In the early 1960’s, a racer from Houston Texas named A.J. Foyt blew up the 255 cubic inch Offenhauser engine in his Meskowski USAC championship dirt car at the old California State Fairgrounds and sent the remains to Meyer & Drake which classified the engine as beyond repair. Later, Louis Meyers’ brother, Harry, who oversaw engine assembly, decided to cut the damaged block in half to use the front half and cannibalized parts from around the Meyer & Drake shop to create a 2-cylinder midget engine.
A 2-cylinder midget engine was not a new idea - in the 1930’s Dale Drake built a number of 2-cylinder midget engines that used Harley-Davidson “knucklehead” crankcases. Drake engines won many midget races, particularly for Bill Vukovich, but eventually were replaced by the Offenhauser midget engine.
Old-timers claim that a 2-cylinder engine had a unique advantage- the theory being that as a tire received each power pulse from the engine, the tire wound up, distorted, and twisted under the force. With a 2-cylinder engine, the tire had time to relax before the next power pulse, and give the racer better bite on the race track. Power pulses or not, the Drake engine was known as a “shaker” that punished both man and machine Northern California midget builder and champion George Benson recalled seeing the Harry Meyer 2-cylinder “Offy” run on the M & D dynamometer around 1965 and “with a two-throw 180-degree crankshaft, it vibrated itself out of history.”
Benson continued, “Knowing Harry I am sure he knew it could be done, it was just a matter of doing it. I remember quizzing him about it when he was building it, and questioning the out of balance state he would have to deal with. Harry said, "Oh hell I am going to let the damn thing shake."
The level of vibration from an ordinary Offenhauser 220, 255, or 270 cubic inch engine could be strong as well. George Benson recalled, “when you shut the throttle off to go into the turns the Bell Auto Parts steering wheels, made from steel sheet stock, would vibrate so violently they would open up your grip on the wheel while shaking your arms and wrists out of their sockets.
It felt like you were steering with your palms until you got back in the throttle.” Some drivers would use wood splints taped to the underside of the spokes on the Bell steering wheels in an attempt to stiffen the wheel. Back in the 50’s and 60’s wrestling a big heavy car without power steering for 100 miles on a dirt track was truly a day’s work.
Fast forward a few years to the 1970’s and the Harry Meyer 2-cylinder “Offy” showed up at a race track installed in George Newman’s midget known as “Old Ironsides.”
John Redican saw the 2-cylinder “Offy” for the first time in “Old Ironsides” at the ¼-mile Corona Raceway, located off the 91 freeway at Pierce Street in Corona California. John, best known as a California Racing Association (CRA) sprint car driver (with 22 career wins) was there to watch the races, but Newman’s original driver, Roy Cook, had gotten bad blisters on his hands from the vibrations after warming up and ‘hot lapping’ the car. Redican arrived at the track just before qualifying was over, and agreed to give it a shot.
Redican recalled, “I jumped in the car and they pushed me off for qualifying. They gave me one lap to feel it out and I posted second quick time.” Redican was astonished when he climbed out after qualifying and saw that it was an old rail frame cross-spring car; he described it as “very forgiving with great forward bite” (maybe those old timers are right about the power pulse).
After an unsuccessful trophy dash run, the 2-cylinder midget won its heat race and Redican recalls, “George was going nuts-like a kid with a new toy“. The car started on the tail of the field for the feature but moved up through the field and was up to 6th place after 10 laps, when the brake pedal broke off. Redican drove on for 10 to 15 more laps using the hand brake when the drag link on the steering broke. With no steering, the car went off the track and Redican stopped it with no further damage. Redican stated that the engine was mounted rigidly in the chassis and that “his butt tingled for a week” after driving the 2-cylinder midget.
The next week, Redican and Newman hauled the repaired 2-cylinder ‘Old Ironsides” to race on the half-mile at J C Agajanian’s Ascot in Gardena California. While qualifying, the Pittman arm broke and the car slammed hard into the outer fence. George Newman rebuilt the heavily damaged car over the next few years, but it never raced again.