Millers in Los Angeles


A visit to another time

Harry Miller was a remarkable American automotive engineer, probably the most inspired one this country ever saw. He was the father of many engines and race cars; most notably were his DOHC straight eights. His stepchildren included the Offenhauser 4 cylinder engine, used for some fifty years in dirt track racing and in Indianapolis. (Fred Offenhauser was his shop foreman and took over the shop after one of Miller’s bankrupcies.)

Miller had many race successes in his time, and won Indy in the late 1920’s - twice with front wheel drive cars. According to Griff Borgeson, two Millers were sent to the French Grand Prix in the late 1920s and were bought by Bugatti who copied their valve train as the basis of his type 51 DOHC cars. 

Millers are remarkable for their extreme beauty and craftsmanship. They are stunning cars, probably America’s most outstanding automotive product. Leo Goosen was Miller’s lead draftsman, and Goosen was another amazing individual, a senior guide in American auto engineering. He consulted for Ford well into the 1970’s, though his work for Miller ended around 1940.

Each year, old-timers gather in Milwaukee (birthplace of Harry Miller) to pay homage to Miller and his cars (The Harry Miller Society) the first weekend after the fourth of July. They drive their Millers around the track in this low key but amazing celebration. It was there I first met Borgeson and Jenkinson in years past. But this is a group that looks to the past - young ones, around 50-60, are appreciated, but definitely still too young to know about the real things of life,  Indy winners, and old race cars from the teens to post war. No rear-engine stuff.

The story below happened in the late 1970’s  when I was living in Los Angeles. I looked up some Miller and Offy people, and they steered me to a guy named Vince Conze, who was a master keeper of Miller things. He was an unusual man, and this is the story of a visit to see him, at his home in Watts, a very poor part of town. ______________________________________________________________________

The summer of 1979 was very hot. The day had begun to crest and it was becoming a cool summer night. This was Los Angeles as it used to be - a place of images, remembered in writing by Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and other moody writers. They were with me in this visit, back through time, to learn about Millers.

The expressway exit was simple enough, just as he had told me. He was willing to meet, but the conversation awkward. He wasn't angry - he just seemed removed. I'd asked when it would be convenient and he said come that afternoon, around dinner time.

I went by notes scribbled - a turn here, another there, and now deeper into a part of Los Angeles heard about, but never seen. I was in Watts, the heart of the ghetto. No one looked like me -  rather, I was the stranger. “Yo - what you want here?” were the calls. I just kept on driving.

It looked much like other ghettos but with the nice weather, here the poor people lived differently. They sat out on lawns in broken couches and played in the street. They watched the world, that little bit of it they could see from their lawn. Perhaps they wondered how they had missed it all, and where was whatever they wanted? Compared to Chicago or New York, Los Angeles looked more relaxed as the poor lived through the summer heat on the streeet. The heat was everywhere, from the air and up from the road. There was no generosity in Los Angeles - the heat made them all trapped people - stuck here.  And none too happy.

The white clapboard house was just up the road. The house was in no better shape than the others, maybe worse. Everyone on the street was watching me, and I did not belong. Very clear - but ignoring the looks, I walked to the front door quickly, before someone was fast enough to ask why I was there. Sometimes ideas take you to the strangest places. I wondered why was I there?

The house was plain, set back off the street, with an old tree in a dirt yard and old fencing. It was run down like others on the block although it was darker than most. The roof overhung the porch with windows set back like deep-set eyes, watching and wondering. It looked empty.

Vince Conze opened the door and told me to come on in. He was dressed in overalls and not much else. His black hair was cut in a crew cut, like from the Marines. He had on thick glasses with big black frames - awkwardly sitting on his face - in all, he looked like a grown up child - of some fifty or sixty years old. He kept looked around in an awkward sort of way as if he was wondering what was going on. Sometimes you'd think he was aware of you but other times you weren't so sure.

Still, he was friendly enough. The house was full of debris - old popcorn bags, TV dinners, magazines - almost more full of stuff than room to breathe.  Once inside he cleared off an area for us to sit on some old furniture covered with worn out brown cloth, torn and with big dirty spots. The room was a bachelor-sort of place, with pinups and girlie pictures on the walls, big posters from the fifties, old TV dinners scattered about and mostly eaten. I don't think the room had been cleaned in many years. The posters on the wall were sort of old but had colors like family photographs from the Jane Russell era. The colors were nice, with red suits, blue skies, people on a beach with water in the background. The bathing suits seemed out of vogue and the posters were not to my taste  even though he introduced them as his friends.

But that’s not why I was there. For there were other things there as well. Stuff lying around. Stuf in drawers, in boxes, just all over the place. Looking past the TV dinners, I could see that set in the corners were some big wooden orange crates, not for flowers, or prety things, but with old camshafts just sticking up. There were some twenty or thirty of them in each box and they were clean enough to be stored here and there. And they looked like flowers in a vase. Maybe they were to him.

I wasn’t too sure where to start - so we chatted about things - this and that. I told him who had sent me and this seemed to put him at ease. Yes, he'd built a motor for that guy and it had run well. In fact, he'd done a few engines for him and the engines always seemed to do well in his cars. Vince felt good about this and these thoughts made him happy. You could see a smile on his face, like a kid with good news. It was OK now.

We talked about the history of these motors and what he knew of Fred Offenhauser and Harry Miller and the racing crowd in the twenties and thirties. Los Angeles had been a hot town in those days and he told me how he got into all this. He mentioned he had been doing it all his life and that he knew about all of  them. He told me some stories, but nothing too much, and referred to the machine shop in the back so many times that we both knew we'd end up back there. Somehow, I couldn't help wonder if he really knew what he was talking about or if I was being taken for the ride of my life. This feeling wouldn't go away the entire time I was there.

We wandered from room to room as he showed me around. All were filthy, some were for living and had clothes strewn around, as if some teenager was still there. Vince lived alone. Some of the rooms had parts, any part you wanted, as long as it was Miller related, and was part of that era. Sure, he had some Offenhauser stuff, but that was from the later years. First Miller, then his bankrupt years as Rellimah (Miller spelt backwards). Then when Miller again went bankrupt, he sold the business to Offenhauser, his shop foreman. It was those Millers at the core of things – straight eights, front wheel drive cars winning Indy in the late 1920’s. Overhead camshafts copied by Bugatti for the type 51, and finally 4 cylinder turbo Offy engines, dominating Indy racing until the Cosworths in the 1970’s. A fifty year run of dominance – pretty impressive stuff.

These Miller and Offy parts lying around must have been valuable and I started to wonder if Vince knew what he had. Maybe this was the treasure trove and I had tumbled onto it. Maybe it was just there for the asking, and all I had to do was reach for it. I mentioned that this was all interesting and I'd like to see more of the things he had laying around. He laughed and agreed it was pretty neat. I gently said again that I'd be interested in some of these things and he laughed again. I was beginning to wonder who was leading who around here.

We went through the kitchen to the back yard, and went down the steps. The yard was big with trees in the middle and with a series of open shelters in the back and long workbenches underneath. There was a shop locked up in the far back, and Vince mentioned that his brother came to work with him there in the daytime. We wandered around, and he showed me bits and pieces - more camshafts, engine blocks, and crankshafts. He showed me how the engines were put together - unlike today's engines, these were built up in parts, and at the magic moment you put two big assemblies together, covered up the outside with the special panels, and were done. At least, that's what the idea was. He then showed me all the special things you had to know and do to make it really work. No one had ever talked about that before. These pieces were designed to be interchangeable and modular, but because the tolerances were not so tight back then, all the fitting was really custom.

We went over the histories within the Miller family tree. He told me which engines  were the smaller ones, which were the larger or more robust and which he thought were the more elegant. Some of the designs had turned out better than others but this was no one's fault. It just was the way things were. Vince spoke of these changes like he'd talk of his family. It was no reason not to love anyone of them, they were just different, that's all. He talked of the owners of the engines, because depending on who had the engine it would either be in good shape or not - pedigree mattered.

As we got closer to the machine shop, I asked him what he worked on and got his usual answer, " a bit of this and that". Whatever showed up. Whoever needed some help. He showed me this bit of welding and that bit of machining. We came across some very big brake drums, something that looked a bit special. He asked me if I knew what they were (which I didn't) and then told me they were needed for the Concorde airplane. Something had gone wrong and they needed some special machining to make it work. I began to wonder what he didn't know.

Going back to the house, we stopped by a garden faucet for a drink of water. This simple pipe was from the older days and rose straight up from the ground and was topped with an older brass spout to turn on and take a drink of water in your hands or bend down to drink from. The ground around the spigot was wet but nearby the grass had welcomed the water. The spigot had the signs of being well used over time - the brass was worn and shiny where hands had touched it. You wanted to take a drink and join the others over the years who had been drinking here.

Vince talked about the work of Leo Goosen, a long associate of Harry Miller. He told me of Goosen's beautiful drafting work for Miller in the thirties and some stories of how Goosen had solved problems that others could not, even up into the 1960's. We went back into the house and he pulled out a drawer full of large sheets of vellum drawings, all done by Goosen. There must have been thirty or more sheets of original pencil drawings, full sized, and other engineering types. I had never seen such a treasure and was shocked to find it there. I asked after these drawings, and Vince told me these were part of his friends there and would stay with him. I asked if he know what they were worth and he laughed again, saying that people had offered him money for them in the past. But then again, what did he need money for? I began to understand.

Finally, I asked him about the house and why he lived in the midst of Watts. He left and came back to the room with a small photograph. The black and white image was about 3 inches square  with wear and creases. It had been taken many years ago. He told me that his Pappy had built the house in 1921 (I think), and that the family had moved out to Los Angeles then. The photo was of the house in the middle of a vast plain with a few trees and nothing else. This was an image of a house in Kansas, in Nebraska, maybe Indiana, but never Los Angeles.

Vince came from another time. Watts didn't exist then. Crime and race were not the issues of his world. He had lived in this house his entire life and maybe he had never left it. He told me of his “friends of color” on the street (Watts was all black then, and he must have been the only white guy within miles). He didn't bother them and they didn't bother him. He just lived there and went about his business. Time had passed him by as he lived in its midst.

Over the years, the memory of this visit has stayed with me. Its been hard to determine what about his world and his life meant the most to me at that time. He had so little and lived like a child in a man's world. He knew nothing of the world I knew and yet his world was so rich. He had so much and so many things he loved very dearly. This he did without the help of anyone. He may have wished for more at one time but who amongst us does not? He may have settled for what he could have and been satisfied with that. He treasured the things he loved and took care of those things he thought were valuable. Later, these things would end up in more treasured hands and be carefully cherished and preserved but it is because of the love of people like Vince that these things were kept safe for the first thirty or fifty years of their lives when most people  would have tossed them away.

A simple perhaps, but he knew what to save and value. The house was both bewildering and reassuring, for within some simple limits, Vince had found what was important. Embracing it fully, he wrapped his life around the things he loved. Such care comes in the strangest places.

(remembered in 1995)

added 9.09: two drawings from the old Cunninghma Museum in LA from John Burgess. One of a straight eight Miller, in the mid 1930’s, drawn by Goosen. The other of an old race car body.


a Miller straight 8 DOHC with blower