1937 Kurtis Tommy Lee Special

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Photo by Dean Batchelor, printed in Hop Up May 1952. Photo from the Kustomrama Photo Archive Collection
Tommy behind the steering wheel of his car.[1]
The Tommy Lee Special at Harper Dry Lake in 1940. Photo by Lou Kaplan. [2]
Tommy at Harper Dry Lake, aka Bungholer City, in October of 1940. The fenders and bumpers were easily removable for high speed runs. Photo from the Ron Kellog Collection.
Photo from the Ron Kellog Collection.
The Offenhauser engine Meyer & Drake manufactured for the car. Photo from the Ron Kellog Collection.
A drawing of the Tommy Lee Special made by Geo Duvall Jr. Photo from the Ron Kellog Collection.
The 1937 Kurtis Tommy Lee Special as it sat when it was auctioned away in 2007.[3]
The Kurtis Tommy Lee Special as it sat in 2010 when it was auctioned away by Gooding Company at the 2010 Scottsdale Auction
The Tommy Lee Special at the 2010 Scottsdale Auction. The car sold for $ 285,500.[4]

The "1937 Kurtis Tommy Lee Special" was a handbuilt boattail roadster built by Frank Kurtis for Tommy Lee. The build was started in 1936, and prior to this, Kurtis had designed and built a 1934 LaSalle boattail roadster for Tommy's good friend Willet Brown. Tommy liked Willet's car, and he wanted Frank to build him a just as nice, or even nicer car. Frank had also built three midget racers for Tommy, and it was through these that Tommy had been introduced to the California racing fraternity and the hot rodding community. Tommy envisioned his new car as a streetable race car, or an extremly sophisticated hot rod for the dry lakes. A car that would make him proud against the four-port Rileys and hot Fords that the kids in the Eastern parts of Los Angeles were building. So he asked Frank to build him a car, the fastest-hottest-looking custom speedster possible. The Cord 810 had just come out, and Frank suggested that he would base the speedster's front on the new Cord. Tommy agreed, and a 1936 Ford frame and running gear was chosen as base for the build. The body was mostly hand-formed in aluminum, except for the doors that were made out of steel. The front fenders were taken from a Cord 810, and the rear fenders consisted of two Cord fenders welded together.[1] The Cord 810 inspired grille consisted of chromed grille bars that wrapped around each side. The veed windshield was hand-fabricated by George DuVall. The car had wind-up windows, but no top.[1] Inside, the speedster was fit with a dash panel with bronze casting filled with etched horizontal elements and seven custom-faced Stewart-Warner gauges. The steering wheel om the car was borrowed from a Cadillac.[3]

Frank suggested using a brand new hopped up flathead Cadillac V-8 engine as powerplant for the car, but Tommy told him that he wanted a true racing engine. He wanted a twin-cam Offenhauser engine like those used in midgets, just quite a bigger version.[1] By then, Meyer & Drake had bought Offenhauser Engine Company and taken over the production of the Offenhauser racing engines. Meyer & Drake made a new engine for the car that displaced 318 inches.[5] The engine had twin cams, and an estimated 300 horsepower. The engine was the largest Offenhauser engine ever built.[6] The engine was hooked to a LaSalle three-speed gearbox and a Columbia two-speed rear end. The car had lowering gearing for drag racing, and a tall ratio for high speed driving. The car featured Oldsmobile front and rear bumpers that were easily removed for high speed runs. The fenders were also easily attachable. The exhaust system consisted of four separate coiled pipes that eventually exited the engine bay and ran along the side of the car. A shorter competition exhaust could be easily adapted. Tommy primarily drove his car on the street, but he also took it to the dry lakes where it was clocked at 123 mph in street trim, and 130 mph without the fenders.[3]

The Tommy Lee Special was completed in 1937 for a reported cost of $25,000. A price that made it more expensive than most Duesenbergs at the time.[3] The car was fast, and good looking, but it was by no means the car of Tommy's dreams. As Kurtis advised, the Cadillac V-8 would have been a much better choice for the car. As it turned out, the rough racing engine was not well suited for the highway. In trials at the Muroc Dry Lake, it could not even keep up with the better Ford-powered hot rods of the day.[6] According to Tommy's later mechanic, Bud Stump, the body on the car felt flimpsy, and the four-banger Offy telegraphed every power stroke to the steering wheel and cockpit. The engine tended to rev up too high for the LaSalle three-speed transmission, and kept breaking gears. So Tommy, who about the same time discovered exotic coachbuilt European grand touring sport coupes and roadsters, decided to put the car into storage on the seventh floor of the downtown Cadillac garage.[1]

During the late 1940s, Tommy was involved in an accident that left him with spinal injuries, sever back pain, and many other ailments. He was on heavy medication but his ailment also left him with depression. On January 13th of 1950 (Friday the 13th), he leapt from the roof of the Pelissier Building in Los Angeles. He was 43 years old,[3] and left behind a 10 million dollar fortune, a huge automobile and aircraft collection, a radio station, and a television business. His uncle inherited most of the assets, but Willet Brown was able to secure all of the cars.[7]

The Kurtis Speedster was purchased by Mr. Mattison in the late 1950s. The car was without an engine and had been sitting in an Los Angeles wrecking yard. It would pass through several other owners, eventually becoming just a frame, running gear and body shell. Ownership later passed to Steve Alcala of El Segundo, California.[3] Steve who was a talented craftsman at California Metal Shaping Company used his skills and brought the body back to original condition. Steve dove headlong into the restoration and was determined to save as much of Frank Kurtis’ handiwork as possible – he even contacted Kurtis for advice on the project. After the bodywork had been painstakingly restored, Mr. Alcala purchased a 270 cubic inch Offy, which was rebuilt under the auspices of Offy guru,Joe Gemsa.[8]

Upon competition, the car was debuted at the 22nd Annual Le Cercle Concours d'Elegance in 1989. It later appeared at the 40th Annual Pebble Beach Concours in 1990. Since then it has competed at the Monterey Historics, and won major awards at Amelia Island, Castle Hill and Pebble Beach.[3]

In 2007 the Tommy Lee Special was sold at the Monterey Sports & Classic Car Auction presented by RM Auctions. The estimated value of the car was somewhere between $250,000 - $350,000. The bidding did not reach the estimated value, and the car was sold for $210,000 including buyer's premium.

January 22 - 23, 2010 the Kurtis Tommy Lee Special was sold at the 2010 Gooding & Company Scottsdale Auction. The estimated value of the car was listed as $250,000 - $350,000. The exact estimate that was used when it was sold in 2007.[8] The car sold for $ 285,500.[4]

Magazine Features

Hop Up May 1952



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