Automotive History: Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars (Part 2 1950-1954)

(Originally published May 21, 2012)  This May, we have been revisiting some of the cars to serve as Official Pace Car for the annual Indianapolis 500.  We recently looked at how both the IMS and the auto industry set about revitalizing themselves after World War II.  Now, lets hang on as both the race and the industry race into the 1950s.

The Ford Motor Company was back for a second time  in 1950 with a shiny Mercury convertible, this time driven by Benson Ford.  It must suck being a little brother.  “Mom, why did Henry get the Lincoln and I only get a Mercury?”

This Merc is a little less flamboyant than the 1949 Olds 88, but then I guess that was true under the skin as well.  Surprisingly, this would not be the last flathead engine to pace the race.  But the 1950 Mercury was certainly an attractive car.

In 1936 the tradition was established where the race winner would be presented with the Pace Car as part of his prize package.  The ’50 Mercury would not have been a bad prize at all.  Johnnie Parsons took delivery of the keys following a rain-shortened race.  1950 would start a string of Pace Cars that celebrated a milestone for its maker.  This year, the One millionth Mercury was built.

1951’s choice for the Pace Car marked the introduction of the mighty Chrysler Firepower V8 engine.  Chrysler Division President David Wallace got the honor of  unleashing the hemi beast at the track, although Chrysler’s Fluid Drive transmissions certainly took some of the fun out of the experience.  But having actress Loretta Young as a celebrity passenger probably at least partially made up for it.

The big New Yorker, initially rated at 180 horsepower with a 2 barrel carb, certainly set a new standard for powerful Pace Cars.  It was also a powerful symbol that Chrysler was shaking off its 1940s funk and putting its unmatched engineering prowess to work.  The 1950s would be a big decade for Chrysler engineering.

Pace Cars as a promotional device had not yet come into their own, as it is reported that not a single replica of the ivory-colored New Yorker Pace Car was built by Chrysler.  This probably explains the lack of any easily obtainable color photos of the car.  This photo appears to be a different car altogether.

1952 marked another kind of milestone.  This was the year that Studebaker Corporation celebrated its 100th anniversary as a maker of wheeled vehicles.  Studebaker was, by far, the oldest vehicle manufacturer in the world at that time, and was at the peak of its power and influence in the industry.

Studebaker was the biggest of the independents.  Even though it came to the race with a basic car in its sixth year of production, it was still selling a bit under 200,000 of them a year.  It also brought a nearly new OHV V8 (introduced the same year as Chrysler’s), a proprietary automatic transmission, and a new 2 door hardtop model.  Studebaker was a force to be reckoned with in 1952.  Which makes these pictures sort of sad, because as we all know, it was pretty much all downhill from here.

This is also the first year that numerous color photos of the Pace Car are easily found.  I particularly like this one.  Judging from the output of their respective publicity departments, one would expect that Detroit and South Bend were more than 216 miles apart.  More like a million.

Still, the Maui Blue Commander V8 Convertible driven by Stude Executive Vice President P. O. Peterson was nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s home-grown OHV V8 made Studebaker part of a still-exclusive club in 1952.

The final flathead paced the race under the hood of a 1953 Ford.  Henry Ford’s company was a mere whippersnapper, having been in business only fifty years, but still, it was deemed an event to celebrate.  William Clay Ford drove this car.  He was the youngest of the brothers, so no Lincoln or Mercury for him.  At least he got to drive one, an honor that would not fall to sister Josephine.

This was only the second time that a Ford served as Pace Car, the first being 1935.  How do you suppose that the new Chevrolet was so prominently placed in the background of this picture?

The Ford Motor Company ramped up the promotional machinery to an unprecedented degree this year by building about 2,000 Pace Car replicas.  These were offered to Ford Dealers and were popular promotional tools to rub in the nose of the Chevy dealer down the block.  There are still quite a few of the ’53 replicas out in circulation.  But with all of the promotional push, why no color pictures?

Bill Vukovich won the actual Pace Car that year, which eventually ended up in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, where it can be seen today.

1954 brought Ma Mopar back to Indianapolis with the Dodge Royal 500, a special model atop the Royal line.  The car featured Kelsey Hayes chrome wire wheels, a continental kit and a 150 horsepower version of the Dodge 241 c.i. Red Ram V8.  It is reported that with some dealer options, the buyer of a replica could get the Red Ram’s output up to about 200.

Only a bit more than 700 Pace Car replicas were made, so while there are certainly some of these around, they are nowhere near as common as the ’53 Fords.  Maybe thinking that a little star power could help, Roy Rogers got to pose behind the wheel.  Was he the original Dodge Boy?

Does anyone recognize the (probably) famous person waving at us from this photo?  Although it is tempting to think that Dodge’s reason for pacing the race was to scream “Look at Me!  I’m Not Dead Yet!”, this would not be (completely) true.  1954 marked Dodge’s 40th anniversary.

Chrysler VP William Newburgh drove the yellow Dodge that year.  Newburgh would later become noteworthy for being forced out as President after a series of boneheaded moves including profiting from supplier kickbacks.  As had been the case for several years, Speedway President Wilbur Shaw rode beside the driver.

Sadly, this would be Shaw’s last appearance due to his death in a plane crash later that year.  Shaw was one of the great racers, having first appeared in 1927, and having won the race in 1937, 1939 and 1940.  Shaw was the first back to back winner, and was only the second driver to win three times.  He was also the last native Hoosier to win the race.

Wilbur Shaw may be as responsible as anyone for the Indianapolis 500 making it out of World War II.  Shaw had been conducting tire tests at the Speedway for Firestone, and at their conclusion, Eddie Rickenbacker informed Shaw that the track would likely be bulldozed and turned into subdivisions unless someone could be found to buy it.  It was Shaw who convinced Tony Hulman (whose family made its fortune on Clabber Girl Baking Powder) to buy the track from Rickenbacker for $750,000.

Hulman immediately hired Shaw to run the facility, and it was he who was responsible for for its rejuvenation and operation until his death.

Next time, we will look into another new era at the Speedway – one without Wilbur Shaw, but one that would also enjoy a whole new level of game from the U. S. auto industry providing the Pace Cars.