Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Lord K's Garage - #51. Kurtis Tommy Lee Special

The 1937 Kurtis Tommy Lee Special was a handbuilt boattail roadster built by Frank Kurtis for Tommy Lee in 1937.

The Cord influenced speedster was based on a 1936 Ford frame and running gear (and retained the classic rear-wheel drive layout - L.K.). Frank used Cord front and rear fenders when he built the car, the rest of the body was hand-formed in aluminum. The Cord 810 inspired grille consisted of chromed grille bars that wrapped around each side. The car had wind-up windows, but no top.

Under the hood the car was powered by an Offenhauser engine manufactured by Meyer & Drake that had bought Offenhauser Engine Company and taken over the production of the Offenhauser racing engines. Meyer & Drake made a new engine for the car that displaced 318 inches, had twin cams, and an estimated 300 horsepower. The engine was the largest Offenhauser engine ever built.

The engine was hooked to a LaSalle three-speed gearbox and a Columbia two-speed rear end. The car had lowering gearing for drag racing, and a tall ratio for high speed driving. The car featured Oldsmobile front and rear bumpers that were easily removed for high speed runs. The fenders were also easily attachable. The exhaust system consisted of four separate coiled pipes that eventually exited the engine bay and ran along the side of the car. A shorter competition exhaust could be easily adapted. Tommy primarily drove his car on the street, but he also took it to the dry lakes where it was clocked at 123 mph in street trim, and 130 mph without the fenders.

Inside the car featured a dash panel with bronze casting filled with etched horizontal elements and seven custom-faced Stewart-Warner gauges. The steering wheel of the car was borrowed from a Cadillac.

The Tommy Lee Special was started in 1936, and completed in 1937 for a reported cost of $25,000. A price that made it more expensive than most Duesenbergs at the time. Lee had many cars, and the Kurtis Special was eventually put in storage. During the late 1940s he was involved in an accident that left him with spinal injuries, sever back pain, and many other ailments. He was on heavy medication but his ailment also left him with depression. On January 13th of 1950 (Friday the 13th), he leapt from the roof of the Pelissier Building in Los Angeles. He was 43 years old, and left behind a 10 million dollar fortune, a huge automobile and aircraft collection, a radio station, and a television business. His uncle inherited most of the assets, but Willet Brown was able to secure all of the cars.

The Kurtis Speedster was purchased by Mr. Mattison in the late 1950s. The car was without an engine and had been sitting in an Los Angeles wrecking yard. It would pass through several other owners, eventually becoming just a frame, running gear and body shell. Ownership later passed to Steve Alcala of El Segundo, California. Steve who was a talented craftsman at California Metal Shaping Company used his skills and brought the body back to original condition.

Steve dove headlong into the restoration and was determined to save as much of Frank Kurtis’ handiwork as possible – he even contacted Kurtis for advice on the project. After the bodywork had been painstakingly restored, Mr. Alcala purchased a 270 cubic inch Offy, which was rebuilt under the auspices of Offy guru, Joe Gemsa.

Upon competition, the car was debuted at the 22nd Annual Le Cercle Concours d'Elegance in 1989. It later appeared at the 40th Annual Pebble Beach Concours in 1990. Since then it has competed at the Monterey Historics, and won major awards at Amelia Island, Castle Hill and Pebble Beach.

In 2007 the Tommy Lee Special was sold at the Monterey Sports & Classic Car Auction presented by RM Auctions. The estimated value of the car was somewhere between $250,000 - $350,000. The bidding did not reach the estimated value, and the car was sold for $210,000 including buyer's premium.

January 22 - 23, 2010 the Kurtis Tommy Lee Special was sold at the 2010 Gooding & Company Scottsdale Auction. The estimated value of the car was listed as $250,000 - $350,000. The exact estimate that was used when it was sold in 2007. The car sold for $ 285,500.

Text: Kustomrama
Images: Kustomrama, Conceptcarz, Ron Kellog Collection
Tommy Lee bio by Ron Kellog @ The Jalopy Journal

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Comment by Tome Wilson on August 24, 2010 at 1:57pm
If someone asked me to drive her, I certainly wouldn't say no.
Comment by Larry on August 20, 2010 at 11:33pm
Absolutely beautiful. Gorgeous.
Comment by Hayen Mill on August 20, 2010 at 8:09am
Oh...the blue...such a beautiful blue...

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