A lifetime with the Offenhauser



“MY GOING to work for Harry Miller was an act of God!” With these words, Leo Goossen described the beginning of a remarkable career as America’s foremost designer of racing engines. Goossen had left a promising position as protégé to Walter L. Mart, Chief Designer of Buick Motor Company, to go west to New Mexico. A tuberculosis spot had been found and the only answer was a change of climate. After six months Goossen’s health improved and, before returning to the east, he ventured to Los Angeles where he visited the establishment of Harry Miller, a carburetter manufacturer and racing expert. From that day in 1921 forward Goossen’s life has been wrapped up in the design of racing cars and engines. By his own personal count he has designed over two dozen engines and one dozen complete cars. Now in his seventies and with no intention of retiring he still works regular hours over the drawing board at Drake Engineering in Santa Ana, California continuing the longest job of his life, looking after the Offy which he designed in 1930 and has accompanied ever since.

“Harry Miller was a genius” according to Goossen, and everyone else interested in American racing. Miller’s head was full of ideas all the time but when words were not enough to explain what he wanted to do he was powerless. His natural intuitive design talent was not reinforced by any formal engineering training and the arrival of former draftsman Leo Goossen in Miller’s factory with a letter of recommendation from Walter P. Chrysler, head of Manufacturing at Buick, provided Miller with a vital part of his design team. Goossen was more than just a draftsman working for Miller for he applied his own limited formal education, obtained from tutors and night schools, and his own intuition. “Miller had the ideas and I laid them out on paper”, says Goossen but he adds “I used a lot of my own judgement.”

Goossen cut his teeth on two lesser engines for Miller before the first big one was undertaken, the Miller 183. The numbers assigned to Miller engines corresponded to their capacity in cu. in., usually the limit of the existing American Automobile Association formula. The 183 was a straight 8, with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder which employed all that was good from contemporary engines. This meant that features from Peugeot, Ballot and Duesenberg found their way into the 183 but from among them were the basic characteristics of future Miller and Goossen designed engines which in a refined state are found in the immortal Offy fifty years later. These included the barrel-type crankcase, integrated cylinder head and Goossen’s meticulous layout of the valve gear. In its first race at Indianapolis in 1921, incidentally the year that Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in a Duesenberg, the best finish for the Miller 183 was 7th but the following year, Murphy’s Duesenberg was fitted with the straight 8 Miller engine and led a one-two finish for the Duesenberg-Miller combination.

The following year the formula was changed by AAA and Goossen designed a scaled down Miller 122 whose valve train was changed to a two-valve hemispherical combustion chamber set-up. A 122 chassis followed and the Miller era which began with Murphy’s win at Indianapolis the previous year was under way as Tommy Milton who had instigated the original 183 won the 500-mile classic in a Miller 122 called the HCS Special, after its owner Harry C. Stutz a very familiar name.

The 183 and the 122 were just a prelude for when the formula changed again to 91 cu. in. for 1926 Goossen commenced what many believe to be the masterpiece of his lifetime, the Miller 91. The straight-8 engine was available in supercharged and normally aspirated forms while the engine was fitted to a Conventional rear-drive chassis or a front drive chassis. The front-wheel-drive supercharged Miller 91 was a work of art. Miller had long since given up the formality of approving Goossen’s drawings and once the original concept was settled, Goossen created the masterpiece he lovingly refers to as “my baby”.

Historians have called the 1920s the Golden Age of racing in America and in part this was due to the fabulous Miller 91. Goossen’s layout was a work of art with its compact front drive layout, inboard front brakes and De Dion front suspension, the first ever on a racing car. The 91 went into series production, selling for $10,000 in rear drive form while the front drive model was $15,000. The engine at $5,000 was included in the above prices. The beautiful format of the front drive Miller 91 later provided the pattern for the Cord front drive passenger car.

At racing, Miller was a genius but as a businessman he was a failure and in his lifetime, which saw the production of numerous brilliant racing creations, he made and lost several fortunes. The last great financial failure was that of 1932 when he went bankrupt but Miller’s ability to pick the right people to work for him was to keep his racing creations alive. Miller’s greatest period was the twenties from the time that Leo Goossen joined him. With concepts coming from Miller’s great brain and Goossen to translate them into fine drawings, the third part of the team was works foreman Fred Offenhauser. From the old school of artisan machinists, Offenhauser in his craft equalled Miller and Goossen in theirs. The greatness of Miller’s creations became fact in metal through Offenhauser’s skill. Through his several financial upsets, Miller was able to pick up the pieces by reacquiring the services of Goossen and Offenhauser. After the bankruptcy of 1932, Offenhauser acquired some of the assets of Miller’s company and formed his own engineering company with Goossen as consultant designer. This keeping together of the basics of the old team, minus Miller, has kept the Miller tradition alive ever since. When Offenhauser was ready for a deserved retirement, the company was acquired by former Indy winner Louie Meyer and Dale Drake, becoming Meyer Drake Engineering. When Meyer and Drake split in 1965, Meyer taking over the production and sale of the Ford Indy engine, Drake carried on his company, Drake Engineering and Sales Company which has been run by his son since Drake’s death last summer. The common factor in all these efforts was the design talents of Leo Goossen. In 1926, Goossen laid out a 310 cu. in. 8-cylinder marine engine which was basically the old 122 scaled up. The 310 was later developed into a 620 cu. in. V12 as well as a 155 cu. in. four-cylinder. The 155 fourcylinder with its barrel-type crankcase and integral cylinder head in 1926 was the first stirrings of the engine that became the Offy.

The economic depression which began in 1929 severely affected the racing business in America. The racing formula opened up to 366 cu. in. in 1930 to permit the use of cheaper production based engines and it looked like the heyday of the twenties was over forever. At the instigation of his works foreman Fred Offenhauser, Miller who had built such fabulous eights looked down his nose at fours but consented to build a fourcylinder, dual overhead camshaft, four valve per cylinder engine of 220 cu. in. This was the Offy which went on and on. It first won at Indy in 1934 as a Miller.

While the 220 four-cylinder was suffering its growing pains many racers avoided the possibilities of production block engines in favour of enlarged versions of the various Millers. With pride, Goossen still remembers the exciting days when in March of 1932 Harry Hartz ordered a scaled up 183 cu. in. version of the original eight-cylinder 91 engine. In less than two months from drawing board to fitting in the chassis the engine was completed. With no previous running it was fired up for the first time on May 15. It won the 1932 500-mile race in the car driven by Fred Frame. Half of this engine in fourcylinder form later became the Offy “Midget” (91 cu. in.) which together with the 220 forms the roots of the present Offy.

Miller never fully recovered from his bankruptcy although he undertook a number of marvellous racing cars and engines but Goossen as consultant to Offenhauser and freelance designer was off and running free. Engines and complete cars poured from his drawing board with remarkable frequency, some of them as significant in their time as the Miller 91 had been in its. But of them all, he is proudest of the Novi, a marvellous front wheel drive, four overhead camshaft V8 of 255 cu. in. which powered Jim Clark’s Granatelli, the immensely powerful V8 was an unsuccessful challenger to the Offy’s three decades of supremacy in American oval track racing. The engine that really upset the Offy was Ford’s pure-bred four overhead camshaft V8 of 255 cu. in. which powered Jim Clark’s Lotus to Indianapolis victory in 1965. Ford’s threat only served to unleash unknown reserves of strength in the old Offy for it was supercharged and finally turbo-charged into the winning form shown in 1972 and all the while, the Offy was being nursed by its original designer, Leo Goossen.

Drake Engineering is not a research and development oriented company. This fact is a source of concern to Goossen who has lived with it for years. Research and development is instigated from outside and then it falls to Goossen to begin work. A series of connecting rod bolt failures produced requests for an increase in rod bolt size from 1/2 to 9/16 in., which Goossen had been recommending for some time to no avail. Once the customers requested larger bolts the necessary changes were made. Similarly gudgeon pin size went up from 1 1/16 to 1 1/8 in. when the requests came from outside. In 1972, Dan Gurney’s Offy engines had two oil pumps where the normal Offy has only one. Goossen made the drawings, Drake Engineering made the necessary changes and All American Racers has exclusivity until April of 1973. This is the way that Goossen has been improving the Offy since its inception. In this way the present 159 cu. in. engine produces over 900 horsepower at 10,000 r.p.m.

Goossen’s formal engineering background was very slight and he frequently laid out intuitively. “I just knew what to do,” he says. “It seemed as if some inner person told me what to do.” But in the half century of laying out things intuitively, often to others specifications, he rarely had a design that was a failure. His first answer to this question is a modest, “I suppose I did, but I can’t remember”. Then later after some careful thought he remembers one single engine of all the projects that was a flop, a four-cylinder air-cooled prototype. Among those that were never fully developed was the four-cylinder desmodromic valve Scarab Formula One engine for Lance Reventlow.

Goossen’s great love even now as it has always been is to produce his “beautiful drawings” and to some it must seem that this was often all he could do for there was rarely any feedback to the designer as to what was happening with the finished product. But although the engineering feedback was not there it was often not needed, so thorough in its detail was the first product.

Looking back on the exciting and glorious days gone by when he worked from 7.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. plus overtime when he “used to have to slap the drawing out as fast as I could”, Goossen has only one regret, but it is without a trace of bitterness that he says “I made all the drawings and somebody else got the glory and the money.”—F.D.S.