One of the most influential and successful constructors in American motorsport history is Frank Kurtis. Running under the Kurtis-Kraft name, Frank’s Midgets, Sprint cars, and Indy cars amassed an incredible record of success in open-wheel oval racing. Kurtis-Kraft earned five outright wins at the Indy 500, and countless numbers of victories on local dirt-tracks across the country. As an offshoot of his oval racing business, Frank Kurtis tried his hand at a road-going sports car in 1949. After just 15 cars, he abandoned that project and sold the rights to Madman Muntz. The Kurtis Sports would not be his last attempt at a sports car, however. From 1953 through 1955, Kurtis-Kraft offered the 500S; a widened, road-going sports car developed from the 500 B Indy racer. The two cars share very similar chassis architecture and suspension design, and the 500S is sometimes called “the two-seat Indy car.” About 25 examples left the Kurtis-Kraft workshop as complete cars or in kit form, and buyers could select from a wide range of engine options, with big V8s from Chrysler, Mercury, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Buick engines being the top choices. As the popularity of road racing exploded in the early 1950s, particularly on the East and West Coasts, the Kurtis 500S offered buyers a sophisticated, race-proven chassis, with the versatility off-the-shelf engine options to suit the owner. The rising starts of sports car racing agreed – with Briggs Cunningham, Frank McGurk, Mickey Thompson, and Bill Stroppe counted among the impressive roster of Kurtis 500S owners and drivers.
Among the approximately 25 Kurtis Kraft 500 S roadsters built, chassis number 015, also known as The Murphy Special, is one of the most fascinating and unique. This car, presented here with a Pebble-Beach class-winning restoration, has an impressive record of race wins and podium finishes that came primarily with its first owner, Mr. Bill Murphy. Based in Culver City, California, Bill Murphy was a life-long car guy who ran one of the most successful Buick dealerships in America. He was already a successful race car owner, running a series of Kurtis-Kraft Midgets for local hero Sam Hanks. However, this new Kurtis would be Bill’s personal steed to use in the rapidly growing West Coast sports car racing scene.
In 1953, Bill Murphy ordered his 500S directly from Kurtis-Kraft in Los Angeles. Considering Murphy already owned several Kurtis cars, it is not surprising to learn the 500S he had built was no off-the-shelf effort. It is believed that Murphy bought a used Indy Car to obtain the trick quick-change rear-end and aircraft-inspired disc brakes made by the legendary Conze Brothers Machine Shop in California. Of course, Buick power was the only way to go for Murphy, who supplied a brand new 322 cubic-inch Nailhead V8, which he later claimed made upwards of 300 horsepower on fuel injection and was good for an estimated 180 miles per hour.
Murphy wasted little time before hitting the track for the 1954 season. Early signs were positive, at the Bakersfield Sports Car Races, with Murphy scoring a 2nd overall in the feature race and winning Class B. A series of top ten finishes followed, for the remainder of the season nearly all coming in West Coast events. Before the 1955 season, Bill handed the car to another California legend, George Barris, who made new “flying wing” style front fenders and relocated the headlamps to the grille, giving his 500S a distinct appearance. The new look was reminiscent of the famous Flying Shingle MG special of Ken Miles. Always the astute self-promoter, George added his signature Barris Customs enamel badges to the body, which it still wears today.
Murphy and his Kurtis 500S soldiered into the 1955 season with highlights including an overall win at Santa Barbara, class victory at Torrey Pines (co-driving with Bill Stroppe in the 6hr race), and 3rd overall at Willow Springs. In March, Murphy and his team made the trek across the US to take part in the grueling 12-hour race. Sharing driving duties with the deeply talented Sam Hanks, they secured an outstanding 2nd in Class B for big-bore modified sports cars. The Sebring result is all the more impressive considering this was a prestigious World Championship event, won by Mike Hawthorn and Phil Walters in a Cunningham-entered Jaguar D-Type. The race history of 500S #015 is extensively documented, with period photographs, magazine articles, and anecdotes provided by previous owners. Period photos and documents show the car ran in three distinct liveries: a single-tone metallic maroon, the same maroon with white scallops and white interior, and dark metallic blue.
In the January 1956 issue of Road & Track magazine, an advertisement from Bill Murphy Buick shows two Kurtis cars on offer. One is the Kurtis 500M sports roadster (with full fiberglass road car bodywork) and 500S #015, described as a “500 KK Competition Roadster,” and offered in ready-to-race condition for $6,500. The distinct Barris fenders are in place, and the car is in street trim with a rear-mounted spare wheel carrier in place of the tubular bumper. Murphy had just acquired a new Kurtis-Kraft 500X with fully enveloped bodywork, so the faithful 500S was retired from racing duty.
It is unclear exactly when the next owner, Barry Williams (not to be confused with British Tin-Top ace Barrie “Whizzo” Williams) purchased the car from Murphy, although the history file suggests it was in the early 1980s. Williams was driving past Murphy’s Buick dealership and spotted the race car in the showroom, displayed in as-raced condition and finished in dark metallic blue. They two made a deal, and Williams became only the second owner of this historic automobile. In 1999, after many years of enjoying the car on the road, the Williams family sold 015 to noted Kurtis-Kraft collector and historian Bill Chapin. In the early 2000s, Chapin handed the car to Frank Kurtis’ son Arlen Kurtis who used 015 as the template for the limited production run of 500S continuation cars. Kurtis then restored the car to concours condition in preparation for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance later that year. A special class of early sports racing cars was assembled to honor the very machines that raced in the first Pebble Beach road races of the 1940s and 1950s. The Murphy Special 500 S came away with top honors, winning the class against some very tough competition. From 2010, the Kurtis was in the hands of Don Blenderman of Houston; another noted Kurtis enthusiast and collector who also owned Murphy’s Kurtis 500X that replaced this car in 1956. Chassis 015 has since appeared at other events including the Meadowbrook Concours and is an AACA Certified Race Car. True to spirit, it is no trailer queen as proven by a successful run in the 2012 Colorado Grand Rally. The most recent owner acquired it from Blenderman in 2016, where it has held a place of pride in his significant private collection.
In Blenderman’s care, 015 returned to its 1954-1955 livery of dark metallic maroon with a black interior. It is in beautiful condition with exquisite paintwork and detailing inside and out. Since the car also raced in period with white upholstery, a complete, concours quality white interior accompanies the sale. It is highly authentic, retaining the Barris-customized fenders, Barris-Kustom badges, Buick Nailhead 322, 4-speed Buick T-10 gearbox, and the extremely rare original Conze Machine rear axle and disc brakes. Also included is the spare wheel carrier as shown in the 1956 Road & Track advert, as well as the 2006 Pebble Beach trophy, and a binder full of fascinating historical photos and records. This extraordinary Kurtis runs beautifully and is equally suitable for major concours, classic road events, or consideration in the VSCCA and similar historic motoring organizations. This is a one-off opportunity to acquire a significant piece of American sports car racing history, accurately restored and ready for enjoyment in events worldwide.