I’ve spent the past three decades of my life having great adventures. All the best ones have been in other people’s cars. For instance, I’ve driven across the Alps in an MGB with Stirling Moss, one of the greatest racing drivers in the world. I’ve driven a 1916 Benz open touring car from the Mercedes-Benz factory museum across New Zealand on a 900-car vintage rally; the Benz looked like a carriage without the horse. Every one of these adventures has been epic and life changing. I don’t have a bucket list because I don’t need a bucket list.
I can’t even believe the things that I’ve been able to do that have just landed in my lap, and driving a Miller was one of them.
Harry Miller (1875-1943) was a brilliant guy who had a vision, and his vision changed racing. Before Millers came on the scene, racing cars looked like Soap Box Derby cars made out of packing crates. He was so influential that Ettore Bugatti, when he saw the Millers race, went home to France and virtually copied them.
Harry Miller wasn’t an engineer, but the cars of Harry Miller were revolutionary in their day. They were revolutionary in proportion, in performance, and in the beauty of their manufacturing, as well as their engineering, and the metals they were made of. A Miller was simple but exquisitely detailed. The accelerator pedal on the oldest one in existence, from 1920, is a perfect little brass circle. Even the filler cap on the gas tank is something you would want on your desk as a paperweight.
Millers were beautiful, they were futuristic-looking, they were mechanically advanced, and they were unbelievably narrow—like a cigar tube with four wheels stuck out at the corners. This, for me, led to a situation: more on that in a minute.
Only a few dozen Millers are still in existence, and a friend of mine has five of them. He has been telling me about this “Miller Meet” where all the guys who own these old Miller racing cars get together in Milwaukee in the dead of summer—and, by the way, Milwaukee is not a very nice place to be in the dead of summer—to drive their cars around the oldest working track in existence, the 110-year-old Milwaukee Mile.
It would be worth going to Milwaukee to see a handful of these rare cars going around that track. But it should be on anyone’s life list to have the opportunity to sit in one and drive it. And that’s what I got to do. I had it on my schedule for two years and kept that date. I showed up with my helmet and was relieved to see it was eighty degrees and not 100 degrees, as it was the year before. I saw a line of Millers, the largest gathering they’d ever seen at this event. As soon as I walked up, my friend Dan Davis said, “Oh, I think you should drive this car first.” I wasn’t there five minutes before I was sitting in the 1920 Miller TNT, and out I went on the track.
It’s amazing. You’re sitting in this cigar tube, and everything is rudimentary. There’s an accelerator, a brake, and a clutch, from right to left. I barely fit into it with my big feet. The body is cast aluminum, which was absolutely revolutionary for the day. There was nothing like it. There are only three pressure gauges on the dash and a big giant wooden steering wheel and a nice, wide leather seat. (It’s only wide because it’s also supposed to accommodate a riding mechanic.)
The sides are exposed below your waist, and there’s no windshield to protect you from the air blowing right in your face. Luckily these aren’t 100-mph cars, or they’d wipe the eyelashes right off your eyes. There’s a reason why those guys wore goggles. I was probably going 50 mph—there’s no speedometer—and it felt like 100 mph.
The experience is so thrilling. You’re out in the wind driving this big old cart. The operation of the controls is beautiful. You have a giant worn wooden wheel in your hands that feels so good and is almost 100 years old. The shift lever is a beautiful large ball that fits in your hand. You think to yourself, I’m driving around the track that the car actually raced on in the Twenties. It’s the same pleasure in machinery you feel if you type a letter on a 1920 Underwood typewriter. The noise, the smell, everything gets me all choked up.
It’s very hard to get one of these cars to start and go. There’s no synchro between the gears, so when you change gears you can’t just go from one to the next. You have to depress the clutch, pull the big lever down out of gear into neutral, gun the engine a little, put the clutch back in, and move into the next gear. If you don't time it right, you get this big graunching noise that is incredibly embarrassing. I’ve had a lot of experience with this kind of gearbox from driving old cars, so I was pretty good, but I'm embarrassed to admit I was not 100 percent.
It’s very simple, but you have to pay attention, because the last thing you want to do is damage this car. Driving around hanging out in the wind with the sides of it cut away below your waist is the oddest sensation. I had a helmet on, and I was going fast enough that the wind kept blowing my mouth open into the smile I was definitely feeling inside.
Every now and then, going through a turn, you’re thinking, I am now sliding a tiny little bit in a car that is offering me very little protection. It does give you pause. If you lose it and the whole thing goes south, you're going with it.
Of course I stalled coming in to the pit, because I could not downshift it properly and get it slowed enough without stalling. But I didn’t really care, because I hadn’t graunched any gears. They pushed me in and immediately said, Okay, you need to drive the Grand Prix car next.
Now I was really feeling great, and in that car I was going even faster. Hurley Haywood came out in the TNT car, and we were running tandem around the track, and that was as fun as it could be—until I waved him by and let my hand sort of drop to my side, where it came into contact with the giant spinning right rear tire. My hand flew up in the air, and I quickly jerked it to my side without looking at it. Do you know how, when you’ve had a very bad injury, it doesn’t hurt at first? Well, I didn’t want to look at my hand because I was afraid I had just wiped three fingers off. Then I carefully looked at it, and it was just filthy dirty from grabbing the moving tire. I kept both hands on the steering wheel for the rest of the time.
After that I decided I’d better come in, and I discovered the brakes were not working. It was too late for me to grab the outside brake lever, which controls the rear brakes. So I aborted coming in to the pits and went out for one more really slow lap and this time, when I came into the pits, I had my foot on the brake and my right hand on the outside brake lever. That slowed it enough to stall me again.
That didn't deter me from eyeing the very lovely and very petite old Indy car, the 1923 Miller 122. That one was an especially tiny one: a single-seater, with a body eighteen inches wide at its widest. It trapped Dan Davis for forty-five minutes last summer in the broiling sun. His leather shoes couldn't get purchase on the oily floor, and his crew had to remove the steering wheel to rescue him.
I crawled up on the 122 and perched above the seat. What I saw below was not encouraging. On the right of the center tunnel were accelerator and brake together, taking up what looked like the total width of my stockinged right foot. The clutch was all alone on the left. I just had to figure out how to slide in under the big wooden steering wheel. Then I’d decide if I could keep the gas and brake separate. My plan was to jump from my perch down into the seat with my legs locked at the knees.
I took the leap. My left leg slid right into place. My right knee shot up as far as it would go, trapped solidly between the steering wheel and the body side. Wouldn’t go up, wouldn’t go down. I wasn’t panicky, but I was, uh, concerned. I was stuck fast with only my horrified cameraman as witness.
Not quite. Two older guys were watching everything. After fifteen minutes, they ambled over. “We don’t mean to be impertinent, but we can get you out of there.” Without a chainfall? “I’ll slide my hands under your bottom.” Whoa. You’re each going to grab my ass? “Well . . . yes.” Okay, then, have at it. So they each slid their hands under one butt cheek, then levitated me straight up and onto the body behind the seat. At least they didn’t recognize me.
“By the way,” said the ringleader, Dana Meadows. “I love your writing.”
Want more? See the Millers at Milwaukee story by Preston Lerner, a video interview with Miller owner Tom Barbour, and my Vile Gossip column about the Miller meet, all on the Automobile Magazine iPad app.