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THE TRUISM “racing improves the breed” was more than justified by Frank Kurtis and his sports cars. Indeed, Frank first displayed his expertise fabricating bodies for race cars in the midget class fielded by enthusiast (and Los Angeles TV pioneer) Don Lee. In the late 1930s, Kurtis began building chassis for midget race cars at his Kurtis Kraft shop in Glendale, California. In time, 120 Kurtis Kraft roadsters dominated the post-war grid at the Indianapolis 500, five of them the winning cars in 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1955.
R&T had it right in its headline in April 1953, “The Sports Car with the Speedway Look.” The chassis of the Kurtis sports car was a widened version of the Indy roadster’s channel and tube design. Suspension also paid homage to the Speedway in being basic indeed: solid axles, torsion-bar suspended, and located by trailing arms in front, leading arms at the rear.
Of this seemingly antediluvian layout, R&T observes, “After many years of experimental work on ‘fancy’ suspensions, Frank Kurtis feels that for most competition work you can’t beat the high roll center advantage of solid axles front and rear.”
Efficacy of this Indy-roadster-turned-sports-car was displayed first time out: Bill Stroppe (later a Ford racing legend) employed the Kurtis’s impressive acceleration to best the competition at Gardena’s Carrell Speedway.
In October 1953, R&T had a Kurtis-Hornet Roadster road test as well as a feature on another aspect of the Kurtis Kraft business model: selling various kits of its 500 KK chassis. A basic chassis cost $399.00; suspension bits upped the tab another $391.20; steering gear (though not the column and wheel) added another $92.69. Ford spindles, hubs, drum brakes, and wheels cost $228.19; a rear end housing, $89.86; and a custom-built radiator and shocks, $89.06.
Total: $1290.00, to which you add the cost of powertrain, controls, seats, and some means of keeping the wind out. To put these 1953 prices in perspective, an Austin Healey 100 advertised (with no hyphen) in this same R&T listed for $2985 (in 2018 dollars, $27,941.28).
The Kurtis-Hornet Roadster road test listed a price, still omitting engine and gearbox, of $4986. As its name suggested, this particular car had involvement of a Hudson dealer. The car’s 308-cu.-in. inline-six Hornet’s relatively modest 160 hp combined with a 2560-lb. test weight (two testers aboard) to give what R&T termed a “boost in the back.” To wit, 0-60 mph acceleration in 7.7 seconds. (A typical car of the era took at least twice as long.)
“The very trite expression ‘corners as if on rails’ is the only way to describe how this car handles,” R&T said. “… the Kurtis neither oversteers nor understeers. It just goes around—easily, fast and flat!”
A 1954 Kurtis 500S sold for $112,750 at Gooding & Company’s 2011 Scottsdale auction. A beautiful example, the car came with a family story. Gooding & Company writes, “During the 1980s, Frank Kurtis and his son Arlen purchased a 500S chassis that was in need of total restoration and they embraced it as a family project.”
“When the reconstruction of the 500S was nearing completion,” Gooding & Company continues, “Arlen’s wife, sons, and grandson took part in the final assembly. Arlen noted that ‘this car probably has more Kurtis to it than any other 500S….’ ”
Frank Kurtis died, age 79, in 1987. Arlen used this 500S as his personal car until 2003. I trust its current owner savors the car’s rich heritage. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018