|Vehicle:||1931 Miller Bowes Seal Fast Special racer|
|Number Produced:||1 (about 15 Miller 122s)|
|Original List Price:||n/a|
|Tune Up Cost:||$1,000|
|Engine Number Location:||Unknown|
|Club Info:||Miller/Offenhauser Historical Society|
This car, Lot S147.1, sold for $2,120,000, including buyer’s premium, at the Mecum Monterey auction on August 19, 2011.
Wow! $2.1m for a 1931 two-seat Indy car! It does seem like a lot, particularly when the best comp I can find is a 1931 V16 Miller Special that has been stuck at $600k for years. This car has a fascinating story that just might make sense, though, but I’m going to have to weave together a number of background threads first.
Ovals from the start
Until after World War II, American racing was almost strictly ovals: first horse racing tracks, then dedicated ovals, then board tracks, and of course, the Indianapolis 500.
Indianapolis, the big dog, effectively set the rules in those years, with other promoters following along so they could get the best cars. It started in 1911 with huge-displacement 600-ci engines. Engine size dropped precipitously through the teens and the Roaring Twenties to keep things even half-safe, as engine technology surged ahead of chassis, tires and brakes.
For 1923, the allowed displacement was dropped from 2.5 liters (183 ci) to 2 liters (122 ci ) and the earlier two-seat, riding mechanic configuration was dropped in favor of single-seat racers.
In 1926, with supercharging now a serious component, it was dropped to 1.5 liters (91 ci ). The single-seat racers from 1923 to 1930 were an embodiment of the Roaring Twenties: ebullient, exciting, beautiful and more than a little dangerous. Oh, yes, they were very expensive — a Miller 91 front-drive racer cost $15,000 in 1927, which is roughly $200,000 in today’s dollars.
Then came Black Friday. During the Great Depression, there was no way for Indianapolis to go on as before, as nobody could afford it. In an effort to remain relevant and viable, Indy changed the rules to what became known as the “two-man” Indianapolis formula, which effectively allowed stripped-down production cars to compete.
Allowed displacement was upped to 6 liters, supercharging and 4-valve heads were prohibited, minimum weight was increased, and everybody had to run with two seats and two people. It worked, and the Indianapolis 500 survived — even prospered — but the racing of that period was pretty boring, and the two-man Indy cars of the 1930s have never been very collectible. In contrast, the single-seat cars of the 1920s have always been one of the holy grails of American car collecting.
A passion for speed
Harry Miller was a brilliant, obsessive, natural engineer whose core passion was developing and building racing engines. He started a company in Los Angeles to manufacture carburetors of his own design, and he quickly became involved in the local racing industry.
Miller’s first engine was a derivative of the 1912 Peugeot GP design (twin overhead cam, 4-valve, pent roof, compact combustion chamber — sounds like a Cosworth DFV, doesn’t it?) and set Miller along the path to greatness. It was not a smooth path, however, and the designs were not always successful. Yet, Barney Oldfield’s Miller “Golden Submarine” was campaigned across the United States in exhibition battles with Ralph DePalma to great public acclaim and established the Miller name.
Building the team
In 1920, a young draftsman named Leo Goosen stopped by Miller’s office looking for work. The two immediately meshed, and to quote Mark Dees’ Miller Dynasty, “It would not be long before Miller’s designs would begin to reflect Leo Goosen’s almost unique ability to combine grace and elegance with the most spare and rigorous functionalism. He was exactly the symbiotic partner Miller needed.”
One of Goosen’s first projects was a 2.5-liter (183 ci) straight-eight engine modeled after another Peugeot design, the Ballot, and it established the pattern of the straight-eight Miller that powered the marque to absolute dominance on the dirt ovals, board tracks and the Indy 500 through the 1920s.
The 4-valve 183-ci engine was succeeded by the 2-valve, hemispherical-chambered 122-ci engine in 1923. The 122 was eventually supercharged to keep up with Duesenberg, and it was replaced in 1926 by the legendary Miller 91, a supercharged 1.5-liter engine. In 1922, a young Californian named Myron Stevens was hired on as a builder for Miller, and he quickly rose to be chief of the chassis and body department. He became the third essential member of the Miller brain trust, charged with making chassis that actually worked.
Jewels of the Indy 500
With the team in place, Miller became the car to have if you wanted to win — and the racing car young boys dreamed of. It was enchantingly beautiful as well as fast. Goosen’s design for the 122 body was only 18 inches wide and stunning in its graceful functionality.
This beauty was augmented by Miller’s obsession with detail. Every car that left the shop was a jewel. Legend has it that between 5,500 and 6,000 hours went into every Miller racer, with 1,500 hours spent on fit and finish alone. Every piece of the car was carefully hand-finished. The car was polished, plated — even blued — where appropriate. The cars were artistic masterpieces and dominant racers. From 1926 to 1929, between 71% and 85% of the Indy starting fields were Millers. If there was ever an American Bugatti, Miller is it.
Few original Millers left
Good things seldom seem to last, though. Myron Stevens left to run his own business in 1927 (apparently amicably, as he remained close), and Miller himself sold the company to retire at 54 — just a few months before the stock market crash of 1929.
The company soon foundered in the beginnings of the Great Depression, and Miller realized he had too many ideas to be a rancher, so he formed another company and hired back most of the original staff. The Depression proved too strong, and Miller went bankrupt in 1933. One of his top guys, Fred Offenhauser, bought what was left and continued the tradition under his own name. Almost all original Millers have been lost to time and use. There are at most four or five really original Millers left in the world.
It’s time to tie this all together and make sense of today’s subject car.
A treasure underneath race provenance
When the Indy two-seat rules were implemented, there was no requirement that a racer must be a production car. So converting earlier single-seat racers to the new rules — by widening the chassis and building new bodies — became the best way to run at the front.
For our subject car, Myron Stevens took a Miller 122 racer and made it into what ran in 1931 as the Bowes Seal Fast Special. He kept the original frame rails but widened the cross members and bored out the engine as much as he could. But he kept the running gear and put a new body on it. As such, it won in 1931, ran many more times through the 1930s, and is one of the most famous and successful two-seat Indy racers.
The real point is, though, that underneath the 1930 body is most or all of an original mid-1920s Miller 122. Now we’re talking serious collectibility.
Whether the new owner should choose to keep the car in its current configuration or convert it back into what would be one of only a few examples of a truly glorious bit of American racing history could undoubtedly be the subject of countless late-night discussions, but this is where the value lies.
Prices for Millers have been rising consistently for the past ten years or so. In the opinion of SCM pundit and Miller owner Miles Collier, they are still undervalued. Certainly in a world of $4m to $5m Bugattis (the same Bugatti who stole his twin cam design from the 122), this Miller does not seem to be unreasonably priced. I would say this car was fairly and astutely bought.
(Introductory description courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)