Simanaitis Says

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THE KURTIS SPORTS CAR

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.

Frank Kurtis, born Frank Peter Kuretich, 1908–1987, American car designer, fabricator and builder. Elements of his Kurtis Kraft Indy roadster design led to road cars, the Kurtis sports car among them.

Frank’s post-war designs for road cars included the innovative three-wheeled Davis Divan, the Earl “Madman” Muntz’s Muntz Jet, and the subject here, the Kurtis sports car.

The first Kurtis sports car. This and the following two images from R&T, April 1953.

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.

Channel and tube chassis features tubular front axle with crossed torsion bars.

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.

An eclectic setting: Mercury-powered Kurtis passes supercharged MG on Carrell Speedway, as pictured in R&T, April 1953.

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.

“Frank Kurtis points out the special radiator…” This and the following images from R&T, October 1953.

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.)

“A steering ratio which required only 3.2 turns lock to lock was also a pleasure and did not prove tiring,” R&T reported.

“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!”

1954 Kurtis 500S. This and the following image from Gooding & Company catalog, Scottsdale auction, 2011.

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.”

A detail of the Kurtis trailing-arm solid-axle front suspension.

“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

Frank Kurtis, his Indy car, and his “Sports car with the Speedway Look.”

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

4 comments on “THE KURTIS SPORTS CAR

  1. Frank Barrett
    March 25, 2018

    Frank Kurtis was born in Crested Butte, Colorado. Not many people know that…

  2. simanaitissays
    March 25, 2018

    Researching something else entirely, I came upon this neat photo, added above, from Nick Georgano’s “The Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars 1885 to Present.”

  3. carmacarcounselor
    March 26, 2018

    Another Kurtis family project was displayed at Pebble Beach last summer. Frank Kurtis gave one of the cars that was to be the basis for the Muntz Jet, in pieces, to his son Arlen, who completed it in 1951. He sold the car in 1952 when he joined the Navy. Arlen’s wife and sister bought it back and gave it to him as a Christmas gift in 1990. He restored it, finishing the project in 2011, 60 years after first completing it.

  4. Dino Milic-Jakovlic
    May 29, 2018

    Being of Croatian origin and actually living here for short time (1913. – 1914.) Kurtis was completely unknown in Croatia until I started to publish some articles and make presentations a few years ago.

    With great pride I can tell that since last summer there is a small table about him on the house where he used to live. This year we’ll also open an info table on main road nearby and have second gathering and drive of classic, sports and American cars in memory of him. 🙂 He has also been added to forthcoming Croatian technical Encyclopaedia.

    A small tribute to a great man.

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