1937 Thorne-Sparks Big Six 1939/51 Race CarSOLD
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Estimate: $175,000-$225,000 US

Offered Without Reserve

270 cu. in. dual overhead camshaft inline six-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission, live axle front suspension with semi-elliptical leaf springs, live axle rear suspension with transverse leaf spring, hydraulically- actuated four-wheel drum brakes. Wheelbase: 108 ”

Art Sparks was a brilliant, if irascible, racer who drifted out of college and into racing by way of movie stunts, stunt driving and teaching machine shop practice at Glendale High School. This gave him access to a fully equipped shop where he could indulge his high performance concepts. Starting in the late twenties with a Model T-based special, Sparks raced in and around Southern California until a 1927 accident at Banning put him through the wall, into the hospital and out of driving.

Sparks turned his full attention to building and preparing cars primarily for the fantastically successful series at Ascot speedway in eastern Los Angeles sponsored by American Legion Post 127, known then and ever since as “ Legion Ascot. ” By 1930 he was a full time car owner and teamed up with Paul Weirick. The Sparks-Weirick partnership was the first dual-named Sparks partnership and it is a credit to Sparks that he recognized that his personality got in the way of his goals and that a complementary partner improved his odds of success.

Sparks-Weirick was certainly successful and the pair went from strength to strength, winning many races and making tens of thousands at Legion Ascot and other West Coast tracks. Their first car was powered by one of Harry Miller ’ s first 16-valve 200 cubic inch fours. They slipped it between the rails of a 4-wheel brake chassis with a slender body and chassis built by Clyde Adams and painted it Cerulean Blue, a color that would complement many subsequent Art Sparks race cars.

It was followed by the streamlined, wind tunnel tested “ Catfish ” for the 1932 Indy 500, a car that was more aerodynamically efficient than its name inferred. The driver “ Stubby ” Stublefield took “ Catfish ” to Muroc where it clocked 150 mph, earning Earl Gilmore ’ s sponsorship for Indy in 1932. The Stubby/Catfish combination qualified for the show at 118 mph, they started 25th and finished 14th.

Indy winner Fred Frame bought the Catfish and the Sparks-Weirick combination returned to the West Coast where Legion Ascot was paying big money. Now with Kelly Petillo in the Earl Gilmore “ Lionhead Special ” the team won the 1933 Pacific championships and made so much that they never even made the pilgrimage to the Speedway. Sparks then designed a new car, with Sparks-designed block, rods and running only two valves per cylinder in true hemispherical combustion chambers. It came to be known as “ Poison Lil ” and it became legendary.

Sparks and Weirick split up in early 1936 with Weirick getting the hard assets and Sparks a payment of $8,500. The split gave Sparks the resources to embark upon his best ever chance of winning the 500 because the Triple A for 1937 waived most of the “ junk formula ” limitations that had handcuffed racers during the mid-thirties. It was a wide-open formula that AAA hoped would induce manufacturers to descend upon Indianapolis with blown stock-block engines.

Instead it gave Art Sparks the wedge he had waited for to create a beautiful, smooth, sound and powerful 500- winner, a six-cylinder, dual overhead camshaft, 336.1 cubic inch, seven main bearing supercharged behemoth that no one could challenge, the Sparks “ Big Six. ”

Eighty-five hundred bucks, even in the middle of the Great Depression, wasn ’ t enough to get it done, but Sparks mortgaged everything and surmised later that his banker, who stepped into the breach at one crucial point, made a loan with personal funds without risking the bank ’ s capital. The conception, gestation, birth and realization of the “ Big Six ” belonged solely to Art Sparks. It was his masterpiece. A one off, unique creation the “ Big Six ” has assumed the mythical status it deserves.

Sparks gave it seven main bearings with the caps bolted directly to the unit cylinder head/cylinder block for rigidity. He went with a two-valve design allowing him to use a true hemispherical combustion chamber. The centrifugal supercharger was driven at five and one-half times crank speed by a planetary gearset and had its own oil supply and pump to cope with the 38,000 rpm speed. The seven inch diameter impeller was a new design, as was the spiral volute diffuser, the first time it was employed in a racing car blower, suggested by Dr. Elliott Reid of Stanford, the aerodynamicist behind the design of the “ Catfish ” body.

The detail design and drafting work was farmed out to the recognized expert, Leo Goossen, and Fred Offenhauser ’ s shop did much of the machining. Clyde Adams again built the frame and formed the body. Many of the housings and covers were cast in magnesium for extreme lightness. Sparks employed Jimmy Snyder to drive and Takeo Hirashima to ride as mechanic.

Rushed to completion in time to haul to Indianapolis for May, the Big Six had never run on a dyno. Sparks and Goossen reckoned it was good for 450 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and something like 550 lb-ft torque at 4,000. Its first laps were made after it arrived at the Speedway and even at part throttle coming off the fourth turn Art Sparks noted, “ There was so much torque I could see little puffs of smoke from the rear tires when Jimmy stood on the gas coming off the turn. ”

On the first day of qualifying Bill Cummings took the pole at an average of 123.455. Snyder posted a single lap speed in testing that day at 128.570 but then the supercharger thrust bearings started to go and it took a rework of the blower to increase clearances and the addition of a supercharger lube oil cooler to get the Big Six back in action, missing its qualification attempt on pole day. On his first attempt, the last day of qualifying, Snyder was clocked at an astounding 130.494 mph, 5 mph faster than anyone had ever gone before. Snyder finally put the Big Six into the show with a four-lap average of 125.287, a new track record.

At the start of the race the Big Six blew by the competition like it was standing still. Having started in 19th position in the 7th row, he took the lead after just three laps. Snyder was lapping cars so fast that soon all but the top five were a lap or more down. The Big Six ’ s brilliant run ended on lap 27 when Snyder pulled it into the pits. The valve springs – stock Buick springs which Sparks had judged more than strong enough – had broken. Not just one or two, but all of them.

The retirement left Sparks in sad financial shape. He owed money everywhere and was mortgaged to the hilt. He and mechanics Otto Wolfer and Tak Hirashima rushed to get the Big Six running again so it could generate some income by racing or selling it outright. In the midst of their preparations Joel Thorne drove up and offered to buy it.

Thorne ’ s father was certifiably rich, in the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller sense of the word. He died when Joel was only ten, leaving a fortune estimated at $38 million to Joel, all in a carefully set up trust administered by Thorne senior ’ s bank. Joel Thorne was the epitome of the term playboy and worked seriously at spending every dollar that the trust administrators gave him, usually on fast boats, faster cars and women who fit the same description. In addition to his own entry in the 1937 Indy 500 he had three other cars that made the show. Now he wanted the Big Six, presumably to race in the Vanderbilt Cup. Sparks quoted $12,000 and stipulated cash because of Thorne ’ s reputation for writing checks in anticipation of disbursements from his trust. Thorne returned with a cashier ’ s check and a lifetime employment contract for Sparks to run Thorne Engineering, Inc., a company to build race cars and engines which Thorne would fund with $300,000, backed up by a letter of credit. Sparks signed, beginning a period of employment fraught with problems dealing with the mercurial Thorne and giving the Big Six the retrospective name of Thorne-Sparks.

The AAA Contest Board ’ s decision to cut engine displacement for 1938 to 183 cubic inches (3 liters) for supercharged engines and 274 cubic inches (4 1/2 liters) for unblown engines rendered the Big Six engine instantly obsolete. The Big Six car was set aside while Thorne Engineering concentrated on building the two Thorne-Sparks “ Little Six ” race cars for 1938. The Big Six car was again back at the Speedway in 1939 with Joel Thorne as the driver. The engine was downsized to 272 cubic inches and equipped with Winfield carburetors. Thorne started 20th and finished 7th. In 1940, Joel Thorne again made the race starting 10th and finished a credible 5th, proving his skills as a driver. In 1941 Joel Thorne qualified at 121.163 mph. On the 5th lap Thorne, trying to avoid Tomei and Andres who had collided, hit the wall and wrecked the car. He had started 23rd and finished 31st. In 1946 Thorne again intended to drive the Big Six but broke his leg in a motorcycle accident and put the car in the hands of German star driver Rudolph Caracciola. A Mercedes-Benz W165 1 1/2 liter supercharged GP car had been entered for Caracciola in the 500 but couldn ’ t clear customs in time to make the race. The Caracciola driven Big Six practiced at over 118 mph but a crash – reportedly when the driver was struck by a bird – injured Caracciola and damaged the Big Six sufficiently so that it couldn ’ t quality. Thorne remained in Indianapolis and took the wrecked car to Joe Silnes race car shop that was located in a garage behind the Silnas home. Thorne lived with the Silnas family and handled the mechanical repairs himself while Joe rebuilt the chassis and body.

The Big Six attempted to qualify for the 500 five more times, in 1947 with Tony Bettenhausen and in 1948-51 with Joel Thorne, but each time didn ’ t make the show. In 1951 Thorne took it to Pike ’ s Peak for the hillclimb but withdrew after two practice runs. After the second run Thorne is quoted as saying to a crew member “ load it on the trailer, I want to live! ” A similar non-start trip was made to Sacramento for a 100 mile race on the dirt in October.

Thorne now decided to use the Big Six as the basis for an entry in the Carrera Panamerica, the Mexican Road Race. He hired “ Sonny ” Bohman, the son of Bohman & Schwartz founder Christian Bohman, to build the car, essentially a bloated oversized Indy-style roadster with two seats and a 50-gallon fuel tank. Thorne entered the car for the 1953 race but a rekindled interest in boat racing may have displaced his interest in the Carerra. The car was still unfinished when Thorne died in a plane crash in 1955. Bohman sold it four weeks later to an unknown party in return for covering Thorne ’ s unpaid bill of $600. Its subsequent history isn ’ t known until Dan Lang of Racine, Wisconsin purchased the still incomplete project.

David Uihlein purchased the Big Six from Lang in 1972 and turned it over to Joe Silnas, the same well-known racing fabricator and bodybuilder who had repaired it for Thorne in 1946. They identified the running gear, wheels, axles, brakes, springs, steering, engine, gearbox, the front section of the frame and the seat as original Big Six components. The unfinished Bohman built rear frame section and body were sold to Tom Dunham. After inspecting the condition of the front surviving front section of the frame, Silnas reported that repairing and restoring these old parts to the original design would be far more difficult and time consuming than just making a new set of rails. So Silnas built new frame rails, fitted the original Big Six chassis and running gear parts to them and built a new body in the style of the 1939 Indy appearance but as a single-seater.

Also in the Uihlein Collection were a number of spare Big Six parts that he had acquired from Tony Henkels. Henkels had worked with Sparks and saved the 270 cubic inch block, crankcase, crankshaft, exhaust header and a magnesium cased gearbox as Sparks was about to scrap them in the early 60s. Ron Hoettels used the ex- Henkels spare 270 block in rebuilding the Big Six engine using an early Hilborn-Travers fuel injection system used at Indy in 1949. It has lever-operated four-wheel hydraulic brakes and a three-speed with reverse gearbox to facilitate its use on road racing circuits with hydraulic shocks at the rear and friction shocks at the front. The transverse leaf sprung rear axle has a quick-change center section.

As one of the few surviving racing cars built by one of the authentically creative talents of the thirties, Art Sparks, the Thorne-Sparks Big Six is certain to be the center of attention at any gathering of racing machinery. It stands out, by its beauty, design and history, and also by its 6-cylinder configuration. It comes from the most important collection of American racing cars, the David Uihlein Collection, a pioneer in finding, preserving, rebuilding and displaying the great racing automobiles that built America ’ s racing tradition.

Please note that this vehicle is a race car and therefore offered on a Bill of Sale

Reference Number 11658

as of 7/25/2007

Car 1937 Thorne-Sparks Big Six 1939/51 Race Car
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