Front-engined Indy cars are the equivalent of those big, muscular farm boys from the '50s with butch cuts, trucker's tans, and aggressive smiles that sort of dare you to take them on


After World War II, Frank Kurtis saw an opportunity and began to mass-produce midget racing cars of his own efficient and beautiful design. This business took off, and by the mid-1950s over 500 had been sold. Indeed, Kurtis' midgets absolutely dominated the sport.

He also built "big cars," and in the front engine-era of American Championship racing, the record of Kurtis-built cars ranks second only to that of Harry Miller.

In 1957, 14 Kurtis Indy cars were delivered. Pat O'Connor put his on the Indy 500 pole at 143.948 mph, and Kurtis roadsters finished the race in positions four through eight.

The 1957 Kurtis-Offenhauser Roadster presented here was originally built for J.S. "Duke" Donaldson who remained the owner throughout its four-year history covering 1957 to 1961. In its first Indy 500 appearance, Bill Cheesbourg qualified it 23rd as the "Seal Line Special," but retired on lap 81 with a fuel leak. In 1958, Eddie Johnson finished on the lead lap, taking 9th overall. The following year, the car suffered a broken magneto on lap 11.

In the early 1980s, Colorado Grand originator Robert Sutherland found and bought the car and had Jim Robbins rebuild it for him. Restored in the red "Bryant Heating & Cooling" livery of 1958, this Kurtis roadster is still in excellent condition, although it displays a few rock chips in the paint as a result of enthusiastic on-track use. The engine, a proper Offenhauser 255, was freshened in 2002 and has been driven only a few laps since.

Many Indy cars are immaculately restored for museum display, but this one presents an intriguing purchase alternative for an enthusiast who wants to experience the thrill of actually driving a real roadster in organized track events.

SCM Analysis


Years Produced:1955-1963 (classic Indy roadsters)
Number Produced:maybe 50 Kurtis, 120 total various roadsters
Original List Price:$20,000 (about $10k for chassis, $10k for engine;
SCM Valuation:$160,000-$200,000
Distributor Caps:$100 (Joe Hunt Magneto)
Engine Number Location:stamped on a boss at the right front of the crankcase, just below the cam drive cover
Club Info:Historic Champ/Indy Car Association, 2460 Park Blvd. #4, Palo Alto, CA 94306
Alternatives:Watson Roadsters, sitting in a spinning dryer
Investment Grade:A

This 1957 Kurtis-Offenhauser KK 500 G2 Indy Roadster sold for $165,000, including buyer’s premium, at the RM Amelia Island auction held March 13, 2004.

There’s something about front-engined Indy cars that just oozes ’50s Americana. They’re the equivalent of those big, muscular farm boys with butch cuts, trucker’s tans, and aggressive smiles that sort of dare you to take them on. They’re all about being strong, fast against their peers, and lookin’ good.

The Kurtis 500 defined this image as well as any Indy car of the era. It manages to be brutal, intimidating and crude-as well as taut, beautiful, and in many ways, sophisticated. I’ve been caretaker to a sister of the subject car for a number of years and they really are amazing pieces of work. At first glance the cars may seem rudimentary (particularly if you’re accustomed to European F1 cars of the era) but as the “correct weapon for the battle,” Kurtis Indy cars are beautifully designed.

Take the suspension, for example. Yes, the beam front and live rear axles with Panhard rods are about as exotic as a Model A, but they’re located with control arms that lead to transverse torsion bars front and rear. The arms are different lengths side-to-side, so that the torsion bars are separate and parallel. This makes the springs on all four corners independently adjustable for easy setup.

And how about those brakes? Kurtis used discs at a time when Ferrari and Maserati wouldn’t even consider them. Though Indy cars look simple, they’re definitely not the work of amateurs.

The Offenhauser engine is a similar story. It’s an evolution of the mid-’30s Miller design, a 4.2-liter four-cylinder with overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and 14:1 compression. Its Hillborn fuel injection has been described as a “calibrated fuel leak” and it dumps methanol into the stacks at about a gallon a lap. The package makes about 400 horsepower with a deafening noise level.

And it shakes. Oh Lord, does it shake! Drivers tell me that the tooth-rattling, vision-blurring vibration never goes away, even at speed. You just have to drive through it-and this is just the least of what you’ll be dealing with when you get behind the wheel of one of these brutes.

Intimidating is probably the best description of the way they drive. You sit low in the cockpit with your head about the height of the 18-inch rear tire and your right elbow just inches from its tread. You hang on to this huge bus-like steering wheel and push the lever into gear (it has two: “pit” and “race”). Everything seems massive, and it is, with heavy controls.

The heat from the engine rolls over you like a furnace, as the noise, the vibration, and the physical effort to drive the car in that monotonous circle will make 500 miles seem like an eternity. These Indy Roadsters were driven by real men.

Of course, all that user-unfriendliness hides the fact that Kurtis roadsters actually work, and awfully well at that. At speed and turning left (don’t even think about turning right) they are very precise and predictable cars. A little trailing throttle will make the car turn in, then you just add power to make it drift out to the wall. Yep, just like the heroes of our youth.

Though vintage oval racing is not widely known (even among “regular” vintage racers), there is a substantial group of otherwise sane and rational people who actually drive these things and have great fun doing so. There are three or four events a year scheduled for vintage Indy cars and as many as 51 cars have been in attendance (see These events are even scheduled as support for Indy Racing League events and enjoy much of the glamour and hoopla that surround the professional events.

This has been a great development for the value and salability of old Indy cars. Until a few years ago there wasn’t much purpose to owning a runner like the 1957 Kurtis-Offenhauser KK 500 pictured here, because there wasn’t anything to do with it. As such, values sat forever in the $60,000-$100,000 range. Now the going rate is up to $160k-$200k for a nice car ready to put on the track.

Given that this car has a decent history, and appears to be ready to go, this was definitely money well spent. My guess is we’ll see it next at Indy, and watch it relive its glory days.-Thor Thorson

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