Collection Highlight: Everett Duncan Collection
Archive Volunteer, Au Nguyen
Long before 3D printers and maker culture, long before CAD software and CNC machines, long before the Internet makes everybody feel like they could build anything, master craftspeople were building race cars whose sinuous curves would be the envy of any maker fair today. And they did it with the simplest of tools.
World of Speed is proud to present a record of the life work of one such craftsman, Everett Duncan. With roots in the Pacific NW, Duncan went to work for famed race car builder Kurtis Kraft, of Glendale, CA in 1946. Here is the first race car that he helped build:
Later, in 1954 Duncan joined Quin Epperly, who pioneered the "laydown Offy" car design. This design mounts the four-cylinder Offenhauser engine inclined to the left for improved aerodynamics and weight distribution.
The tools of Duncan and his generation were basic by today’s standards. A recommendation letter from his former employer listed “electric power hammer, air plannishing hammer … versi-tapper … air tools such as air rivet squeezer, [and] do-all saw.”
Duncan's cars saw action all over the US, from the dirt ovals of Southern California to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Epperly-Offenhauser cars took 1st and 2nd at the 1958 Indy 500.
The Demler Special
Some of the cars that Duncan worked on have historical interest and value even many years later. The Demler Special is one such car.
This Offenhauser-engined Indy 500 race car was built in 1958 by Quin Epperly in California, with help from Duncan. It finished 2nd in its debut race in 1958, and was entered every year until 1962, even though it never did that well again. In 1966, it became one of the first turbine-engined cars at Indy. It was fast but declared unsafe allegedly because of inadequate brakes. In 1998, it was restored by Epperly, its original builder, then 85 years old, and Phil Reilly & Co., Inc. Auto Restoration.
In a letter glowing with appreciation, dated 5 December 1998, Reilly related the car’s renaissance to Duncan:
“Well, we had quite a year with your old car... We rebuilt the engine, which is a 255 Offie and is actually #188 which is the motor Norm Demler bought in March, 1958… It made about 450 horsepower on the dyno… and doesn’t even leak oil… We put a fuel cell inside your beautiful fuel tank but we didn’t cut it up or anything to do it, I promise! … We do run it on some modern tires because the old Firestones we have are pretty sad and not very safe. Other than that it is just like 1958. It even has the original upholstery!
… [We] shipped it to England for the Goodwood Festival of Speed… many think it is the premiere vintage car event in the world. Well the Demler Special absolutely stole the show. It was a huge success and the absolute star of the show.
After that we took it to the Monterey Historic Races. The car ran well and received an award for best restoration and performance. And best of all, it proved to be able turn right as well as left. A lot of sporty cars saw the backside of this old Indy roadster.
At the end of the year the CART organization along with Roger Penske invited several cars to Fontana for a demonstration at the season closer… We ran the car almost 170 miles – more than 80 laps [at an] 125 mph average speed, hitting more than 150 mph.”
The Munson ¾ midget racer
In many ways a typical gearhead, Everett had a fascination with all aspects of speed. His enthusiasm takes on many forms. Sometimes one of them leads to another.
One of his early possessions was a 1928 Indian Scout. Years later its engine found a second life as the power source for a ¾ midget racer that he built for Harry Munson, a commercial pilot by trade and amateur racer by choice. In exchange for the build, Duncan got flying lessons from Munson!
In the color photograph of the car at below right, note the cooling fins of the cylinder head, visible just behind the right front wheel. The motorcycle engine is now mounted longitudinally in the car chassis.
In a recommendation letter for Duncan, dated September 23, 1972, Munson wrote:
“Everett came to my home in North Hollywood, California and with the minimum amount of tools we managed to build a ¾ midget racing car.
This car stole the show when displayed in the Los Angeles Auto “Motorama” Show in 1953. We were given an award for craftsmanship for this machine.
I personally drove the car in midget races in Southern California and held second place when I quit driving. The workmanship of this car was of the highest quality.”
The Keck Streamliner
This is another Duncan car that lives on in racing history. Despite the name, this is an Indy 500 car with advanced streamlining, not a land speed record car. The car and team owner was Howard Keck. The intended driver was Bill Vukovich. It is also referred to as Vukovich Indy Streamliner.
The car’s designers, Jim Travers and Frank Coon,
“realized that the additional weight of a streamlined body on a standard Kurtis chassis would offset any gains streamlining might add… A completely new car was needed… [The scale models were] put through hours of tests in CalTec’s wind tunnel in 1954. The beautiful curvaceous body, built by master metal fabricator Quinn Epperly was the result.” Open Wheel magazine, June 1990.
Other photos of interest
As befits a life well-lived, Duncan appears to have had a hand in other colorful aspects of car culture as well as the aerospace industry, both staples of Southern California in the 50s and 60s. There are photographs of elegantly-dressed women, possibly movie stars, posing in and next to race cars, engineers in neck ties posing next to experimental aircrafts, and even a land speed record car, Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America.
And last but not least, there are pictures from his early life in Washington state, his wedding, his aircrafts and his later home in the dessert.