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Car of the Week: 1937 Frank Kurtis 'Tommy Lee Speedster'

Completed in 1937, Tommy Lee’s one-of-a-kind Speedster was said to have cost $25,000, a princely sum in the midst of the Depression.
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Car of the Week 2020

By Ken Gross

Handsome and debonair, Tommy Lee had it all.

As the fabulously wealthy heir to the Don Lee Agency, with more than 50 Cadillac dealerships up and down the West Coast, extensive California real estate holdings, along with prominent L.A. radio and TV stations, Tommy had a craving for beautiful women and fast cars – and the checkbook to buy whatever he wanted.

Frank Kurtis, who’d later build winning Indy roadsters, midget racers and sleek customs, supervised Don Lee’s Los Angeles Coachworks. In 1934, Kurtis fabricated a stunning boattail speedster from a wrecked LaSalle for Willet Brown, whose father managed the myriad Lee enterprises. After seeing that car, Tommy Lee asked Kurtis to build a creation that was even more attractive, and much, much faster.

Kurtis began with a six-month-old 1936 Ford that he stripped down to the frame. Remember, the Cord 810 was that era’s styling sensation, so Tommy told Frank to build a car that evoked the 810, but would be lighter, sleeker, even racier. Kurtis’ elegant response resembled the marriage of a Cord Sportsman and an Auburn boattail speedster.


Its gorgeous aluminum body was hand-formed. Canted, chromed grille bars wrapped around each side, extending all the way to the cockpit. The streamlined effect was completed with graceful, minimalist doors made of steel, leading to a sharply pointed tail that would have done credit to an Indy racer. George DuVall fabricated the sexiest vee-ed windscreen imaginable. The result was extraordinary. There would be nothing on the road quite like it. Of course, it would be the best that money could buy.

The cockpit was narrow, even cozy, so when Tommy wasn’t street-racing with local L.A. hot rodders, (which he loved to do), his date du jour could snuggle closely. The unique dash panel was an art-deco bronze casting, with etched horizontal elements, replete with seven custom-faced Stewart-Warner gauges. The banjo steering wheel came from a Cadillac. There were wind-up windows, but no top.

To take on his hot rodder friends, and beat them at their own game, Tommy Lee insisted on a dual-purpose roadster that could be occasionally raced at the dry lakes. So all four fenders — the fronts, with disappearing headlamps, were borrowed from a new Cord, the rears consisted of two sets of Oldsmobile teardrops on each side — were readily removable. So were the trim Oldsmobile bumpers. Rear fender skirts could be fitted for better streamlining at high speeds.


At first, the selection of an engine was a matter of discussion. Frank Kurtis suggested a big, 348-cid Cadillac flathead V-8, modified with dual carburetors, perhaps a Winfield cam. But money was no object. Tommy commissioned Harry Miller protégé, Fred Offenhauser, to create a very special Offy powerplant, the largest one ever built, an uncompromised 318-cid, twin-cam, all-out racing engine developing an estimated 300-bhp and immense torque. That was probably twice the output of a typical prewar, hopped-up flathead.

The gearbox was a sturdy three-speed LaSalle unit, and the rear end was a Columbia two-speed. Now Tommy had the best of both worlds — low gearing for drag racing, and a tall ratio for high-speed attempts. Flipper bar hubcaps, on steel wheels, flashed and whirled as the car and its owner headed for adventure. At night, which was when most people saw the speedster, the caps flickered like candle flames.

As if the not-so-subtle mechanical cacophony from the big Offy’s cam drive spur gears wasn’t enough, the 318’s wild exhaust system consisted of four separate coiled pipes, which first unraveled, then ran like chrome arrows alongside the car’s sleek fuselage. There was a shorter competition exhaust for serious speed work.


Completed in 1937, Tommy Lee’s one-of-a-kind Speedster was said to have cost $25,000, a princely sum in the midst of the Depression. Anxious to see “what she could do,” Tommy opened up his blue jewel at the dry lakes, recording speeds of 123 mph in street trim, and 130 mph sans fenders. Reportedly, a top end of 148 mph was achieved in 1941, but this may be legend, lost in the swirling mists of time.

The late Strother MacMinn said that race car owner and enthusiast Bob Estes said that, one night, driving his hot rod, he confronted Tommy Lee and the elusive Speedster at an L.A. stoplight. When the light turned green, Estes recalled, “...he cleaned my clock.”


As the decade closed, Tommy was already collecting other exotics: a duo of 8C2300 Alfas, one of which was an ex-Tazio Nuvolari roadster, A Tipo B Alfa Romeo Grand Prix car, a Type 35B Bugatti, a BMW 328, an Alfa Romeo 8C2900, then a pair of teardrop Talbots. He liked to bring them up to the lakes to challenge his hot rodder friends. And he didn’t like to lose. At the first SCTA Lakes Meet after the war, he reportedly clocked 110.97 mph in one of his teardrop Talbot-Lagos and 137.09 mph in his Tipo B Alfa GP car.

Tired of the temperamental Speedster, which admittedly wasn’t a comfortable touring car because of its hard-edged racing bias, Lee placed it in storage and drove his other four-wheeled confections. He’d moved on. His later adventures would include campaigning a prewar Mercedes-Benz W163 Grand Prix racer at Indianapolis. History has lost count of the beautiful women he knew.


Sadly, Tommy Lee was involved in a serious car accident, just before the war. Reportedly, another motorist hit his car on the driver’s side. Spinal injuries left him with severe back pain and other ailments. Despite drugs, prescribed by three physicians simultaneously, his condition worsened after the war, and he was severely depressed. Despondent and unable to enjoy his once-glamorous life to the fullest, Lee leapt from the roof of the Pelissier Building in Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 13, 1950. He was only 43 years old, but life was no longer worth living.

Tommy’s car collection was eventually sold, but there was one piece of unfinished business. Abandoned, the once-magnificent Kurtis Speedster awaited resurrection. In the late 1950s, a man named Mattison found the engine-less two-seater in an L.A. wrecking yard. Several others would own it before Charles Anderson sold the car, by then just a frame, running gear and body shell, to Steve Alcala, of El Segundo, a talented California Metal Shaping Co. craftsman, with a yen to own a Kurtis-built creation.


Thankfully, Alcala wanted to save as much of Frank Kurtis’ handiwork as possible, and he had the skills to do so. Kurtis himself offered advice and counsel. The car had been resting outdoors for years in the hot California sun, so its custom-crafted plated pieces, in particular, required a great deal of work to restore. Willet Brown had taken the engine and transmission, and it was unavailable. Alcala procured a 270-cid Offy, arguably a more tractable racing engine, which was rebuilt under the auspices of Offy expert Joe Gemsa.

Steve Alcala debuted the nearly restored Tommy Lee Speedster at the 22nd Annual Le Cercle Concours d’Elegance in 1989. Later, with the Offy 270 installed, the car appeared at the 40th Annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August 1990. Subsequently, the original 318 block was sold at the Sotheby’s Petersen Museum Auction in 1991. (It’s currently owned by Jan Voboril, the owner of a restoration/machine shop in Topanga Canyon.) Owned by Dan La Croix, of N. Dighton, Mass., the restored Speedster has competed at the Monterey Historics, and it won major awards at Amelia Island, Castle Hill, and again at Pebble Beach.


Tommy Lee was a memorable Hollywood character. And there’s only one Tommy Lee Speedster. With its custom coachwork, glamorous image, art-deco styling, Kurtis-Offy racing heritage, impeccable provenance and remarkable history, the recent sale of this beautifully restored, high-performance American sports car special represented an unrepeatable opportunity to own a one-of-a-kind treasure.


And just think, if cars could speak, what would this beauty say?

The Speedster was offered for sale on Aug. 18, 2007, at the RM Auction in Monterey. The pre-sale estimate ranging from $350,000 to $500,000 was on the money, as the car sold for $440,000.

{This story originally appeared in the Sept. 27, 2007, issue of Old Cars Weekly.}

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