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Hot Rod History


Frank Kurtis


Frank Kurtis started as an apprentice at the Don Lee Body Works in 1925. Owned by Don Lee, Don Lee Body Works was one of the best custom coachwork shops on the West Coast. Kurtis could perform magic with sheetmetal, and it didn't take long time before he became manager of Don Lee's Los Angeless Coachworks which Lee bought from J.W. Earl in 1918. As a result, Kurtis worked briefly with J.W.'s son, Harley Earl, who'd been Don Lee's chief designer before leaving for General Motors in 1927.

After work, Frank spent much of his time building sporty roadsters for himself using whatever bits and pieces of auto bodies he could find. Before building a new car Frank made detailed drawings for his creations designed around the fenders, grille, or cowl section he planned to use. Most of the cars he built were speedsters, and all were open cars. He liked the boattail body because it looked like an expensive car. In 1932, Frank left Don Lee, and opened up his own shop garage behind his house. Frank had a hard time making ends meet, and when the Don Lee company wrote offering him a better-paying job, he returned to Los Angeles early in 1935 to work at Don Lee Motors.[1] When Kurtis returned to California, the first job he got was to build two customized equipment trucks for Lee's Columbia Broadcasting radio stations in Los Angeles and San Fransisco. The Radio Cars were mounted on Cadillac V-16 chassis and were stock the front bumpers to the back of the front doors where a streamlined body big enough for the radio gear and operators was faired in. The result was a very art-deco rig that had great promotion value for the radio stations.[2] His next build was a 1934 LaSalle boattail speedster for the son of Don Lee's manager, Willet Brown. Willet bought a b badly rear-ended 1934 LaSalle coupe that was brought into the shop, and asked Frank to reconstruct it as a boattail speedster. The build was completed in 1935 or 1936, and the result was stunning.

Don Lee's son, Tommy Lee, was building three midget cars for that rapidly growing sport. Curly Wetteroth and Clyde Adams had started building the midgets, and Frank finished up the bodies for them, building radiator shells and hoods. In 1936, Tommy asked Kurtis to build a complete midget known as the Don Lee Bullet. Frank agreed, and this was the first complete midget he put together. Frank was unhappy with what he considered Tommy Lee's dictatorial ways, and he was also at odds with Willet Brown, so he quit the Cadillac shop in 1937 and went to work for he Hollywood Trailer Company instead. At Hollywood Trailer Company Frank built travel trailers. While working there, he learned how to handle and bend tubing for building vehicle frames. This was how aircrafts were built in the 1930s, and even though the trailers were covered in fabric or Masonite, Frank would apply the technique to racing cars with aluminum and fiberglass skins. After work, Frank continued to customize passenger cars and work on race cars.

Although he had quit Don Lee's shop, Kurtis continued to work on Don Lee midgets. Tommy Lee's interest in midgets, brought him in contact with the Southern California racing fraternity, and it introduced him to the local hot-rodding community. In late 1936, after being exposed to drag racing and dry lake racing, Tommy Lee decided that he wanted to have Frank build him a custom auto that he could use both on the streets and on the lakes. He envisioned it as a streetable race car and an extremely sophisticated hot rod, and it should look at least as good as Willet's LaSalle. it should do him proud against the four-ports Rileys, and hot Fords that the kids in east Los Angeles were building. The Cord 810 had just come out, and Frank suggested that they should base the speedster's face on the new Cord. Tommy agreed.

The Hollywood Trailer Company job ended in 1937, and Kurtis landed work with Howard Darrin, a well known designer of custom bodies. At the time, Darrin was working for a Los Angeles Packard dealer, building bodies much like the contemporary Britsh Jensen, on Packard frames. As Darrin's check for Kurtis' pay began to bounce, Kurtis went to work at the Joel Thorne Machine Shop in Burbank, California in September of 1937. Joel Thorne, a wealthy playboy, had hired Art Sparks for a "lifetime" job building his race cars. Clyde Adams was brought in to do the metal works on two cars to carry the Sparks-designed "Big Six" supercharged engines. Adams hired Kurtis to help part-time. As a part of the deal, Kurtis was allowed to use the Thorne building's loft to design and build midgets for his own customers. By the end of 1938, Kurtis was tired of the arrangement with Thorne and Adams, and moved out. He set up his own shop again behind the top shop on San Pedro Street.

During the war years Frank managed the Joel Thorne Machine Shop. The shop was engaged in filling was contracts. In 1942, during slack times Frank turned out a little three-wheeler for Joel Thorne's personal transportation. The car was based on a 1937 Ford V8/60, and the first version had the Ford rear axle mounted in front with a single wheel at the rear for steering, to bypass the necessity of universal joints at the front axle ends. Kurtis changed this after his first trial run on the street with the bodyless chassis. Frank didn't realize that the rear end would have to swing wide to make a corner, and he was jammed in with the whole Lockheed change-of-shift traffic and he couldn't get room to maneuver out of the way. Back at the shop he redesigned the car placing the driver axle at the rear and installing a single moveable wheel at the front on fabricated suspension. Frank got the idea from the P-38 aircraft being built at the Lockheed plant in Burbank. The final car was called the "Californian". The Californian was a smooth-lined two-passenger roadster with vestigial rear fenders and a chrome grille at the front. The California was purchased by Gary Davis for about $2900. Davis redesigned and enlarged it, and used it as the basis for his Davis three-wheeler that he promoted in 1948.

1953 America's Most Beautiful Roadster

Frank Kurtis' Cars


Cars Built by Frank Kurtis

  • Don Lee Broadcasting System Trucks
  • Willet Brown's 1934 LaSalle Roadster
  • Southern California Plating's 1935 Ford Phaeton
  • 1937 Kurtis Tommy Lee Special
  • Bill Hughes' Roadster
  • The Californian
  • Frank Kurtis' 1941 Buick
  • Tom Beatty's Belly Tank Lakester
  • The Kurtis-Kraft 3000 Series
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