Sigur Whitaker on the Golden Submarine

(By Sigur Whitaker)
Barney Oldfield was one of the preeminent race car drivers of the early era in auto racing. He set many speed records ranging from one mile to 100 miles including a 100 mph record for one lap (2.5 miles) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  He was so renown that through the 1940s, if a person was stopped for speeding by a policeman, he was frequently asked, “Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?”
Harry Miller, the son of German immigrants, worked for several concerns including Ransom Old’s entry in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup entry before establishing a small engineering shop in Los Angeles specializing in carburetors. He soon expanded to building automobile pistons and fuel pumps. Southern California racers including Barney Oldfield and Bob Burman both used his shop to rebuild their automobile engines. Miller became the preeminent engine builder for race cars during the 1920s.
One of Barney’s friends and competitor, Bob Burman, also set many speed records. After Burman’s left tire exploded and his car rolled over killing him in April 1916 during the Corona road race, Barney approached Harry Miller to build him a revolutionary car.
Unlike the racers of the time, the car had a roof with an enclosed roll bar. It was Miller’s first attempt to build a race car. Constructed with aluminum, it had thin rectangular holes for the driver to look out. Its body and chassis were wind tunnel tested. The weight of the car at 1600 pounds was heavier than its competitors.
Because safety glass had not yet been invented, the small windows were covered by wire mesh to deflect stones and dirt clods. Oldfield claimed that he could smoke a cigar at 100 mph because there was so little wind inside the car. The golden color was achieved from a combination of bronze dust and lacquer. The car cost $15,000 to build which would be $343,000 in 2023.
The Golden Submarine was powered by a 289 cubic inch single-cam four-cylinder engine.  The engine, which was partly based upon Burman’s Peugeot engine, was the first that Miller designed.
The car’s first race was at the Chicago Board Speedway in June 1917 where Oldfield qualified for the pole position with a speed of 107.4 mph. The engine failed after 10 miles, but its average speed up to that point was 104 mph. The next week, Oldfield defeated Ralph DePalma driving a Packard three times on the Milwaukee dirt track. In the final of three races at Atlanta in July 1917, Oldfield nearly died when the car lost a wheel and plunged into a pond. He was trying to catch DePalma in a ten-mile race who had a quarter-lap lead when the “Golden Submarine” lost its right front wheel at the southern turn. At the time, Oldfield was going an estimated 70 mph. Earlier in the day, Oldfield had established a southern dirt-track record for one mile at 50 seconds on the first laps of a 25 mile race with DePalma. The race was easily won by Oldfield. During 1917, the Golden Submarine raced thirty-five times and won seventeen times. Oldfield established multiple dirt-track speed records.
Racing resumed after the end of World War I. In the 1919 Indianapolis 500, Roscoe Sarles piloting the Golden Submarine started from the 19th position in the field of thirty-three with a qualifying speed of 97.7 mph. The race was a disappointment for both Sarles and Barney Oldfield who owned the car. It finished in last place after a rocker arm failed on the 9th lap. In 1919, The “Golden Submarine” competed in 19 races and scored three wins. After the 1919 season, the Golden Submarine was sold.
The car was destroyed when J. Allen Sloan’s barn in Joliet, Illinois, burned to the ground. There are replicas of the car including one built by Dan Webb and one built by Charles Glick for Dale Bell.
Mark your calendars for Tuesday, October 3, 2023. The Society of Automotive Historians’ Author’s Signing event will be held in conjunction with the AACA Library Yard Sale under the tents in AACA HQ & Library parking lot in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I will be participating in the SAH book signing from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. The AACA Library Yard sale is from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
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