America's first real sports-car
Frank Kurtis rose from humble roots as the son of first-generation Croatian immigrants to a leader in the construction of beautiful, race-winning Midget and Indy cars. Born in 1908 to a blacksmithing father, his participation in the family business helped him get his start as a fabricator in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Learning the ropes on Midget racers, he would really hit his stride in the post-WWII period when he transitioned from Midget cars to Indy cars. Kurtis would produce cars that would take victory at Indianapolis in 1951 and 1953-1955 (he came in second in '52). His cars remained competitive at Indy for a decade after that last victory.
While building weapons for the track, Kurtis also worked to produce sports cars. Beginning in 1947 with the Kurtis-Omohundro, often considered the first post-WWII American sports-car, he quickly took the formula that was providing such great success in Indianapolis and applied it to street cars. His Allard-like 500S racer, which was based on his Indy car's architecture, found great success on the track at the hands of Bill Stoppe and others. The 500KK that followed was ostensibly a kit-car version of the 500S that gave the owner the opportunity to choose their own bodywork and engine. Costing between $395 and $1300 depending on the degree of factory completion, the 500KK would go on to great success both on and off the track.
While 500KKs were clothed in a variety of bodies, the SR-100 bodywork is widely considered among the prettiest and best made. Inspired by the coachwork of Vignale and created by renowned fibreglass wünderkinds Dick Jones and Jim Byers, the SR-100 debuted in 1953 at the Los Angeles Motorama as the Meteor SR-100. Shortly after the show, Jones moved to Colorado and Byers remained in California. Byers improved the look of the SR-100 bodywork and relaunched the body under his own name. Road & Track would go on to feature one such car on the cover of its February 1957 issue with the immodest headline, ‘The Byers Special—world's most beautiful sports car?’
The Byers body found its way onto rather pedestrian Ford chassis, but it was most capable when atop a Kurtis chassis. Steve Salem of Manhattan Beach, California wanted the best of the best when he put together this 500KK in the mid-1950s. Adapting an early Byer's body to fit on the 90" wheelbase of the Kurtis's frame, he installed a modified 320ci GMC inline-six to power his beast. Intended for the 1954 running of the Carrera Pan American but not finished in time for the event.
After racing on the West Coast from 1955-1962, the car made its way to Texas in the late 1970s where it was discovered by the seller in the late 1980s. Found in sound shape but fitted with a more modern drivetrain, the Kurtis was torn down and restored back to its former glory. Consulting with Mr. Salem, the first owner, the Kurtis was fitted with a period-correct, modified DeSoto Firedome Hemi V8, replica Halibrand knock-offs built by P.S. Engineering, and a slick paint job by custom car painted Zig Ebel done in the style of the Carrera Pan American car it was original built to be.
Bonhams will be offering this 1954 Kurtis 500KK SR-100 at their upcoming Amelia Island Auction on the 7th March. For more information on this and other vehicles at the sale, click on the link below. Photos courtesy of Bonhams.