The Ford V8-60 engine holds a special place in the history midget auto racing. Known as the "poor man's offy', the V8-60 offered a reliable power plant for cash-strapped young men with a passion to race. Ironically, the small size that made it ideal for midgets doomed the V8-60 as a passenger car engine and it was discontinued after only a few years. Still, V8-60s were in competition from 1937 until the 1950's. Read on to learn more about this "little engine that could".
There was a time before and shortly after WWII when
otherwise sane Americans were caught up in a new kind of auto racing known as
the Midgets. In the 1930’s and 1940’s
these small cars, modeled after their larger cousins at Indianapolis, raced on
tracks in football and baseball stadiums, at county fairs, on quarter-mile
ovals specially build for them, even on rough tracks carved out of cornfields
by road graders. In California, the Northeast
Racing historian Gordon White aptly describes the appeal of
the midgets in his book, Offenhauser, “At their best, the midgets were gleaming little cars that raced under
the lights on tracks small enough that they were almost in the laps of the
spectators. They snarled and roared in a wheel-to-wheel brand of racing more
closely competitive that that usually seen anywhere else, even at Indianapolis
The first midgets were homemade by adventurous young men who
were long on innovation but short on cash. In the early days of midget racing,
dozens of different engines were used. Only a few American passenger car
engines would meet the displacement limits of 100 to 140 cubic inches set by
most racing groups.
crowds up to 18,000 paid 50 cents each at the bottom of the Depression to see
the midget races weekly. As a money-making show, the earliest midgets had one
drawback: most of them were built by backyard mechanics using cast-off junkyard
engines that would frequently snort, stall or catch fire, slowing the
The first Offy-powered car, called the "MIghty Midget" was a sensation in 1934 shown here with Curly Mills who my dad called one of the great drivers he ever saw. Curly won 16 feature races in 1934. Note, this is a contemporary clipping from about 1935. Mills died Christmas Eve 1936 of injuries received in a midget race in New York City four months earlier.
Pictured left are Wally Zale in the foreground and Art Hartsfeld in competition at the 1/5 mile indoor track at the Michigan State Fair Coliseum. Photo by Al (Ace) Blixt.
For several years, Offys had no
competition and swept race after race. For many racers, the state of the art
Offenhauser engine was financially prohibitive and while several alternatives
existed, such as the Evinrude Elto, few were competitive. This photo shows Ray Stauffer in an outboard-powered car in 1938. Outboards were powerful and very, very loud. This water-cooled 59.4-cubic-inch 2-cycle rotary
valve opposed 4-cylinder engine could put out 85 H.P. at 8,500 r.p.m. on a
mixture of 82% methanol, 10% toluene (or Benzol), and 8% castor oil. Unless run at very high rpm, however, the engines tended to foul. Thus,a few caution flag laps run at slow speeds could seriously handicap the outboard. Also, their smoky exhaust made them very unpopular at indoor events. Still, the best drivers, like Stauffer, managed to be competitive through sheer skill and guts. Photo by Al (Ace) Blixt
In 1937, good news arrived from Ford Motor
Company in the form of a new 136 cubic inch, 60 horsepower V8 engine. Designed
as a more economical alternative to the larger 85 horsepower flathead V8, the
V8-60 also represented the first production-based engine to seriously challenge
the Offy’s supremacy.
Ford came out with the small V8 in 1937 to provide a more fuel efficient and less expensive option to the regular 85hp equipped cars and light commercial vehicles. Ford also built the 60hp engine for the European market with some modifications. The small engines were not well received by the car-buying public used to the performance of its bigger brother. The 1937 Ford Coupe at left certainly seems to be built for speed. 1940 was the final year for the 60hp since the new 90hp six cylinder engine would debut for 1941.
Al (Ace) Blixt shown here at left with fellow photographer Duke Pierce atop a hard-working V8-60 midget on a sunny 1938 Sunday in Toledo. The V8-60 was easy to spot because of the distinctive 17-bolt arrangement on the heads. Note the white pants, ties and two-tone shoes. The 30's certainly had class.
After World War II, midget racing took another turn with the introduction if the revolutionary Kurtis Kraft Midget chassis.Reflecting WWII aircraft technology, the tubular frame Kurtis Kraft and many advantages over the heavier conventional rail frame chassis. Thankfully, the simple, elegant, and effective
Midget chassis produced by the legendary Kurtis and his Kurtis-Kraft
operation could readily accommodate the width of the V8-60. Importantly, Kurtis
offered his Midget cars in both complete and kit form, depending upon customer
preference and finances. This combination was particularly effective in the
west-coast United Racing Association (URA) “Blue” Circuit, which was reserved for
The dominance of the Offenhauser brought a division in the
midget ranks between the haves and the have nots. There were many owners who
could not afford an Offy, and at the peak of midget popularity there were two
circuits operating in some areas, one for Offy’s and one for V8-60s and other
stock block engines.
On a few nights, with a little
help from adding nitro methane to the fuel, the best V8-60 drivers could best
the top Offy drivers, much to the delight of the crowd.
The bitterness between Offys and the Fords might be traced
to the short tracks and sprint length of most midget races. It was a closer,
more personal kind of racing, and pure aggressiveness, acceleration, and guts
were more important than at other levels of competition. Whatever the reason,
the midget crowd had the longest, loudest arguments in racing.