The Cu­ri­ous Ac­count of the Shreve Special

The Cu­ri­ous Ac­count of the Shreve Special, One of the Quirki­est—and Most Sto­ried—Indy Road­sters Ever

Hot Rod - - Contents - Chris Shel­ton Chris Shel­ton and John Bianchi

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

4-inch stroke).

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.

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