At first glance, the engine looks like one of the Offenhausers that dominated midget racing from the 1930s to the 1960s.
I walk around the inline-four, observing its profile—a pair of slim, cylindrical cam covers balanced on top of a tall, narrow crankcase. Closer inspection reveals that it’s not an Offy at all. On the contrary, it’s a slick, remarkably clever motor that woulda, coulda, shoulda replaced the American four-cylinder if World War II hadn’t come along at just the wrong time.
“It was supposed to be the next-generation midget engine,” says Gary Schroeder, who owns the motor.
“The Offy has two valves per cylinder and three main bearings. This has four valves per cylinder and five main bearings. It has a main-cap-style crankcase instead of a barrel crankcase. The cams are lubricated with pressurized oil instead of spreading the black stuff with a scavenge pump—which was a known shortcoming of the Offy. The engine even has insert bearings (instead of Babbitt bearings), which was really unusual back in 1939.”
Schroeder retired a few years ago, after decades of machining bulletproof steering boxes, torsion bars, springs, and a host of other race-car components at various shops in Burbank, California. He also enjoyed a long career as a midget driver here in the states and in New Zealand. And as the son of Gordon Schroeder, he’s a member of American circle-track royalty.
Gordon Schroeder was a young draftsman and would-be race-car builder who made his first foray to the Indianapolis 500 in 1938 to help driving legend Ted Horn. Soon thereafter, he joined crack crew-chief Riley Brett in an effort funded by wealthy sportsman Alden Sampson to escape from the long shadow cast by Harry A. Miller.
Miller was the foundational genius of American racing, and the magnificent cars he designed and built in the 1920s set standards that beggar belief even today, a century later.
Miller was a maverick, but he wasn’t a one-man band. His empire was based on a triumvirate, whose other members were almost as influential as he was. While Miller was the protean big-picture man, mild-mannered engineer Leo Goossen put Miller’s ideas onto paper and virtuoso machinist Fred Offenhauser transformed the drawings into metal masterpieces.
After the stock market crash of 1929, racers could no longer afford Miller’s jewel-like straight-eight engines. Offenhauser struck out on his own to build automobile versions of the robust four-banger that Miller had developed for boat racing. This so-called Offy quickly emerged as the 800-pound gorilla of American motorsports.