In a previous column, I discussed the penetration of the ubiquitous, war-surplus Curtiss OX-5 engine into the new aircraft market, which lasted into the 1930s. Not only was the OX-5 engine used as a powerplant option on new aircraft, it also powered custom-built aircraft that were used in exhibition work and races.
In fact, the Aero Club of Southern California would pioneer OX-5 class races and foster the design of new class of race planes designed around the engine.
Formed in 1919, the Aero Club of Southern California was actively engaged in promoting aviation and sponsored several aerial tournaments. Its first major tournament, held in December 1920 at Daugherty Municipal Field in Long Beach, was called the Winter Air Tournament. Events included a 100-mile free-for-all and a 60-mile handicap race. The US Army had a major presence at the event with 20 aircraft participating. This was a time when the Army allowed its pilots to fly against civilians, as long as they were only awarded trophies, not money.
However, there were a few civilian entries, with the pilots mainly flying Curtiss Jennies. However, a few locally produced aircraft were flown, including a Kinner, a Barnhart, and a Catron & Fisk.
Two civilian pilots showed their prowess by taking positions in the 60-mile race. Placing second was Emery Rogers in a Curtiss OX-5-powered Canuck, while Wally Timm took third place in a 1916 biplane built by Eddie Barnhart.
Among the spectators was Amelia Earhart, who was so thrilled with the event she decided to take flying lessons.
Following the experience gained from the Winter Air Tournament at Long Beach during Christmas week, the contest committee decided to hold an event of international character at the new Los Angeles Speedway. Promoted as the “greatest air event ever staged in the West,” it was held July 16-17, 1921. Saturday, July 16, was designated military day, while civilian events were held the next day. The tournament had eight events, including a race to San Diego and back of 256 miles; a Jenny race open to OX-5 powered Curtiss JNs, Standard Js and Canucks; a relay race; and an altitude competition.
The most innovative was a race called the Curtiss Cup. This was open to privately built aircraft using OX-5 powerplants. In another innovation, the aircraft had to pass a speed test of 100 miles per hour. Given the 90-hp, 350-pound OX-5 was only able to drive a Jenny to 75 mph (downhill), this was asking a lot. But in the end, five privately built aircraft met the criteria for the race.
The Curtiss Cup led to the design of two new aircraft for the race. The first new plane was built for Emory Rogers, a local pilot, and was designed by Otto Timm as a cantilever monoplane. Built by the Pacific Standard Co. of Venice, Calif., it was known as the Pacific C1. The goal was to obtain 120 mph with the 90-hp Curtiss OX-5 engine. The plane had a gross weight of 1,140 pounds and a wing span of 23 feet.
The second new design was created by Waldo Waterman for Mercury Aviation, which was owned by movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille. This craft featured a parasol monoplane configuration. Waterman’s goal for the design, which had an empty weight of 885 pounds and a wing span of 21 feet, was to reach 130 mph. Waterman called it the Gosling.
Three other existing OX-5-powered sport planes qualified for the race: A triplane built by Catron & Fisk of Venice, Calif.; an Ed Fisk biplane; and the Polson Special biplane built for Long Beach daredevil pilot Earl Daugherty.
The Curtiss Cup Race was a two-mile course with two pylons, one in the center of the Los Angeles Speedway and one a mile outside, so the race was in full view of the spectators in the grandstands. After takeoff it was evident that the Pacific C1 and the Waterman Gosling, flown by Eldrid Remlin, were well matched and pulling ahead of the other entries. Rogers was taking tighter turns than Remlin and, after 15 laps, won the race at a speed of 105 mph. The Gosling would later prove its potential as it was reported in the November 1921 issue of Popular Mechanics that it set a record of 130 mph.
Interest would continue in OX-5-powered racing as a class during the late 1920s and early 1930s as part of the National Air Races. An event for OX-5 aircraft first appeared during the 1929 event and the last appearance was in 1932. A difference from the Curtiss Cup of 1921 was that there were no privately constructed OX-5 aircraft. The entries were all factory jobs, with Travel Air winning the most prizes. Some of the famous pilots racing in the class were Art Chester, Steve Wittman, Harold Neumann, and Rudy King.
The last reference I can find relating to an OX-5-powered race was during the Langley Day Races held at College Park Airport in Maryland on May 7, 1934. This event was open to certificated airplanes with an OX-5 engine. Such a race featuring very old engines was not without its detractors as two days before the race the National Aeronautics Association’s board of directors voted to sanction the entire event, provided the OX-5 event was eliminated as “unnecessarily dangerous and contrary to the best interests of aviation.”
The organizers of the event stated that the NAA officials were “swivel-chair broomstick pilots,” and went on with the race. Edna Gardner, a nurse from Washington, D.C., won the race. (Along with Amelia Earhart, Gardner was a charter member of the 99s association of women pilots.)
The OX-5 races in California of the 1920s were the ancestor to a series of engine specific class of racers that came into being after World War II. In 1940 the US Professional Racing Pilots’ Association (PRPA) took the initiative to create a competition class for small, cheap airplanes that could race around a short closed circuit that could be seen in its entirety by the spectators.
However, the war intervened and it wasn’t until the end of 1946 that the rules for the new class were fixed. The only engine allowed for this new class of racer was a standard unmodified Continental C-85, an 85-hp, four-cylinder air-cooled engine.
Shortly after the announcement of the new rules, Goodyear agreed to sponsor the class and donated prizes for the next three years National Air Races, so these planes were known as “Goodyear Racers.” The first race for these “midgets” was the 1947 National Air Races in Cleveland. Ohio. Thirteen planes were entered; 10 were newly-built and three were converted pre-war racers.
Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.