Half a century before Ringo sang about a Yellow Submarine, American motor racing ace Barney Oldfield was flying around, and often winning, at the nation’s oval and dirt tracks in his Golden Submarine.
A one-off for Oldfield built by legendary manufacturer Harry A. Miller, the Golden Submarine was not only unusual, but also ahead of its time. It was a car that would foreshadow some of Miller’s future race-winning designs.
After a friend and rival had been killed in an open cockpit car in 1916, Oldfield commissioned a closed car that he believed would keep the driver alive in the event of a crash. This was at a time, remember, when safety in racing was basically a joke and a minimal consideration in car design.
To power the car, Miller fitted a 289 cubic inch inline-four that made extensive use of aluminum and had a single overhead camshaft, pretty exotic stuff at the time. The bodywork was reminiscent of the smaller submarines of the day, hence the name, and featured a streamlined teardrop shape and an exhaust that ran (probably to the extreme discomfort of the driver) through the cockpit and exited out the tail stinger.
Oldfield debuted the car in 1917 and did particularly well in it on dirt and oval tracks. Long board tracks were also very popular at the time, but the Miller Golden Submarine usually finished at the back of the pack at such events.
Later in the year, Oldfield crashed the car in Springfield, Illinois, and was actually trapped in the thing as its only door had been jammed shut. Racing is a sport of short attention spans, and after that, Oldfield went back to open cockpit machines. The Golden Submarine was sold and then disappeared into obscurity.
Replicas of the Golden Submarine have been built, but the original does not survive. That’s a shame, because the engine Miller used in the car would influence ones he used to great success in later cars, including the one that would become the Offenhauser unit that dominated Indy, midget and sprint car racing for years.