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Harry A. Miller

Harry A. Miller (1875-1943) was a highly successful designer and builder of racing engines and automobiles from the mid-1900s through the late 1930s. His designs were innovative, and his engineering features were widely copied. His engines, designed in supercharged form, developed power-to-displacement ratios that were unheard of at the time and led to a breed of racing engines (the Offenhausers) that dominated American championship racing for decades thereafter. Miller pioneered front-wheel drive, which was used in some racing cars and then in some passenger cars, notably the Cord. Given his leadership in American racing design, Miller was influential in American automobile history more widely defined, especially in the first quarter of the 1900s. His engineering innovations even influenced European design, notably Ettore Bugatti, a leading European builder of luxury and race cars.

Miller was born in 1875 in Menomine, WI, and grew up there. Mechanically inclined early on, he dropped out of school at 13 to take a job as a steam mechanic and finally left home at 17. He moved to Los Angeles, married, and worked as a bicycle mechanic; at 21, he made the high wage of $18 per week. In 1905, while working for the Pasadena Automobile Co., he built a rather primitive car of his own conception. He obtained patents on spark plugs, an engine design, and an improved carburetor. By 1913, with money from Peerless Motor Car Co., which bought out his spark plug patents, and money from a growing business manufacturing his patented carburetor, Miller was running the Master Carburetor Co. from a small factory in Los Angeles. In 1915, he moved to bigger quarters and renamed the firm the Harry A. Miller Mfg. Co., making carburetors, fuel pumps, and aluminum pistons for racing car owners. By the following year, he claimed that "Seventy-five percent of Speedway Cars [are] now Miller equipped."

Miller depended for his success on several key associates, particularly technician Frank Adamson and mechanical designer Leo Goossen. The Miller team's forte was not volume production but rather craftsmanship, careful attention to detail, and limited production to exacting standard--just those qualities needed for racing cars. Miller engines, cars, and other products were all hand-finished. Their sculptural and aesthetic beauty became a well-noted hallmark.

Miller sold the substantial part of his company in 1929. But he continued to work on numerous automotive projects, keeping up the Miller name. Miller went bankrupt in 1933, and his remaining assets, including drawings and patterns, were sold at auction. Associate Fred Offenhauser bought some of the machine tools and cooperated with the owners of the other pieces of the Miller business, eventually buying enough of the drawings, patent rights, and other assets to create the Offenhauser Engineering Co. By 1934, the dual-overhead-cam, four-cylinder racing engine developed originally by Miller and improved by Offenhauser and many of Miller's old team, including Goossen, was winning races--including Indianapolis.

Miller died in 1943, after an unpaid stint in 1939-40 as chief engineer for Preston Tucker, who sought to market the Tucker automobile in the late 1940s. Harry Miller personified an era of American technological ascendance in automobile design that was acknowledged worldwide--an era which stands in sharp contrast to the years of stagnation in U.S. automotive engineering the 1950s and 1960s.


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