Dick Ralstin's Racing Home Page

The Novi, A Most Magnificent Flop - Chapter 1

Photographs courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

It is very likely the seed for the Novi's symphony of sound was planted in February of 1932 when Ford announced beginning production of its V8 passenger car engine. Lew Welch and Ray Dahlinger were two friends who worked in Ford's Development and Engineering department and were involved in the development of the poor man's V8. Dahlinger was in charge of the department and a personal friend of Henry Ford.

In the Summer of 1933 the AAA sanctioned the Elgin (Ill.) National Road Race and when the checkered flag fell on the 203 mile race over an eight mile course Ford's new V8's had captured eight of the first 10 positions, a Plymouth was in eighth place and a Chevrolet finished 10th.

The winning Ford was driven by Fred Frame, who just happened to be the winner of the 1932 Indianapolis 500, and was entered by a Ford Dealer, L.J. Cote, from a Detroit suburb. Factory Ford claimed it had no role in the lopsided victory, but full page adds quickly appeared in the Nation's newspapers extolling the "Ford speed, stamina, road-ability and You can't beat a Ford for PERFORMANCE".

Strange as it may seem Ray Dahlinger's wife, Evangeline Cote, was the daughter and sister of the owners of Cote Motor Company of Fernadale, Mich. There were also rumors of a mistress of Henry Ford's, named Evangeline, bearing a son shortly before the Cote Motor Company came into existence and there was a young man named John Cote Dahlinger who on occasions worked in the Novi crew in later years.

In 1934 two Ford V8's, "owned" by Detroit auto suppliers, were entered in the Indianapolis 500, it is thought one was owned by Ray Dahlinger and built by Dahlinger and Welch in the Ford plant. Both made the race but one (Dalhinger's ?) finished 33rd and the other lasted 110 laps and finished 13th.

In 1935 Preston Tucker and race car builder Harry Miller approached Henry's "for sure" son, Edsel, with a wild plan to enter TEN pretty much stock Ford V8 engines in Miller front drive chassis in the Indianapolis 500. It is not known if Henry approved or not, but Edsel bought the plan and a few months before the '35 race construction began on the cars and the Ford Cad Company was officially in racing.

Edsel's grandiose plan was his first failure when spending Henry's money - who can ever forget the Edsel? Only four of the cars were completed in time for the race and due to a design failure in the location of the steering gear box none of the four went the distance. Henry stepped in immediately after the fiasco an impounded the four cars and issued an edict that no further action be taken in racing until HE rendered a decision.

Also in 1935 Lew Welch left Ford and became owner of an auto parts plant in Novi, Mich which supplied parts to Ford Motor Car Co. and also for the first time Welch became the owner of two race cars entered in the Indianapolis 500, but the two car Ford V8 powered team was also a miserable failure. One car, driven by Herb Ardinger, was too slow to make the starting lineup and no qualifying attempt was made with the second car.

The question has been asked how a young man struggling to get a new plant started could afford two entries in the Indianapolis 500, well it never has been proven, but always by thought by many that Henry, believing the Tucker-Miller deal might go sour, took out some "insurance" by financing the two Welch cars. There were no factory Ford, or Welch, cars entered in the 1936 Indianapolis 500.

Lew was back in 1937 with another entry built by Johnny Wohfeil, who just happened to work for Henry Ford, but Lew figured a Ford V8 engine was short on power to make the race so there was not only an Offy engine under the bonnet but a supercharged Offy at that. The car carried no Novi identification, but it carried the number 54 and bore a striking resemblance to the Tucker-Miller cars of 1935. The Chicago Rawhide Oil Seal Special, driven by Herb Ardinger, qualified with a fine 121.983 and started the on the front row in the third spot. A connecting rod failed on the 106 lap and the Welch-(Ford?)-Ardinger effort finished 22nd.

By now Lew Welch was bitten bad by the bug and for the next 19 years he was listed as the owner of at least one race car entered for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Lo and behold when Lew's entry arrived at the Speedway for the 1938 Indianapolis 500 the chassis was one of Edsel Ford's "factory" Fords, the ones Henry had impounded after Edsel's fiasco, and it was powered by 255 c.i. unsupercharged Offy. In practice during the Month of May the Offy had a mechanical problem that sent Welch in the search of help. Enter Bud Winfield who was working on Louie Meyers race car three doors down in the garage area. The engine in Meyer's Bowes Seal Fast Special was powered by a straight 8 engine designed by Winfield and Leo Goosen, Offenhauser's chief engine designer.

The Welch-Winfield friendship which developed led to the pair finally joining forces, the embryo of the Novi team began to form. During 1938 the two men began discussing a project which, when it became a reality, would be known as the Novi engine

But Lew's entry for the 1939 Indianapolis 500 was once again Edsel's Ford chassis, this time powered by a 270 c.i. Offy but with dual Winfield carburetors, the car carried no sponsor's name and was known simply as the Offenhauser Special with Cliff Bergere as the chauffeur. The Offenhauser Special finished third but there wasn't much joy in the Welch camp when the race ended.

Lew Welch saw the hand writing on the wall, it was very plain the Offy was down on power when compared to the winning supercharged Maserati, driven by Wilbur Shaw for his second 500 win, and the Bud Winfield blown straight 8 engine in Louie Meyer's car, which crashed on the 197th lap while nipping at Wilbur's wheels.

For the 1940 chase Welch hired Ralph Hepburn, a veteran of 12 previous Indianapolis 500's to drive Edsel's Ford chassis, still with the under powered, unblown, four-banger under he hood. The effort came to naught when steering problems sidelined Hepburn on the 47th lap, but the names of Welch and Winfield were listed for the first time together on the entry blank, a mix up had Bud listed as the 'owner" and Lew as the "mechanic". It was official the pair was a team.

Following the 1940 race Welch and Winfield decided the new engine was needed but it wouldn't be Bud's blown straight eight, someone, maybe Henry Ford (?), suggested a d.o.h.c. blown V8. During the Summer of 1940 Bud took his rough drawings for the engine he and Lew had been discussing to the Offenhauser plant in L.A. where Leo Goosen, probably the best engine designer in America, turned the rough sketches into the final design for the engine that powered the Novi race cars that became famous for their speed and sound and the fact that in the Novi's 24 year racing career they never won a race.

Continued in Chapter 2.