The Curious Account of the Shreve Special
The Curious Account of the Shreve Special, One of the Quirkiest—and Most Storied—Indy Roadsters Ever
hMotorsports journalist Joe Scalzo has a saying that best describes the life trajectory of a race car. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes like this: “Old race cars never die; their parts just go on to live lives in other cars.”
He usually invokes that when explaining the whereabouts of cars that seemingly cease to exist. Usually, it’s because of obsolescence or a terrible crash that demolishes a chassis beyond repair, but in all but maybe a handful of instances, bits and pieces of a car really do see another opportunity to do battle on the track in other cars. And the 1948 Shreve Special is one of those examples.
The Shreve’s life didn’t start in 1948, the year it was “built.” Its beginnings track back nearly two decades—several lifetimes in race-car years—and those beginnings weren’t exactly humble, either. You see, the Shreve started out as the progeny of Harry A. Miller Mfg. Co.
In contemporary Indy terms, Miller was sort of the Dallara and Honda of the 1920s in the sense that the cars and engines that he built dominated the Big Race. Case in point, cars produced or powered by Miller won five of the eight Indy 500s from 1922 to 1929, the year Harry Miller retired from his company.
This much we know about the car: a part of it was one of the three built in 1931, the year Miller regained control of the company that bore his name. These were trick units with quarter-elliptic springs at both ends and a DeDion-style axle in the rear (look it up, it’s interesting).
The cars were built to reflect the 1930 rule change that permitted bigger engines (prior to 1930, displacement was as small as 91 ci). Two cars were built with 230-inch inlineeights, engines referred to as “Big Eights” in Miller circles. The third was built with a 303-inch V16, basically two inline-eights joined at the hip.
The two Big Eight cars achieved noteworthy success; in fact, Louis Meyer won the 1933 Indy 500 in one. Despite the larger displacement, the V16 car didn’t do as well;
it was most likely designed for passengercar use, and because it was a lot bigger and heavier, the engine never realized its potential. According to Miller historian Michael Ferner, the car ran only twice with the V16, both times at Indy (1931 and 1932), and it failed to finish in both instances.
Going by the word of the late Miller historian Mark Dees, the Shreve came out of the V16-powered car. But in old race-car fashion, it took a circuitous route to get there.
According to Dees, Harry Hartz bought the V16 car, shortened its wheelbase to
100 inches, and repowered it with one of the first Miller 255ci four-cylinders. This was no ordinary engine, even by Miller standards; after Miller’s 1933 bankruptcy, Fred Offenhauser bought the tooling and rights to produce the engine under his own name. The Offy, as it came to be known to legions of enthusiasts worldwide, went on to become the most successful engine design in circletrack history. Cars powered by the engine won Indy 27 times in the 38 events from 1935 to 1976! And Hartz’s car, the former V16 and future Shreve Special, was one of the first (if not the first) to bear that engine.
Also according to Dees, the car reappeared at Indy with the 255 in 1933, but a collision with Malcom Fox’s Studebaker at lap 132 killed driver Les Spangler and riding mechanic G.L. “Monk” Jordan. Ferner notes that the car rebounded in 1935, placing fourth at the Indy 500. The following year it placed sixth.
If we go by Dees’ account, the former V16 sold to Earl Haskell, who then sold it to Joel Thorne in 1936. Thorne was an interesting character; the heir to a vast fortune (Pullman
Company and Chase Bank), he fed a neverending adrenaline addiction with cars and planes. In fact, in 1955, he flew one of those planes into a North Hollywood apartment complex, killing himself and eight others as a result of what witnesses called stunt flying. But back in 1936, Thorne raced the former V16 car at the Vanderbilt Cup. And in 1937, he teamed with Art Sparks to run the car at that year’s Indy, one of the many attempts he made to win the event (he did, with Sparks, in 1946 with George Robson as driver).
We don’t know exactly when Thorne sold the car, but we know that it went to Thane and Norm Houser, the father-son team of drivers. This was a unique period in Indy history, as historian and restorer Jim Mann points out: “Several years after the war, they were actually short on cars,” he says. “There were a few years where guys made the race with something that wasn’t really competitive.” In this case, the old V16 car was a non-contender regardless of power; a 1938 rule change made riding mechanics optional, which made two-place cars like the former V16 car obsolete. Presumably, they were bucks-down because they powered the car with a Ford Flathead. Mann—and others familiar with the age—propose that taking even a non-contender to Indy was a pretext to party as insiders rather than mere spectators. “They were never going to outrun an Offy or anything,” he admits.
As the legend goes, the Houser boys sought sponsorship money from Indianapolis realtor Robert Allison and set out for the 1947 Indy 500. As expected, they didn’t perform well. In fact, they failed to qualify.
The Housers sold the car to Indianapolis police officer Ed Shreve. Say what you will about opportunistic “racers” of the period, but Shreve was dedicated enough to at least try to make the car competitive. Some accounts say he had the engine rebuilt with Grancor (Granatelli Brothers) speed equipment; others say Grancor built the engine. Shreve also had the chassis narrowed and replaced the quarter-elliptic rear suspension with radius rods and a transverse leaf spring (the front remained as Miller built it). He then hired Art Hoyt, father of driver Jerry Hoyt, to build a body just wide enough for a driver.
Shreve sought sponsorship from Ford dealer and Indy 500 track announcer George Hoster and had his name lettered on the car. Accounts of him running in
1949 vary, but we have proof that Shreve entered the car in the 1950 Indy 500 with one of Hoster’s employees, Mike Burch, as driver. Only Burch failed the physical exam and was disqualified. Billy Earl stepped in—more specifically, sat in—but failed to
achieve the speed necessary to qualify.
Disenchanted with his success—or lack thereof—Ed Shreve mothballed the car. Actually, we don’t know exactly what happened to the car at this point, as everyone associated with it from this period has died. What we do know is that the Shreve Special sat until about 25 years ago when the late Chuck Davis, a heavy-hitter in the Miller restoration world, bought the car from Gaslight Auto Parts’ Bob McConnell. As that legend has it, he’d found the cast-off V16 engine and Miller body, and he intended to put it all back together with the parts from the Shreve Special, which started out as the V16 car.
We know this for several reasons, among them the guy who told us about the playboy racers of the postwar period, Jim Mann.
“Jim Etter bought what was left of the [Shreve Special] car from Chuck Davis,” he recalls. “Jim asked me to make a roller out of the parts.” And by that point, all that was left of the Shreve was the body and front half of the frame. “Chuck intended to plate the frame and it was easier to just make new side rails than restore those.
“Jim also collected a bunch of other parts to complete the car, like a set of Rudge wheels and the Flathead with the speed parts,” he continues. Jim Mann, in turn, built the car back up by a collection of available (but non-Miller) parts. He also remembers the Shreve going as a roller to a Philadelphia buyer. It resurfaced at Indy historic events in the early 2000s as a runner. Then John Bianchi bought it in 2015.
Bianchi bought it as a means to connect with his heritage. “My dad was an openwheeled racer in the ’20s and ’30s,” Bianchi says. “The Indy 500 has always been part of our lives growing up. My brothers and I, we always watched the Indy cars—actually, before they televised it, we listened to it on the radio. It was just part of what we did.
“I always wanted an Indy car, but I never found anything,” he says. “Then I ran across this ad from Beverly Hills, Michigan. The guy’s name is John Thompson. I called him and we visited. I drove it around and liked what I saw, so we put a deal together.”
He then hired Marshall Woolery at Thun Field Rod & Custom in Tacoma, Washington, to give the car the once-over. Woolery tore the car down completely and freshened up and fixed the chassis and drivetrain. Bianchi took the car back to Indy in 2016 and 2017 and plans to return whenever possible to participate in the historic events on the race weekend.
Now, the really cool part: The photos of the car driving all over Seattle—those aren’t staged. Bianchi really does drive the car on the street. “It has a title and license and everything, so we can drive it,” he says. “I mean, why wouldn’t you?” Woolery asked. “It’s two framerails with a Flathead and a
’39 trans and a Banjo rear. It’s no different than any other traditional hot rod out there. It just happens to be an old Indy car.”
It’s all part of a bigger plan to make the car and Indy history more available to others who may never have any access otherwise. Sure, Bianchi and Woolery intend to outfit the car with the Miller pieces similar to the ones that it had in 1948. “The Miller people really are wonderfully generous with their offers to help find or reproduce those parts,” Bianchi notes.
“I just feel if you have something like that, you need to share it,” he continues. “In the car world, sharing usually means to let people look at it. But to people who seem OK to me, I don’t mind letting them drive it and get a feel for it. It’s a real rare feeling.” And he means it; in 2017, he rented the
5/8-mile oval at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Washington, and turned his family and friends loose on the track.
Sure, some cars survived more intact than the Miller V16/Shreve Special.
But few have played more roles in the Indy story than this car. But the fact that this car survived all these years lends credence to the notion that old race cars rarely ever die. In fact, the 1948 Shreve Special may be one of the finer examples of the idea.
01 02 0031 01] In any other circumstance, a Ford in a Miller, especially in a car that possibly debuted the engine that became the Offy, would be sacrilegious. This one displaces 274 ci (35⁄ 16- inch bore with a
02] There’s speculation that Grancor (the Granatelli brothers) built the engine that appeared in the car postwar. The Granatellis founded the company a few years earlier and had a reputation for horsepower, even early in their careers.
03] At one of the Vintage Indycar Meets, a spectator said he had the car’s tag from the event when Ed Shreve ran it. He sent it to John out of nothing but a desire to see the car made more complete.
01] The Shreve after having its chassis narrowed and body built. We’re not entirely sure, but the fella standing with the car may well be Art Hoyt, the one tasked with rebranding the car as the Shreve.