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THE DEMISE OF classic front-engine Indy roadsters began in 1961 when Jack Brabham’s mid-engine Cooper-Climax broke their ubiquity with a 9th-place finish. Jim Clark’s 1965 win in his Lotus-Ford hastened matters. By 1969, the entire 33-car field was mid-engine.
A note of definition here: I’m choosing to call an engine behind the driver but ahead of the rear axle a mid engine. I’m reserving the term rear engine to describe one that’s aft of the rear axle. The Porsche 911, the original Volkswagen Beetle and the Tatra, for example, I’ll call rear-engine cars.
However, these two weren’t the first mid-engine Indy cars. I found one in the catalog for the Milhous Collection RM Auction in 2012. While researching this car, the 1949 Rounds Rocket, I came upon the first of this type to qualify at Indy, the Gulf-Miller a decade before.
Modern mid-engine race cars, Indy and Formula 1, pay homage of sorts to Britain’s post-World War II 500-cc Formula 3 cars. On the other hand, the Gulf-Miller and Rounds Rocket trace their heritage to Auto Union Grand Prix cars of the 1930s. Together with other Silberpfeil (Silver Arrow) entries from rival Mercedes-Benz, the Auto Unions dominated pre-war European racing.
An earlier mid-engine race car appeared at Indy but failed to qualify in 1937. Harry A. Miller, famed race car designer, was commissioned by Gulf Oil Company to build a trio of mid-engine cars for the 1938 Indy. These were innovative indeed, with all-wheel drive and inclined six-cylinder supercharged Miller power. Only one arrived at the oval, but not in time to qualify.
The mid-engine trio showed up again in 1939, when George Bailey qualified 6th of the 33 starters. His Gulf-Miller swallowed a valve after completing 47 of the 200 laps.
One of the Gulf-Millers emerged post-war at the 1946 Indy as the Tucker Torpedo Special. It qualified 24th and completed 27 laps before the gearbox failed. On the bright side, this failure didn’t lead Preston Tucker into controversy and indictment, as was the case with his 1948 road-going Torpedo (a rear-engine design).
The Rounds Rocket owes its genesis to Nathan Rounds, a California businessman, who commissioned race car constructor Lujie Lesovsky to do a mid-engine Indy car for 1949. Crucial to the tale is Nathan Rounds being acquainted with Howard Hughes (“a close friend,” Rounds said).
Evidently enamored of the Auto Union, Rounds sketched out an idea. Emil Diedt, a Californian renowned for his metalwork, built the body. Lesovsky did the rest of the engineering, including the car’s double-overhead-camshaft Meyer-Drake Offenhauser engine. Hughes likely provided the cash.
At the 1949 Indy, Bill Taylor, later to head up Mobil Oil’s racing program, drove the Rounds Rocket, but failed to qualify. On the other hand, his 124-mph laps weren’t terribly off the pace; the slowest qualifier ran 125.799 mph.
The Rounds Rocket’s chief claim to fame is a cameo appearance in the 1949 Mickey Rooney flick, The Big Wheel. After a 1950 attempt at the Indy starting grid, the car returned to California and was stored in the garage of Rounds’ mother.
The car resided there until 1969, then passed through the Harrah and Lee collections and reached the Milhous brothers in 1998.
It was lot no. 817 of an amazing 839 collectibles, including several already celebrated here at SimanaitisSays: “On Gravity Clocks,” “Cretors Popcorn and Peanut Wagons” and “Several More Milhous Treasures.”
The Rounds Rocket sold for $275,000, a modest investment for this significant bit of Indy 500 history—and a movie cameo too. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016