Home >> Vintage Race Car of the Week: The Golden Submarine

Vintage Race Car of the Week: The Golden SubmarineBy Brian Lohnes Posted 04/14/09

Barney Oldfield was one of the first guys we profiled in our Gearhead Guys You Should Know series. He drove all kinds of neat stuff, but the car that most people remember him by was the Harry Miller built Golden Submarine.

During the late teens and early 1920s, racing was quite literally a deadly affair. It was not uncommon or unexpected to see at least one horrifying wreck and fatality for each racing event that was being held at a local fairground, horse track, or field. There are statistics that suggest at some times upwards of one in five men who raced frequently would be killed before their careers ended.

Automotive engineering genius and racing mavens Harry Miller and Oldfield had lost too many friends and acquaintances in racing accidents. The last straw came in 1916 when Oldfield’s friend Bob Burman was killed in a racing accident. Oldfield tasked Miller to build a car that was both faster than the competition and safer. With the Golden Submarine, he succeeded on both counts.

Race cars in those days were open. It kind of went without saying. There was no such thing as a race car with a roof, especially one that was made of metal. In seeing so many people killed by being thrown out of their cars only to be run over by someone else, Miller’s first order of business was to build something with a roof on it. The car was a sensation wherever it appeared because it was just so much different looking than any other car competing anywhere else in the world at that time.

The body was made of hand-formed aluminum and featured a series of small openings for the driver to see through. The body was a teardrop shape from the cowl back. Miller actually wind tunnel tested this car, and this was before 1920. This gives you some idea about how much more advanced he was with respect to his contemporaries.

Mechanically, the car was fairly similar to other cars of the era, sporting a 289ci four-banger that made about 140 hp. It had big, spoked, knock-off wheels, a steering ratio fit for a cruise ship, and buggy springs all around. The car’s golden color came from laquer mixed with bronze dust.

Despite those similarities, the car was a dominant force, winning 20 of the 54 events it competed in. It also compiled and additional two second place and two third place finishes.

Strangely, the car did not spark an immediate revolution to enclosed cars for racing, instead it retired and the old way continued on for decades, giving way for the most part to Miller’s vision of drivers protected by an outer structure and not subject to falling out of their cars or being run over by others.

Just admire the pictures of this thing. It’s a true work of engineering and competition art.

The Golden Submarine

The Golden Submarine

The Golden Submarine

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