CONCORD, N.C. (Feb. 27, 2009) – The Golden Submarine was America’s most streamlined vehicle when introduced in 1917, and its smooth, air-friendly body would influence the design of modern planes, trains, and passenger cars. The April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair at Lowe’s Motor Speedway will feature a 21st century hot rod inspired by the pioneering race car during a special display of Breakthrough Designs.
Cars shaped like used bars of soap zip around NASCAR circuits today at speeds of 200 miles per hour, but in 1917 the science of aerodynamics was little understood, even in the fledgling field of aviation. Back then, race car builders used raw horsepower from engines with six, eight, and even 12 cylinders to propel the heavy beasts to ever-higher speeds.
Enter one Harry Miller, an early motorsports visionary whose ideas about internal combustion engines have earned him the label of “genius” from automotive historians. After setting up a very primitive machine shop in 1907 in Los Angeles, Miller set to work turning his ideas into hard parts. His invention of the Master carburetor two years later won the financing for a factory where he could concentrate on building truly revolutionary racing machinery.
In 1911, Miller attended the inaugural Indianapolis 500 and quickly became an indispensable part of the Indy racing crowd. While his reputation as an engine builder grew during the next few years, Miller earned the respect of legendary driver Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield – one of the sport’s earliest superstars.
Oldfield had gone through a succession of fast cars but there was always the need for greater speed to stay competitive – a goal Oldfield felt Miller could satisfy. The two discussed building a relatively light chassis of steel with a streamlined capsule of sheet aluminum arc-welded to a steel framework that would both protect the driver and cheat the wind. The engine would be an all-new four-cylinder Miller design sporting an exotic, high-revving valvetrain and a displacement of 289 cubic inches. It rode on a 104-inch wheelbase and weighed only 1,600 pounds, or 500 pounds less than today’s tiny Mazda Miata.
The price tag for this machine was a jaw-dropping $15,000 – about $240,000 in today’s money.
Miller’s crew went to work on the project in 1916, with the final coats of gold Duco lacquer (mixed with bronze dust to get a metallic effect) applied nearly a year later. Its unconventional styling and color immediately earned the car several nicknames, including “Golden Egg,” “Percolator,” and “U-Boat” (remember, this was during the First World War). Oldfield turned some impressive laps during practice for the Sub’s first race at the Maywood Board Speedway near Chicago, registering as high as 102 miles per hour, but the motor gave out only 10 laps into the event. His failure to beat rival Ralph DePalma’s massive V-12 Packard caused some critics to dub Miller’s new creation “Deviled Egg” and “Golden Lemon.”
But Oldfield and Miller were just getting the bugs worked out.
The Sub quickly hit its stride, winning four of six dirt track races in 1917 before officially breaking every international dirt track record under the watchful eye of American Automobile Association timers.
Oldfield and the Sub had a few accidents along the way to the history books, such as the time at a Springfield, Illinois, horse track that debris from a crash started a fire in the gas tank. Oldfield managed to escape without injury, and the Golden Submarine temporarily raced minus its egg-shaped body. Another incident toward the season’s end saw driver and car tumbling into an infield lake in Atlanta – again without injury or irreparable damage.
The Sub ran the 1918 race season minus the enclosing bodywork, enjoying minor success but few wins. At the age of 35, Oldfield had cheated death at the top of his sport long enough; he chose to hang up his driving gloves, sell the Sub, and invest his time and money in the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company.
Like most race cars out of their prime, the Golden Submarine became a hand-me-down property, eventually being destroyed by fire while stored in a Joliet, Illinois, barn in the early ‘30s.
In 2007, Michigan-based hot rod builder Dan Webb displayed a chassis at the Detroit Autorama that represented the first stage of a planned Golden Submarine tribute to be crafted with modern techniques and metallurgy. The engine was a lightweight Ford Racing Zetec ZX3 inline four-cylinder that runs on alcohol and produces 175 horsepower. Its wheels were custom-built wire Dayton rims measuring 18 inches in diameter on the front and 20 inches at the rear.
Webb’s Automotive Art then teamed with automotive illustrator Thom Taylor and metal craftsman Craig Naff to produce a 21st century body from sheets of 3003-grade aluminum. The only part of the car not metal or rubber is a vintage-style woven leather driver’s seat.
This rolling masterpiece, substantially lighter and lower than the original Golden Submarine, won Best of Show honors when it debuted at the 2008 SEMA show in Las Vegas. It will be introduced to the East Coast during a display at the Food Lion AutoFair April 2-5 along with several other Breakthrough Designs.
The spring Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a huge array of automotive parts and memorabilia.
More than 2,000 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Tickets are $10 for adults while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
Parking for the event is $5.
For more information, contact the Lowe’s Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.