamlined "Golden Submarine" for Indianapolis (Ind.) 500 driver Barney Oldfield.

It was the Roaring '20s, literally, and Miller was forming a racing dynasty. His cars would win everywhere, from oval tracks and beaches to the salt flats of Bonneville, Utah.

Five years later, Miller built a 183-cubic-inch inline eight-cylinder engine that powered a car driven by Jimmy Murphy to first place at the Indianapolis 500.

After Murphy's titles, everyone wanted a "Miller." The results showed. From 1922 through 1929, his engines won 73 of 92 major U.S. races. In fact, Millers powered 27 of the 33 cars entered in the 1929 Indianpolis 500.

He was so dominant, in fact, that by 1930 the governing body of racing specifically changed its rules to allow other manufacturers a chance at a title. Even that didn't work. Miller cars just kept winning.

They won the Indy 500 10 times and Miller or Miller-based Offenhauser engines won at Indy another 29 times.

Success, however intense, would be short-lived. After retiring from his business just weeks before the stock-market crash of 1929, Miller, 54, became actively involved in other projects, including the development of the rear-engine Tucker automobile. But the finish line was near.

The Great Depression, along with Miller's irrepressible desire for more complex projects, damaged the business for good. He would be bankrupt in three years.

Miller lost control of the company through a series of bad investments and business decisions and the company was eventually sold to Offenhauser.

In the end, after his death from a heart attack on May 3, 1943, Miller was left with little more than a reputation as an impractical dreamer and, of course, a winner. His cars and engines dominated American racing for more than 40 years.

He was a pioneer. He was a true racing legend. Always climbing that hill. Forever striving.

Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. He can be reached at

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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