Borgeson on Miller

The history of the Miller racing cars which contributed such an important part to the American racing scene has been fully covered in the book written by Mark Dee, which for some reason or other has not come the way of this reviewer. I have heard enough about Miller history, however, to believe that nothing else on the subject is called for. So it came as a surprise to find an article on various aspects of racing Millers by Griffith Borgeson (in the last issue of the American Automobile Quarterly to appear last year and which, despite supersonic airliners and satellites, has only just reached me) although less of a surprise to find that Borgeson takes issue with Dee on some points of Miller history. Not having seen Dee’s text, I am in no position to discuss these. But, like Alex Ulmann before him, Borgeson also questions some aspects of the previously-accepted European scene.

For example, in his well-illustrated outpouring he questions the origins of the first FWD Alvis racing car of 1925, which was announced two months before Miller produced their first front-drive racing car. A British “first”, you might say. But Borgeson refutes this, rejecting the opinion of Peter Hull and Norman Johnson, expressed in their book “The Vintage Alvis” (Macdonald, 1967), that the idea was a simultaneous one in both countries. Borgeson is trying to convince himself that Miller drawings must have crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Coventry, allowing both FWD cars to be built at roughly the same time, these Alvis and Miller FWD racing cars being too much alike for there to be any other conclusion. He quotes the longitudinal front springs, on similar mounting brackets, the very deep side-members of the chassis frame, and the same steering, universal-joint and wheel geometry of both makes as proof of his contention that the Alvis Chief-Engineer Capt Smith-Clark and/or his Chief Designer Mr W. M. Dunn, copied Miller’s design. On the face of it the similarity does seem remarkable. Until, that is, you ask yourself how else would a pioneer FWD racing chassis have been laid out at that time? Universal joints for this purpose were in an experimental stage and both designers presumably had to adapt those available, 1/4-elliptic springs were a logical means of mounting the de Dion front-end, and with all the mechanicals now forward of the bulkhead, it was no doubt necessary to use deep side-members, or “side-rails” as Borgeson calls them, to stiffen-up the rear part of the chassis that no longer had cross-members supporting the gearbox to strengthen it. It is significant that the Alvis, which was completed at least two months before the Miller, used double de Dion tubes, instead of the single de Dion tube at the front of No 1 FWD Miller, and had inboard front brakes whereas the America car used outboard brakes at this time, Alvis having used such brakes at the rear of their 1923/24 racing cars.

This does not dispose of the possibility of a common source of FWD inspiration on both sides of the Atlantic, and may leave a “the chicken or the egg” dilemma. Borgeson’s difficulty is that, although he has researched (and no one applauds his research tenacity more than I do) FWD in America and has written a book about it (so far, he says, published only in France), he cannot say with any certainty how, if Alvis cribbed from Miller, this came about! S. C. H. Davis having disclaimed giving such information to Smith-Clark, and Miller’s engineer Brett Riley having said he knew nothing of the new Miller development when he was in England, en route for Monza , in 1923, Borgeson quotes Count Zborowski as a possible conveyor of the drawings or other illustrations to Capt Smith-Clark.

This seems improbable. True, Zborowski bought a rear-drive Miller, an out-dated and never very satisfactory car, while in the USA for the 1923 Indianapolis race, and he drove for Miller at Monza that year. But by 1924, before he was killed during the next Italian GP, he was concerned with his new role as GP driver in the Mercedes team. Borgeson describes Zborowski as a “sometime sports-car manufacturer”. This is rather stretching things! Zborowski put money into Lionel Martin’s little Aston-Martin Company around 1922 because he wanted a means of entry into road-racing, for which the racing cars he then owned were unsuitable. He saw this as simply an interim stage in his chosen amateur career, the Astons giving away half-a-litre under the then-prevailing GP formula. After his Miller had shown itself to be quite unsuitable for road racing, in the 1924 French GP, Zborowski followed his star to Germany and Mercedes. I would have thought he was the last person to become involved in passing on other companies’ design secrets to English companies – but if he did, why not to A-M? Gallop, his engineer, perhaps? But did he at that time have links with Alvis? Borgeson, as the leading historian of the subject of FWD in the USA, must do better than this. Has it not occurred to him that Capt Smith-Clark or Mr Dunn could have met Harry Miller in the States or otherwise have promoted Alvis innovations there, had they wished to do so?

After some interesting information about how Borgeson bought the last two Millers which racing driver Leon Duray had much earlier exchanged with Ettore Bugatti for some Type 43 Bugattis, which Borgeson says he never intended to keep, but restored nicely before they found new homes in museums (litigation over re-possession should certainly appear in my dream-book “Cars in Court!”), the American writer goes on to describe the racing career of Leon Duray, the theme being that the fastest car to run on and closed track in the 1920s was this driver’s FWD Miller No 6. He is said to have lapped Packard’s test-track at 148.17mph in 1928, when the Brooklands lap-record stood at 131.76mph. Some records set up by British drivers like Parry Thomas and Ernest Eldridge, which Duray knocked down, are quoted, but there is really nothing to refute, except that, these records apart, speeds in America were not recognised in Europe at the time, so those for the board tracks may not stand comparison with those quoted for Brooklands and Montlhéry. Borgeson also loses a mite of credibility by saying he cannot easily distinguish between Arpajon outside Paris (where Duray appeared, no doubt in speed-trials) and Montlhéry track, and by describing the latter as “the sprawling, almost eight-mile Linas-Montlhéry autodrome, which included a 0.777-mile banked concrete oval” (hardly a misprint, as later he refers to “the 3/4-mile oval”) whereas in fact the banked course measures 1.6 miles (2.5 km)to the lap. Nor can I quite believe that even the great Leon Duray, Le Diable Noir, could have won a race (against the experienced Ray Keech at Salem track in 1927) by pulling out of his rival’s slipstream and “shooting past”, when his engine had died completely before the finish!

But this is all interesting stuff, which no student of the specialist but important and fascinating subject of pre-war American motor racing should miss, especially as it is beautifully printed and illustrated in L. Scot Bailey’s inimitable “AQ” style. W.B.