The Hillegass Quarter Midgets "A HILLEGASS CLASSIC" story by Doug Schiller

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The Hillegass Quarter Midgets "A HILLEGASS CLASSIC" story by Doug Schiller

Brian Caruso
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"A HILLEGASS CLASSIC" by Doug Schiller. During what I consider to be quarter midget racing's “Golden Era,” there were upwards of three dozen companies manufacturing scaled down race cars for kids. There were no doubt countless more individuals and specialty builders who each built a limited number of cars. Counted among the major manufacturers were several who had ties to the construction of full-size race cars. The most recognizable of these was Frank Kurtis of the Frank Kurtis Company of Glendale, California. Kurtis’ company could be considered to be among the larger fabricators of quarter midgets. About the same time, a continent width away, was another builder of full-size race cars. His name was Hiram Hillegass. Hillegass, unlike Kurtis, only built a handful of quarter midgets. His business was located outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was simply known as “H. Hillegass -- Hand Formed Bodies and Parts.” His specialty was the fabrication of hand formed aluminum race car bodies. In his literature, he claimed to be one of the first to use die formed body parts for race cars. Over the years Hillegass’ manufacturing inventory grew to more than 200 race cars -- including a champ car, sprint cars, midgets, three-quarter midgets (TQ’s), micro midgets, and eventually quarter midgets. In many instances he built the chassis to go with his hand formed bodies. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s a complete full-size Hillegass midget powered by a Ford V8-60 engine could be bought for $3400. During my interviews about Hillegass’ involvement in building quarter midgets, I learned that probably fewer than a dozen cars were built by his hand. The first cars were very likely built in the mid 1950’s. It is believed that only two cars left his shop as complete quarter midgets. They were the ones eventually owned by Jerry Brown. The remaining cars were in what could be considered “kit” form. They consisted of bodies and other basic components with the final running gear and detailing left to the owner of the car. Hiram Hillegass’ quarter midgets were unique for their time since the bodies were made from seven pieces of hand formed aluminum rather than the more popular fiberglass. The removable hood and cowl combination consisted of one piece, like the full size Hilllegass midgets. All body pieces were held in place by Dzus fasteners. There was generous use of louvers on the car’s body, with almost two dozen found on the tail cone alone. The tail cone and nose were fabricated in two halves, a right and a left, and welded together before finishing. Additional body pieces consisted of two side panels, a belly pan and the “diaper” beneath the tail cone. Rumor had it that Hillegass gathered the information and dimensions from an article in the April 1955 issue of Mechanix Illustrated magazine. Whether true, or not, the completed car’s running gear was very rudimentary. The tubular front axle was mounted with a center pivot and had no suspension and was controlled by means of the two radius rods. The rear axle was also without suspension and was mounted in two pillow block bearings. The steering was the conventional direct link found in most quarter midgets of that time. Brakes, like several other components, were left to the car’s owner to complete. One of Jerry Brown’s Hillegass quarter midgets was equipped with the classic V-belt and pulley, while the other had hydraulic brakes in the rear and was actuated by an outside hand lever. The power plant, like other early quarter midgets, was the compact Continental Red Seal engine whose use was preferred because of the limited confines of the car’s small tail cone. The non-reduction gearbox engine required the use of a very large diameter rear axle sprocket, which in turn lead to the use of 14” diameter rear tires to achieve the needed ground clearance. Two of the “finishing details” helped put the Hillegass signature on the cars. The first was the large hand formed oval, vertical bar grille with pointed peak at the top. The grille was literally a scaled down version of his full-size race car’s grille. In addition, the front and rear bumpers exhibited the same details as their full-size counterparts, right down to the little “flag” atop the rear bumper! The #2 Bardahl liveried car is still owned by Jerry Brown of Kentucky, while the two-toned #2 has been passed on to an individual in Muncie, Indiana. Another of the beautifully detailed Hillegass quarter midgets is owned by Lynn Paxton and is painted in the classic “Miracle Power” colors of yellow and blue. I recently had a call telling me of still another Hillegass quarter midget having shown up in a salvage yard in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, the car was sold before I could learn more information about it. As the years pass, it is hoped that more and more of these delightful little cars will be found and preserved. Although Hiram Hillegass died in 1960, his legacy lives on in the form of his many racing creations. People recall watching youngsters in Hillegass quarter midgets tearing around coned-off dirt tracks on the main straight-aways of some of the most famous tracks of the Northeast. For this, all we can say is, “Thanks for the memories.” A couple photos of Hiram Hillegass built quarter midgets from the 1950’s. These two hand-formed aluminum bodied examples are in immaculate condition. Both cars were owned by Jerry Brown of Louisville, KY. Only the black #2 Bardahl Spl. remains in his collection. This cream/blue Hillegass is believed to be the “first” to be turned out from his Allentown, PA shop. Another of the Hillegass quarter midgets, this one was owned by Lynn Paxton and is clad in the blue/yellow “Miracle Power Special” colors. The car is also seen as it sits in front of a flock of full size Hillegass midgets which were on display. The compact Continental engine nestled in the tail section of the Hillegass quarter midget. Note the engine is non-reduction gearbox and required a very large axle sprocket for proper gearing.