Myron Stevens

by Michael Ferner

Myron Stevens was a Californian, born in 1901, and began his career as a builder at the Harry Miller Manufacturing Co. in 1922, it is said. He soon became the head of the chassis and body department, and was in this capacity until he quit Miller in about 1927. So, to start off, he was deeply involved in the building of approximately half a dozen Miller 183, two dozen Miller 122, one dozen Miller FD and half a dozen Miller 91 cars, apart from a considerable number of Specials built at the Miller works in the twenties, such as the 1922 Milton, 1924 Hearne and 1925 Lockhart, to name just the most successful of those. To list all the successes achieved by these cars would fill quite a few pages, so I will not attempt that, suffice it to say that the chassis of the Indy 500 winners of 1923, 1926, 1928 and 1929 were built by Myron Stevens.

In 1927 Frank Lockhart hired Stevens to build the body of his sensational Land Speed Record “beach car”, and Myron left Miller to set up his own shop. The LSR project died with Lockhart in April of 1928, but Stevens’s business soon flourished and prospered, especially when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced a formula change for the 1930 “500’. A number of would-be owners turned to the racing shops in California and elsewhere to have their new Indy Cars built, as the traditional manufacturers of Indy iron (Duesenberg and Miller) were deep in limbo.

All in all, six of the 46 entries that year are usually credited to Myron Stevens, a remarkable output for a rookie constructor, especially when one considers that those six cars represented five very different designs. They were:
- #1 Sampson
- #5 Duesenberg
- #6 Duesenberg
- #16 Miller Hi-Speed => Miller-Schofield
- #23 (unnamed) => Bowes Seal Fast
- #24 (unnamed) => Jones & Maley

From those, the two Duesenberg entries stick out as being what was then called “semi-stock” racing cars, and in fact they were basically modified Model A Duesenbergs. The frames and bodies were said to have been built by “Stevens and Rigling in Indianapolis”, but in later years the same cars reappear at Indy and the chassis are sometimes given as “Duesenberg” – presumably the frames were stock Model A, modified by Stevens and Herman Rigling. Front axles were standard Model A, rear axles “Duesenberg racing type”, with engine, clutch and transmission modified from Duesenberg stock. Entrant in 1930 was Peter de Paolo, former Duesenberg star driver, and in later years it would often be Denny Duesenberg, Fred’s son. I think it’s fair to say that these cars were what they were called throughout their competition life: Duesenbergs.

The Sampson was the most spectacular of the other four cars, a 16-cylinder contraption by means of coupling two slightly bored-out Miller 91 engines on a common flywheel/clutch assembly. Gearbox and transmission were from Sampson’s Miller 91, but the rear axle and differential were a special job by the Sampson crew, led by chief mechanic Brett Riley, probably manufactured by Miller; the front axle being another Miller component. The frame rails look very Miller-ish, but may have been scratch built, as was the body. In view of the most singular mechanical specifications of the car I prefer to call it a Sampson/Miller.

The Miller Hi-Speed was a pure Miller product, built at the Miller Long Beach Avenue plant during the time Harry Miller was slowly disentangling himself from the company he had sold to the investors group “Schofield, Inc.” the year before. There was a near identical twin car to this, the #25 Miller Products (later Miller-Allen), the individual cars being distinguished by a slightly different radiator design. In later years, Bill White would sell one of the two only to buy the other one as a replacement, causing some nice confusion for historians to disentangle. Why one of the two cars is listed as a Stevens chassis and the other one as a Miller I don’t know. Perhaps the Schofield people were sourcing out some work, but their output in the two years of their control over “Harry A. Miller, Inc.” wasn’t particularly plentiful. Contemporary sources do not mention any involvement by Stevens or any other outside builder, so perhaps it’s just a mistake that has been continued ever since. In my humble opinion, both the cars should be called Miller.

The Bowes Seal Fast Special was a typical “stretch” job, a Miller 122 chassis and engine enlarged to meet the new rules. All mechanical components were modified Miller racing parts, and in fact the car appears in later records always as a Miller chassis. Since it’s a typical Special of the time, I propose to call it after the man responsible for its design and manufacture, Louis Schneider. Myron Stevens was certainly the craftsman behind the job, but since it isn’t a car built for sale to the public, but a special job on commission, I think it should be called a Schneider/Miller. Much the same goes for the Jones-Maley Special, a Miller FD chassis widened to accept a two-seater body, and a bored-out Miller 122 engine – mechanically it was still all Miller. In some sources the car is listed with a Duesenberg engine and some other Duesenberg hardware, but this is probably a mistake, or just possibly an original option that wasn’t followed up. Owned and financed by veteran driver Dave Evans, for me the car should be called an Evans/Miller.

In the 1930 Indy 500, Louis Schneider ran in the top 3 with his Special all day, finally finishing third, and with the money won (almost $7,000) went shopping for another Miller 122 to bring to Myron and his shop (the engine modification was done by himself, presumably – racing drivers in those days were mechanics before anything else!). The result was a twin to the other car, perhaps a bit more stylish, and Louis qualified faster than the year before, only the world had moved on and he was 22nd fastest instead of 6th! On race day, he slowly moved through the field and before long he was engaged in a terrific fight over 2nd place when a late race rash of accidents put him out in front to drive the fifth of Myron’s steeds into victory lane.

Right behind Schneider in the 1930 race came Louis Meyer in the Sampson/Miller 16-cylinder brute, and he also decided to invest some of his winnings in a car of his own. Stevens did another flawless job, building a rig quite similar to the Sampson, except that it had to house one of Harry Miller’s new 8-cylinder 3.8-litre engines. Again, the hardware was all Miller and the result a unique car, a Meyer/Miller for me – even if it was Myron Stevens himself who got the drive: he qualified faster than Schneider, but couldn’t quite break into the top ten in the race, and after Meyer had retired the Sampson he took over his own car, and charged through the field to finish fourth, again.

An entirely different project was the pair of cars Stevens built for Leon Duray and Cliff Durant, to house Duray’s excentric 16-cylinder two-stroke engines. Built around cheap Whippet and Ford components the cars were good looking, but nowhere near raceworthy. Duray would soon abandon the engines, and use Miller 4-cylinders in the old chassis to good effect.

A very popular form of racing at the time had developed around California’s Legion Ascot Speedway, and many fast single-seaters were needed for competition there, so Stevens never ceased to be busy. A number of famous cars is usually credited to him, including the 1931 Quinn, the 1932 White, the 1933 Marks and the most famous of all, the 1932 Sparks-Weirick “Poison Lil”, although the latter is not universally agreed upon, some claiming it to be a Clyde Adams fabrication. In truth, like with many other cars from the period, Stevens and Adams may both have had their hands in the job, and the same goes for the next couple of Indy Cars to appear with Stevens credits, the 1934 Louis Meyer “Ring Free” and the same vintage Sparks-Weirick “Abels & Fink” => “Gilmore”, the latter again often credited to Adams. With the source for Miller components now rapidly drying up, more and more Detroit hardware was finding its way into Indy Cars: the Meyer had a Ford front axle, and the Sparks-Weirick a Chrysler rear! Notwithstanding, the former scored Indy win number six for Stevens in 1936.

Before that, Myron had finished another couple of two-man cars, both to be driven by Wilbur Shaw: the 1935 Pirrung, a stunning front-drive Offenhauser-engined car that finished 2nd in its first race, and the following year Shaw’s famous “Pay Car”, obviously financed with the money won in ‘35 and two years later the seventh of Myron’s winners. Also in 1936, Stevens apparently helped build the Hartz Champ Car, a single-seater for the Vanderbilt Cup and mile dirt tracks. Most probably it was the work of Curly Wetteroth, but some sources insist on calling it a Stevens, so perhaps he was somehow involved. It became a winner on the championship trail after the relaxation of the “junk era” rules.

With the advent of the Grand Prix formula at Indy in 1938, Myron was busy again, producing no less than four new cars with family resemblance, yet distinguished specs. The most spectacular of the four was yet again to be driven by Louis Meyer, and he appears to have been the driving force behind the project, initially at least. Partners were to be Al Jones and Bob Bowes, but in the end Meyer and Jones bowed out, but Louis would still drive the car at Indy. The engine was a supercharged 3-liter straight eight and it, along with the chassis, were actually designed by Leo Goossen with input from Bud Winfield, the same as the later Novi V8 racing cars. For reasons of economy, the chassis was a rather crude affair, sprung on transverse leafs, but in later years this would prove rather advantageous when its new driver, Rex Mays used it to run the dirt miles with success. As for naming the beast, most sources today come up with the rather misleading Stevens/Winfield moniker – misleading because Winfield played a rather small role in the development of this car, and even more so because the later Novi was actually named Winfield in its pre-WW2 appearances. The 1938 “Bowes Seal Fast” was initially named a Meyer-Offy, but during most of its competition life it was simply called a Bowes, after the company which ran the car: Bowes Racing, Inc. After Bowes sold the car on in the late forties, the engine was refered to as Meyer-Offy, again. The Winfield tag appears to have been applied only retrospectively, and with no good reason at that. In his seminal book “The Miller Dynasty”, Mark Dees points out that “most historians refer to it [as] the Bowes engine”, and I would go along with that.

Another customer for a new chassis in 1938 was George Lyons of Illinois, who installed a bored-out Miller 122 engine (15 years after its introduction!) in a very conventional, almost outdated four-spring chassis. Lyons had been running the 1931 Schneider in previous years, and it is quite likely the engine already had a 500 win to its credits. Whatever, Stevens built an all-enveloping, streamlined body around the chassis but the car was not much of a success, even when run with an Offy in later years. At some point, it was converted to a dirt track car and even scored a National Championship race win after the war.

The third car was a replacement chassis for the 1931 Meyer and its straight 8 engine, now greatly modified by former Francis Quinn sidekick Dave Frank for Indiana car owner Murrell Belanger. Sadly, the interesting Frank engine grenaded in 1938 and failed to qualify the following year, so an Offy was installed and thusly it ran until the early fifties. Interestingly, this car, too, was a great performer on dirt and won several National Championship races as well as at least one Sprint Car race, admittedly on a mile circuit but still a rather astonishing feat for such a big car with “mixed” springing (two parallel leafs at the front and a single transverse one at the rear). The fourth car would probably have been another winner on the dirt miles had it not been destroyed in the terrible accident during the 1939 Indy 500, luckily ejecting its driver Bob Swanson before it burst into flames (Floyd Roberts, who piled into the wreckage, was less lucky and was killed). This car was built for Tony Gulotta from Kansas City, and had an Offy engine from the outset.

That year (1939) also saw another Sampson 16-cylinder creation appear at Indy, and according to some sources at least Myron Stevens was involved with it, too, although the extent of his involvement must have been rather small. The car sported an underslung aluminum box-section frame with parallel quarter-elliptic leaf springs at the front, and a parallel torsion bar-sprung de Dion rear axle – quite the rage! Designed by Leo Goossen with input from Brett Riley, this car would have been spectacular enough even without the fact that it used the engine from Frank Lockhart’s LSR “beach car”. Sadly, it was not a success, probably because it was too complicated, much like the contemporary Miller rear-engined 4wd machines.

Myron Stevens’s trail fades away a little bit after WW2, although he must’ve been involved in a number of new cars as well as rebuilds of earlier cars, and indications are his work featured in cars such as the 1947 Palmer (a rebuild of the 1936 Hartz), the 1948 Hall (a rebuild of the 1930 Miller-Schofield), the 1948 Nyquist (a rebuild of the 1936 Shaw) and a couple of Californian Sprint Cars. In 1952, however, he was fully credited again with the building of two Offy-powered Indy Cars, the Chapman and the Ansted. Both were beatifully made, but specifications are a bit hard to come by. From the looks, both would have to be tube-frame cars, and while the Chapman had a slim body, looking almost like a dirt car, it only ran at Indianapolis, finishing in all three starts, albeit never higher than 8th. The Ansted had a wider body with a distinctive waist line, and a slightly longer career, appearing at five consecutive 500s as well as three races on the Milwaukee pavement, but apart from a lucky pole position at Indy in 1955 and a pair of 10th place finishes it mainly collected retirements.

Last updated by Michael Ferner on 14 Dec 2009.

All text is copyright Michael Ferner 2009 - 2024.