Miller Indoor Auto
Burst of American thunder is different from any European thunder I’ve known. Not necessarily better, just different. It almost always arrives as a great jostling, exhilarating mass. Nine hours after a storm blasted me out of bed at 3am, I’m at Michigan International Speedway in the first Miller automobile to win the Indy 500, the 1923 HCS Special, with its straight-eight exhaust growling down the trembling pipe three inches below my right elbow and bouncing back off the straightaway wall. Thunder indeed.
The sound starts as a deep, throaty bark and builds with the revs to a ripping rumble that shreds the air, surges up your spine and squeezes you within your chest. And I’m thinking, if anyone or anything deserves the credit for giving America its own thunder, it must surely be Harry Arminius Miller and cars like the HCS Special.
You may not be familiar with Miller, or of a generation post-dating treaded racing tires.
But Harry Miller was American motor racing’s creative giant, and left an indelible imprint on the nation’s car culture. He was an artist and an artisan who believed the machinery inside should be as elegant as the shape outside; he was an innovator and a game-changer who pioneered technologies such as front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive in serious motor sport. He was also the first US designer to series-produce complete, bespoke racing cars; nothing on a Miller was converted road-car equipment, and virtually everything except the block casting and ignition was made in-house.
Harry Miller was in essence the North American Ettore Bugatti and Colin Chapman rolled into one – had any of their creations remained totally dominant for over half a century. A Miller engine first won the Indianapolis 500 in 1922, powering a Duesenberg, and last won it in 1976, in the form of the twin-cam four evolved by disciples Fred Offenhauser and Leo Goossen from a Miller marine engine, and they topped all but 12 of the runnings in-between. They also took all but ten of the American national championships during that timeframe too, and in both cases the bulk of missing wins were at the very end.
Two other Harrys, however, would figure prominently in the history of perhaps Miller’s most historic car. The first was Harry C Stutz, himself a figure of considerable fame for the Stutz cars he produced from 1912; by 1923 he had sold off and started a new venture branded with his initials, HCS. Stutz knew well the promotional benefits of motor sport, having launched his 1911 prototype at the inaugural 500, and thinking to score HCS some reflected Indy glory, he went by Miller’s Los Angeles shop to see the newest model.
It was the Miller 122 and, by the standards of the age, it must have been sex on wheels. Designed specifically for the 2.0-liter, no-riding-mechanic formula debuting at Indy that year, the 122 pushed a mere 18in-wide body through the air, and thanks to Miller’s compulsive phobia of needless ballast it weighed a piddling 1350lb (612kg). It was slim, sleek and impeccably assembled; if a shaft passed through a hole on a Miller, both were machined to the same size and reamed and lapped until the fit was perfect.
Like the late examples of the preceding 183 – Millers of the period are named for their cubic-inch displacement – the 122 was a straight-eight twin-cam, but with two valves instead of four to give a hemispherical combustion chamber, and with a stronger, five-main bottom end for higher revs. Induction was through four of Miller’s own best-selling dual-throat updraft carbs and output was 120 horses, only five fewer than the 183, despite giving away a full liter.
In 1924 a Miller 122 would run 141mph at Muroc Dry Lake, a world record for its class. Furthermore, Tommy Milton, national champ for 1922 and the ’21 Indy winner, was so involved in the design that the 18in width was reportedly his hip measurement. Stutz agreed to sponsor two of the cars in the 500, with Milton as the lead driver, and called them the HCS Specials.
In the race itself the only real question was which Miller team – HCS or the eight-car Cliff Durant effort – would come home ahead. It turned out to be the HCS of Tommy Milton, who took pole at a track record 108mph and led 128 of the 200 laps. Besides being Harry Miller’s first Indy win as a constructor, it was the first single-seater 500 victory, the second win from pole (the first being the Miller-Duesie in 1922), and it made Tommy Milton the first two-time Indy champion. Millers filled six of the top ten places, won every race of the 1923 Championship and, to cap off a banner season, a 122 finished third in the Italian GP.
As for Milton’s HCS, well, it went the way of all race cars. Milton triumphed with it again in September, on dirt, but by the next season things had moved on. The car finished tenth at Indy in 1924 and 14th in ’25, both with journeyman Bob McDonogh driving, but later that year it was back in the Miller ’shop, where the third Harry entered its life. Col Harry Hooker was a West-Coast dirt-track entrant well known for his highly successful Model T-based ‘Hooker 99’ with Miller’s twin-cam conversion; when it crashed heavily in late ’25, he went to Miller asking about a chassis for his left-over engine and driveline. Miller said I’ve got precisely what you need, my boy, and quietly swapped Hooker’s bits into the Milton HCS.
Hooker campaigned the car so well through the ’20s and ’30s that the Hooker 99 became a legend in its own right, and when the family finally let it go in 1959 after his death much had been modified. Its exact HCS origins, never really publicized, were long forgotten. A succession of subsequent collectors were pleased to own it as the Hooker and, when Ted Thomas bought it in 1999, he was overjoyed.