Robert M. Roof was born on September 13, 1882 in New Castle, IN. Showing exceptional mechanical aptitude, the youngster built his first car in 1898. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. The next year Robert started working in a foundry as a machinist apprentice. He then went on to the Muncie (IN) Gas Engine and Supply Company and, at age 21, he started Robert Roof Machine Company in Muncie. In 1908 he built his first race car, which used a six-cylinder engine. It is thought that this may have been the first six-cyl. race car ever built.
It was during this same time that Roof designed and built his first engines, which were small stationary models. In 1909 he designed and built the Gray Eagle, an air-cooled engine for use in a Curtiss bi-plane built by the Kent Machine Company. The plane was tested by aeronaut Earl Slack, and worked to perfection. It is interesting to note that the test was done at the brand new Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1910 Robert filed his first of many patents for his design of a friction clutch. His reputation as an innovator grew and he was hired by the Anderson (IN) Foundry and Machine Company in 1911 as Chief Engineer.
Roof joined the Laurel Motor Company in 1917 as Chief Engineer and Vice-President. He quickly started building various configurations of overhead-valve cylinder heads for numerous engines. There were at least four different 16-valve heads as well as various eight-valve rocker-arm designs for the Ford Model T and Dodge four-cylinder engines. Roof designed a double overhead cam (DOHC) for the 16-valve engines and a single overhead cam (SOHC) arrangement for the eight-valve power plants.
Roof set about designing a line of heavy duty semi-diesel engines, while at the same time coming out with his first 16-valve racing head for the Ford Model T. The Roof 16-valve engine proved to be a dominant factor on Indiana dirt tracks during the 1917 season. This head drew the attention of the United States government in 1918. The U.S. wanted to use the Ford engine because of its size and compactness, but, in stock form it wasn’t powerful enough. Roof was summoned to the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. to first test a stock Ford engine then test it with one of Roof’s 16-valve heads installed. They found that Roof’s head increased the power of the engine by 64%! The government’s interest in the Ford engine was top secret; even Robert Roof did not know what his heads were being used for.
The U.S government also became interested in some of Roof’s engineering ideas in 1918, and he was commissioned to build a complete 16-valve tank engine for use by the United States War Department. The Model J was completed for this project in 1921. When analyzed by the Bureau of Standards, it proved to be one of the strongest for its size ever tested. Roof’s engine accessories were being noticed on an international scale. Roof received inquires from such foreign lands as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, England, Greece, Guatemala, Japan, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Siam, South Africa, Trinidad and Uruguay.
Under the Laurel name, Roof filed at least nine patents for his racing hardware, and a major part of Laurel’s success was due to Roof. Other designs patented by Roof included, a front spring bar connecting device; a rear axle spring bar connection device; a multiple-valve grinding machine; dual overhead camshafts and oiling systems; valve construction techniques; control means for intake and exhaust systems. Some of the other products which he was responsible for were pistons, rods, high-speed camshafts, magneto drives, super chargers, oiling systems, five main bearing crankshaft kits and a complete line of chassis components.
The Laurel Motor Company quickly became known on an international level as word of Roof’s accomplishments spread. By 1918 Laurel had customers in 19 foreign countries and by the mid-1920s that number had grown to over 50 countries. As a result, the Laurel Motor Company purchased more land and doubled the size of its manufacturing facility. Roof also entered a car in the 1924 Indianapolis 500 with Harry Thickstun driving, but lack of practice time resulted in the team failing to make the race.
In 1924 Roof joined with Myron Reynolds to form R & R Manufacturing Company. It was around this time that Roof starting designing engines for racing boats. He also built a car for competition he called the “Cootie,” which featured a much smaller frame than the typical dirt track car. As an authority on high performance engines, Roof wrote several articles for automotive magazines such as, Automobile Digest, Garage and Accessory Journal, Modern Mechanics and Inventions, The Motor, Popular Mechanics and several others.
In 1927 Roof produced the “Giant Super Power Head,” for the Chevy 4-cylinder engine. He built a race car that featured a body by Floyd “Pop” Dreyer and was driven by future American Automobile Association (AAA) National Champion, Bob Carey. This car included a revolutionary feature, a headrest. The thought process behind the head rest was, if the car were to turn over, the headrest would hold the weight of the car off the driver. This may well have been the first time in auto racing history where a portion of the car’s design accounted for the well-being of the driver.
Reynolds left R & R Manufacturing in 1929 and Roof continued the company on his own. In 1931 the “Cyclone” F head and the “RCO Flash” SOHC for the Model A and B Ford were introduced. Roof himself tested the Cyclone head mounted on a 1929 Ford Roadster. Over a 2 ½-mile course in Anderson, IN, the car did 100 mph against the wind and 101 mph with the wind. Midgets became the newest craze in racing in 1934, so Roof developed a complete line of parts up to and including entire cars for the miniature racers. Roof was always concerned about the little guy in racing; he knew that no matter how many high profile teams he serviced, the heart of his business was the weekend amateur racers who couldn’t afford high priced speed accessories. He developed many kits to convert stock engines for racing with the low budget teams in mind.
Some of the engines that Roof designed high performance parts for were, a rocker arm conversion for the Cord eight-cylinder; a two-piece flathead for the Chevy, Dodge, Ferguson 4-40, Studebaker 134, and Willys 134; a DOHC rocker arm head for the Ford six-cylinder; a SOHC for the Ford V8 flathead. Roof also produced complete engines from the Ford V-8 “60” and Mercury V8s which featured special two-piece twin spark plug heads. He also produced intake and exhaust manifolds and an assortment of internal high performance parts.
In 1936 Roof designed a portable ventilating system which used a two-blade airplane propeller and was driven by a quarter-horsepower motor. It was known as the “R & R Wind Tunnel.” Robert was granted a patent for a special inboard-outboard drive system used on cruising vessels. He also converted a Lincoln engine to marine use which developed over 200 horsepower. Roof came up with the “Bandit Chaser” head for Chevrolet engines used in law enforcement and emergency service vehicles. He claimed that when installed, this head would allow these cars to attain a top speed of 75 miles an hour and be more maneuverable in traffic due to a broader torque curve.
Roof wrote many articles for technical journals of the day during the 1930s and was considered one of the foremost authorities on high performance stock conversions. He also wrote most of the copy for R & R Manufacturing’s advertising campaigns. Although very technical in nature, Roof had a way of making his products sound very user friendly. The importance of this can’t be discounted, since many of his customers were low-buck racers and recreational sportsman who wanted high performance parts that they could bolt on and the parts would work without a great deal of fine tuning. One would have thought, with the international business Roof built over the years, that R & R Manufacturing would have had a sprawling complex with many employees, but just the opposite was true. Robert did nearly all the work himself out of his carriage house (garage) and his basement. His garage was converted to a foundry where all his parts were cast and cleaned.
Roof’s basement became his machine shop and all of his mills, lathes and other machines were run from a unique overhead drive system by a powerful electric motor. Large belts on pulleys ran from the driveline down to each machine. Roof had some part-time workers, but his foreman, Ray Duckworth, was his most valuable employee. Duckworth started apprenticing for Roof while still in school prior to World War II. Upon Roof’s death in 1949, Duckworth bought R &R Manufacturing and continued making and selling Robert Roof’s products for several years.