Estate sales can recirculate heretofore unobtainable cars, which-absent their owners' passing-would have remained tucked away indefinitely
Harry Miller's name may not ring a bell as loudly as Ettore Bugatti's, but Bugatti acquired Miller race cars to study before producing his first dual overhead camshaft engine in the Type 50 of 1930.
New Indianapolis 500 competition rules for 1923 limited engine displacement to two liters and eliminated the riding mechanic, so Miller designer Leo Goossen gave working drawings of the Model 122 to shop foreman Fred Offenhauser, who had been with Miller since 1915.
With the exception of wheels, tires, ignition parts, gauges, and a few other items, every part was produced on the premises. Miller required that parts be simple, lightweight, and sculptural, and the creation of these "simple" parts required tremendous skill and patience.
The engine design was straightforward. The architecture of the successful 183 was retained but scaled down. The cylinder head was cast integrally with the blocks, of which there were two, each with four cylinders. These were mounted on a barrel-type aluminum crankcase, with a five-bearing crankshaft.
The car was purposely narrow, while the chassis can be described as automotive jewelry. The fit was to the highest standards, finishes included gun bluing, and all the castings were hand-scraped, with a near-polished finish.
A total of seven 122s were completed before the 1923 Indianapolis 500 race, and Cliff Durant, the wealthy son of GM founder William Crapo Durant, purchased five. A credible driver in his own right, Cliff was Miller's chief patron during this Golden Era. Joe MacPherson's car was one of the five purchased by Durant.
Its racing career began with a fourth-place finish at Indianapolis, driven by Eddie Hearne, who followed with two firsts, three seconds, and a fifth at board track races. In 1924, Hearne had fuel problems at Indy and finished 19th.
In February of 1925, Stuart Wilkinson crashed the Miller 122 at Culver City Board Track. During the rebuild, it was updated with a supercharger, and Earl Cooper took over as driver for the remainder of the year.
Cooper started fourth in the Indianapolis 500 and ran well, taking the lead from Ralph Hepburn on the 121st lap. On the 124th lap, however, he hit the wall on the southwest turn and finished 17th at an average speed of 110.487 miles per hour. Cooper ran eight board track races that year, gaining two third place finishes in 250-mile events.
The Miller 122's career wound down in 1926. With its engine displacement reduced to the newly mandated 1.5-liter (91-ci) formula, the car participated in four board track events early in the year but engine damage kept it out of the Indy 500.
The Miller next appeared in September of 1928, when Bill Albertson of Penn Yan, New York, bought the car and finished sixth in a 100-mile race at the Atlantic City board track.
For the 1929 Indianapolis 500, Albertson's Miller 122 was driven by Frank Farmer. Farmer started 26th and ran as high as sixth, but his supercharger broke on lap 140. Later that year, Albertson won at Lehighton and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.
The highpoint of the car's 1930 season was Albertson's winning of a 100-mile race at Toledo, Ohio. But his luck ran out on August 16 and he was killed during a race in Middletown, New York. Albertson's widow sold the car to Horace Shaw, and in 1932, Shaw's driver Malcolm Fox scored three second-place dirt track finishes.
Photos of the car taken in the mid- to late-1930s indicate that it was a "Reddy's Special" with Joe Silvia driving, but no competition record has been found.
In the 1940s, a man named Schwartz acquired the Miller, then sold it to Edmund Dunn in the 1950s. Dunn sold it to Massachusetts collector Edgar Roy in the 1960s. In 1968, Carl Bross of Michigan acquired the car but had an inaccurate body built. Upon Bross's death the car was sold to Anthony Bamford in England, where it remained until bought by race car collector Bob Sutherland. His collection was dispersed on his death, and the Miller was bought by Joe MacPherson. A remarkable survivor, it retained its original frame rails, front end, rear axle, engine, transmission, steering components, brakes, and even pedals.
In his approach to the restoration of the 1923 122, MacPherson decided to replicate its appearance in supercharged form, as driven by Earl Cooper in the 1925 Indianapolis 500.
As presented, this Miller 122 Supercharged race car can rightfully take a place of honor in the most sophisticated of car collections. It has incredible racing history, known lineage, and an amazing tale of survival.
|Vehicle:||1923 Miller 122 Supercharged|
|Tune Up Cost:||$2,000 approx|
|Chassis Number Location:||None, the AAA issued registration plaques|
|Engine Number Location:||Middle of right cam box cover|
|Club Info:||Vintage Sports Car Club The Old Post Office, West Street, Chipping Norton, England OX75EL|
|Alternatives:||1927 Delage 15-S-8 GP car, 1925 Duesenberg board track car, 1927 Bugatti Type 35C GP car|
This 1923 Miller 122 Supercharged sold for $2,035,000 at RM’s auction of the Joe’s Garage MacPherson Collection in Tustin, California, on June 14, 2008.
The Miller 122 was the high-selling lot at this estate liquidation sale. It had been estimated at $900,000-$1,200,000, so the $2,035,000 result was double that and four times the Miller record to date. The cause and effect here is simple and straightforward.
First, an estate sale tends to attract serious bidders, given the event’s focus on liquidation. I clearly recall the great results from the sale of the Browning Collection, the Otis Chandler Collection, and so forth. These poignant events have the macro-economic role of recirculating heretofore unobtainable cars, which-absent their owners’ passing-would have remained tucked away indefinitely.
Second, we’re in one of those periods in the collector car cycle where there are lots of buyers looking for great objects and few great objects to be had. Estate sales of top-flight collections are one of the rare occasions when first-class cars surface.
Third, this car is well known among today’s disciples of Harry Miller for its long-term existence, passing as it did through the hands of such connoisseurs as Anthony Bamford, Bob Sutherland, and Joe MacPherson. Most significantly, it is known for its high degree of originality and authenticity.
The Miller as a collectible
Now, let’s look at Miller cars within the context of collectible cars. Great collectibles share one or more of three important characteristics: they look great, they dominated on the track or in the market of the day, and their engineering and build quality are superb.
Millers look fantastic. Harry Miller relentlessly optimized his cars for their mission-to win long-distance circle track races. As such, they have the pared-down, lethally effective look of a perfected instrument. Bodies are no more than 18 inches wide, and components are exquisitely designed to minimize weight and wind resistance.
The sinister gleam of the inline 8-cylinder, twin-cam, centrifugally supercharged engine, with its intricate intercooling intake manifold, results in gearhead overload. It took the artists at Miller’s shop 6,500 hours to build a complete Miller car, of which perhaps 1,000 hours went toward fit and finish; if it wasn’t hand-scraped to a polish, it was gun-blued. No more beautifully turned-out racing cars were ever built.
Millers were dominant in their era. American racing in those days, and even now, was show business. Owners invested in equipment they felt would maximize their chances of putting on a good show and making money. Millers were the way to go.
They were very fast and dead reliable, as well as being the most exquisitely engineered and fabricated cars in the history of American racing, arguably in the top five built by anyone anywhere. From the ground-breaking 183s of 1921 (once teething problems with the camshaft were cured by a little industrial espionage at Duesenberg), the marque dominated professional board track and Indy racing until 1930.
Millers became victims of their own success
Augie and Fred Duesenberg’s racers put up brave resistance, winning just enough to keep things slightly uncertain, but Miller was the class of the field. Between 1920 and 1930, Millers won Indy six times and occupied 50% of the podium slots.
So competitive were Millers that the cars became victims of their own success. Their components were reworked into cars for other racing series to keep winning and earning. Consequently, very few of the roughly 37 Miller cars built survived, as they were reconstituted or cannibalized.
When the great Frank Lockhart was asked how much power his specially tuned Miller 91 made to set the record 164 mph average (and an incredible 171 mph one way) at his Muroc Dry Lake record run, he replied, “Any number I want. It’s just a question of tuning.” The horsepower was subsequently estimated from the drag coefficient and speed at 285.
And as the late Griff Borgeson said, it was Ettore Bugatti’s inspection of two Miller 91 front-drive cars traded to him by Leon Duray that convinced him to switch to twin-cam architecture in 1930. World-class technical execution goes without saying if the notoriously arrogant Bugatti took a master class from Harry Miller.
Few “no stories” Millers
Let’s return to the MacPherson Miller. As mentioned above, Miller automobiles were never plentiful. It is a sad fact of Miller collecting that extraordinarily few “no stories” Miller cars exist. A few examples were sequestered in shops or barns, the most significant being the two front-drive cars confined for decades at Bugatti in Molsheim until acquired by Griff Borgeson. The MacPherson car is another.
Most Millers are made up out of substantially original bits, but lack the all-important chassis longerons that comprise the original frame. Under the modern rubric, these reconstructed cars are either “bitsas,” if their components come from a variety of sources, or “resurrections,” if the resultant car is derived largely from one antecedent. Our subject car has no such problem. It’s the real deal.
While Miller board track cars are hugely evocative of the great age of the board tracks, they are not very usable, being optimized for high-speed circle track racing. Their woeful transmissions make them happiest at the annual Miller event at the Milwaukee Mile, and as featured masterpieces in the collections of connoisseurs.
I would guess from the results that these works of genius have finally been discovered by mainstream collectors. To my mind, this car was very well bought indeed.