A.J. Watson’s roadsters won America’s great race in 1959 and 1960 with the two chassis shown here. Photo from wikipedia.org
With the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 a mere two weeks away, we are reminded of the time when roadsters ruled the brickyard and 80 percent of the cars were built by five car builders in the Los Angeles area – all within 25 mile radius of each other. In 1958, all 33 cars in the field were built by these five southern California chassis builders.
One of the most historic roadsters from this era was the Cummins Diesel Kurtis Kraft entry in the 1950 Indy 500. Photo from wikipedia.org
There were other roadster chassis builders, most of which hailed from southern California during this time; Myron Stevens, Lou Moore, Jud Phillips, Bob Pankratz, Johnny Pawl, Lou Bromme, and the great Emil Diedt. Even with these famous fabricators and craftsmen, the top five most recognized as the dominant builders of the post war Champ Car period were Quin Epperly, Frank Kurtis, Eddie Kuzma, Lujie Lesvosky, and A. J. Watson.
Kurtis Kraft was operated at one point in Glendale at 525 Colorado blvd. Photo from www.kustomrama.com
Kurtis Kraft, led by Frank Kurtis was the most dominant chassis from 1950 to 1960 with 194 of the 363 cars that competed in the great race over that period. Kurtis Kraft stopped producing Indy car (Champ car) chassis for the race after 1960. Kurtis’ shop was first located on Alger street, between Sequoia and Baywood, then relocated to 1107 E. Colorado in Glendale. Almost all of the chassis built during the roadster era were variations of the Kurtis Kraft design. Over 53 percent of the cars that raced the Indy 500 from 1950 to 1960 bore the Kurtis Kraft name and serial number.
Kurtis Kraft entered the Indy world in 1950 with the winning car piloted by Johnnie Parsons. Photo from wikipedia.org
Eddie Kuzma’s Shop
Eddie Kuzma’s shop fabricated Champ car chassis from 1951-1960 on Budlong avenue in Los Angeles, at the corner of El Segundo and Budlong. The 36 Kuzma chassis that participated in the Indy 500 in the 1950s decade represented ten percent of all Indy cars over that period.
The building where Watson’s shop was is still standing as evident in this Google Maps photo.
A.J. Watson’s shop started as a small fabrication facility on 1903 S. Brand in Glendale before moving to a larger small shop at 421 Palmer street in Glendale around 1958. Watson’s Roadsters were basically copies of the Kurtis Kraft chassis with some tweaks that Watson had perfected to make the cars his own unique breed. With 21 chassis participating in the 500 from 1950 to 1960, he represented six percent of the total with race winners in 1956, 1959, and 1960.
The location of Quin Epperly’s shop as seen in 2016 from Google Maps.
Quin Epperly Racing Shop
Quin Epperly’s shop on Raymond and 135th street in Gardena represented five percent of the cars over the same period. Opening his own shop in the mid 1950s after working for Frank Kurtis for years, he joined George Salih working with the laydown roadster concept. Epperly’s laydown roadsters were well know for their balance and aerodynamics, especially in cornering. Unfortunately, the laydown roadsters never won the great race under the Epperly name.
L.A. “Lujie” Lesovsky, the fifth of the great five roadster builders, and probably the one that is most responsible for modifying chassis built by the other great roadster builders than building his own chassis. His shop was located on 5275 South Figueroa Blvd. in Culver City. There were 15 Lesovsky chassis during this era, which represented four percent of the Indy 500 cars during the decade.
The 1952 Indianapolis 500 winning car built by Eddie Kuzma. Photo from wikipedia.org
The Final Numbers
In total, 289 of the 363 cars that raced in the Indy 500 from 1950 to 1960 came from these five builders. This was a time when any chassis that complied with the rules could be used to qualify and compete in the race. When the 101st Indianapolis 500 gets underway, there will only be a single chassis manufacturer, by rule and not by car owner choice. It is hard to tell if a rule is really needed based on the results of the roadster era. Car owners tend to select the best and the choices remain a tight group to select from.