By Ray Brock*
Our first meeting with Karol Miller took place in the middle of the hot,
blinding expanse of the Bonneville salt flats in August of 1956. None of the old
time hot rodders who had been participating yearly at the annual SCTA (Southern
California Timing Association) National Speed Trials knew anything about this
soft-spoken Texan -- he just drove in one day near the start of the week-long
meet and asked for an entry blank.
Unlike most of the other Bonneville entrants, Karol wasn't towing the car he intended to race, he was driving it. He and a friend had decided to see what the famous salt flats looked like so they threw a couple of sleeping bags in Karol's 1956 Ford Victoria and left Houston for the 2000-mile drive to western Utah. Karol was used to long drives though for his full-time job was operating oil exploration teams for his father's Houston-based drilling company and the test locations might be all over the country, from Louisiana to North Dakota. When the two Texans and the Ford arrived on the salt, there was already more than 25,000 miles logged on the odometer. A 3.23 rear axle ratio was fitted to the car and an overdrive transmission was used. The O-D was strictly for highway cruising, giving a 2.26 final ratio.
As Karol explained later, the 25,000 miles on the engine didn't hurt his chances at all; they made the engine nice and loose. During the few months prior to Bonneville, Karol had performed quite a few experiments with the car and knew that it was running good. The pan had never been off the engine but a fresh valve job had been given the cylinder heads. Ports and valve sizes remained stock. An Iskenderian E-2 camshaft and spring kit were installed and an Edelbrock dual-quad intake manifold was fitted with a pair of Holley carburetors. A Mallory ignition with centrifugal advance weights was used in place of the stock distributor which used only vacuum advance. Total spark advance was about 38º.
Karol used Ford cab-over truck carburetor bonnets on each of the four-barrels with flexible ducting to the fresh air vents which passed beneath the inner fender panels on their way to the passenger compartment. These ducts provided cool air directly to the carburetors for maximum induction efficiency. As the car speed increased, so did the air pressure through the ducts so jetting was complicated somewhat by the slight pressurization of the carburetors at high speed. Karol experimented with jetting quite a while before he found the right combination.
Stock '56 312 exhaust manifolds were used on the engine with a pair of cutout plugs fitted so the mufflers could be bypassed by uncapping the head pipes 24 inches downstream from the manifolds. The Ford chassis was stock except for a set of heavy-duty Monroe shock absorbers. The rear spring shackles were reversed from their normal tension position to a compression position, giving the rear of the car a noticeable forward rake. Stock street tires with most of the heavy tread rubber buffed off by a retreading shop were pumped up to 60 pounds at the front, 50 pounds at the rear.
Since Karol Miller was an "unknown" to the predominantly West Coast entrants at Bonneville, no particular attention was paid to the orange and white hardtop coupe as it pulled away from the starting line on its first run. Some minutes later when the speed of almost 140 miles per hour was flashed back from the finish line 2 1/4 miles away, many thought that perhaps a timing mistake had been made. The speed was unheard of for a Ford sedan.
Hot rodders hadn't thought anybody would have much success using the Y-block Ford engine with the odd intake port arrangement but, all of a sudden, here was a Ford with 312 cubic inches running in a popular sedan class that permitted from 305 to 488 cubic inches and it was beating almost everybody. The only car that could hold its own was a '56 Chrysler 300 with a 400-inch stroker engine. These two cars battled for the whole week before the Chrysler emerged the winner at 141 mph with Miller's Ford runner-up at 139-plus. By the end of the week, everyone knew who Karol Miller was and they were also starting to revise their thinking about Ford's Y-V8 engine.
Although Karol Miller had been unknown to the regulars at Bonneville in 1956, he had already earned a reputation as a sharp tuner of Fords on his own home grounds around Houston. His first Ford was s 1949 coupe which he bought new and, in his own words, "just played around with it a little to see if I could make it run better." Among the changes made were the installation of Merc crankshaft and pistons to enlarge the displacement to 255 cubic inches. Carburetion, ignition and other changes made Miller's '49 the scourge of the area and all those who had tried unsuccessfully to take his measure on some of the long straight Texas roads were mighty happy to see him join the Army early in 1950.
After Army duty, Karol bought a 1953 Ford with the then new overhead valve six. A short time later Karol was back in the thick of things after he'd milled the head to up the compression, installed dual carburetion, opened up the exhaust and a few other little Miller touches to aid performance. It didn't take the boys in the Houston area long to learn that Karol was back in circulation because the I-block six proceeded to show its taillights to all the hot flatheads in town.
The next Ford was a 1955 model with the 292-inch engine. Karol installed T-bird heads which had been milled and ended up with a compression ratio of about 9.5:1. A four-barrel carburetor was also used. A few more Miller improvements and the '55 Ford attained its proper spot as top dog in the neighborhood. After the '55 came the '56 Vicky and that's where we came in.
After shaking up contestants and spectators at Bonneville, Karol went home, made a few minor changes to the engine and decided to take in the 1957 NASCAR Speedweeks event at Daytona Beach, Florida, where speed trials were held on the hard packed sand each February. Since the car was not of current model year and not strictly stock, it was required to run in the Experimental class. Rough beach conditions held up the meet for several days before Karol got a chance to run but when the time finally arrived, the Vicky set sail for a two-way average of 140.070 mph over the measured mile. This speed placed Miller well up in the class standings ahead of many high powered entries from factory-sponsored race teams.
During the waiting period from Daytona to the 1957 Bonneville Nationals in August, Karol made a number of changes beneath the hood of his '56. First of all, he decided to play it smart and quit trying to compete against as much as 488 cubic inches in D class with his 312 and drop back to C class for gas coupes and sedans. The class limit was 305 cubic inches for C class. Karol took a 292-inch block and crank, bored .060-inch oversize and came up with 302 inches. 1957 cylinder heads gave the larger intake valves needed and Karol also fitted 1/8-inch larger than stock exhaust valves to the heads.
With larger exhaust valves, the combustion chambers in the head crowded the valve closely and would obviously cause restriction to gas flow. Karol opened the chambers out generously around both intake and exhaust valves to improve flow and the lengthened chambers were then wider than the cylinder opening. Carefully, the top of each cylinder bore was chamfered from the chamber outline to a point just above the top of ring travel. This eliminated the ledge at the top of the bore which extended into the enlarged chamber. All of the grinding to the cylinder head and block gave an extremely large volume in the combustion chamber. To get the needed high compression for maximum performance, Karol used Jahns deflector head pistons and then milled the heads .100-inch to reach the desired ratio of 11:1.
Karol then selected an Isky cam for the engine but this time it was a "smoothie" grind with high rpm potential and less torque than the E-2. Karol devised his own stroboscopic test stand to check valve action at various engine speeds. In the single stall garage behind the family home, Karol mounted a Y-V8 block on an old kitchen table, installed a cam, tightened down an old cylinder head with single intake and exhaust valve in one chamber, used a pair of lifters and pushrods to drive rocker arms actuating these valves, dropped a distributor in place and then drove the setup by a small 3 hp four-cycle utility engine.
A battery supplied primary voltage to the distributor which operated in the conventional manner but with only one secondary lead which was connected to a timing light. A V-belt from the small engine turned the cam fitted with two sprockets to give a wider surface for the belt to ride on.
With this setup, Karol checked out dozens of combinations in cams, springs, valve weights, rocker ratios, etc. Advancing or retarding the distributor gave stroboscopic viewing through the timing light. By the time late summer rolled around and Karol was ready for Bonneville, he had come up with a perfect combination. Both intake and exhaust valves were lightened the limit; an Isky Ford inner spring and Isky Chevy outer, plus an Isky Chevy retainer and .060-inch shims under the outer springs made the valve gear stable in excess of 7200 rpm.
The Edelbrock dual intake manifold was retained with four-barrel Holleys, but had been carefully matched to enlarged ports. Fresh air to the carburetors was doubled in volume with two large flexible hoses to each carburetor bonnet from openings behind the grille. The exhaust system also came in for its share of attention as Karol attempted to "tune" for maximum power at about 6000 rpm. Individual 1 1/2-inch pipes 32 inches long from each port extended almost straight out, through a long narrow opening in each front fender. A little rough on appearance but darned helpful for performance.
Since Karol still didn't have the finances needed for a second car to tow or trailer the Vicky, he again drove it to Bonneville for the '57 meet. Since the outer valve springs were almost coil bound with the high rpm setup, horseshoe shaped shims .060 thick which had been fitted under the outer springs were removed to lessen possible cam wear on the 2000-mile jaunt. Stock exhaust manifolds were also fitted for the trip.
When Karol arrived at the salt, the first day was spent installing the spring shims, headers, carburetor air ducting and setting the chassis up for minimum rolling resistance. Engine oil was used in the transmission, overdrive and front wheel bearings. Wynn oil was used to thin out the rear end lubricant. Rear shackles were reversed to raise the rear of the car for improved air flow beneath the car. Trimmed down tires with little tread rubber were used with high inflation pressures.
When everything was set to go, Karol drove the car up to the starting line and took off on his first run. This time, spectators and contestants knew who he was and all activity stopped while they watched. Through low and second gears, Karol twisted the engine up to a spine-tingling 7200 rpm and then shifted into high gear. 2 1/4 miles away at the finish line, the impressive sounding Ford approached rapidly and then roared through the timing traps at a speed of 149-plus mph. With the 3.23 gearing, engine rpm was about 6100.
The reason for the high rpm through the gears was to keep engine speed up within the best power range after shifting. If shifted at less than 7000 rpm from second to high, rpm would fall below 5000 rpm and the engine would not pick up speed.
Throughout the week of the '57 meet, the Ford ran consistently near the 150 mph mark. The only trouble encountered was a blown head gasket and once it was replaced, speed went right back to its normal. By the end of the week, Karol Miller had set a new C Gas Coupe/Sedan record two-way average of 150.097 mph for the flying mile. The speed was almost 13 miles per hour faster than the previous record held by a Chevy. The 302-inch Ford with the impressive 7000-plus exhaust tone was one of the sensations of the '57 Bonneville meet.
Again the following February, Karol took in the Daytona Beach Trials but this time he went to an even smaller engine displacement and then topped it off with a Latham axial-flow supercharger. The engine was a 272 fitted with Karol's special valve gear, reworked heads, an Isky blower cam, the tuned headers, Mallory ignition and the Latham competition blower with four side-draft Zenith carburetors. Running ten pounds boost, Karol shocked other contestants in the Experimental class by averaging 153 mph over a rough beach and walked away with the class win. The '56 Victoria was the fastest car on the beach in 1958. After the success shown with the blower, it was only natural for Karol to retain the combination for the '58 Bonneville Nationals. Since the use of a blower automatically jumps cars one class under SCTA rules, the engine size was cut back even further so that it would fall under the B class maximum of 259 cubic inches. Then, the addition of the Latham blower would again raise the car into C class.
To drop the engine displacement to 259 inches, Karol used a '54 Merc crank with 3.100-inch stroke and then bored the block .010-inch over standard '54 Merc bore (3.625) to achieve the proper size. Again the engine was topped by the head, valve and cam setup worked out by Karol on the table in his garage. Compression was held to 8.5:1 for use with the blower. With a smaller engine displacement than he'd run at Daytona, Karol contacted Norm Latham for blower information and switched to a unit that had fewer vanes at a slighter pitch for use at Bonneville. When Karol rolled onto the salt for the '58 meet, driving the car from Texas as always, the Ford was again the center of attention. After a day of engine and chassis setup, Karol proved that he still had the magic touch as the little 259 inch Y-V8 plus blower exceeded the 150 mph mark on the first run. By the end of the week, Karol had raised his C class record slightly to 151.997 mph and had a one-way qualification speed of 153.32 mph. At the 4300 foot elevation of Bonneville, the lower boost Latham did not put out the pressure Karol had hoped for so he actually went home unsatisfied although everybody else thought he'd done great.
The '56 Victoria was retired from competition after the '58 Bonneville meet and returned to strictly highway use with a 312-inch engine until late 1959 when with 120,000 miles on the odometer, it was sold to make way for a new 1960 Ford Starliner coupe. Karol really intended to quit racing when he bought the '60 Ford and it had the standard 352-inch engine with hydraulic lifters, power steering and even air conditioning. By the time summer rolled around though, Karol got the urge again and, in a matter of two weeks, put together an engine for another fling at the salt flats.
The 352 engine was bored .090-inch over to take stock Edsel replacement pistons. Edsels used a .050 larger standard bore for 361 inches and with .040-inch oversize, a total of 368 cubic inches was realized, placing the Ford in a newly established BX Gas Coupe/Sedan class with a displacement limit of 370 cubic inches. Karol then borrowed a few engine pieces from a friend who had purchased one of Ford's 360 hp high performance 1960 cars. The 360 hp heads were milled .030-inch to give a compression ratio of 11:1 and otherwise left stock. The four-barrel aluminum intake manifold was used and equipped with a '59 Lincoln four-barrel carburetor which had larger capacity than the standard Holley. An Isky RR8000 cam and spring kit was installed and these pieces were the only non-Ford parts used. Exhaust headers were the factory cast iron items; distributor and wiring were 360 Ford.
As always, the car was driven to Bonneville, this time with the added luxury of power steering and air conditioning. After arriving at the salt and passing through the inspection line, Karol drove it to the pit area, changed tires, removed the power steering and air conditioning belts and made a warm-up run. The car left the starting line with just a slight whisper from the stock dual exhaust system and a few minutes later word flashed back from the finish line that the Ford had registered a cool 150 mph -- with mufflers.
After bypassing the exhaust system and performing a little tune-up, Karol qualified for a record run at 158.17 mph and then set a new record average of 157.902 mph. When the meet was over, Karol slipped the belts back on for power steering and air conditioning and headed back to Texas. Early in 1962, Karol sold the '60 Starliner with 95,000 miles on the odometer and it was still going strong.
We talked to Karol in May of 1962 and he was driving a Fairlane 500 with the 260-inch V8. He hadn't made up his mind just what he was going to do for the '62 Bonneville meet, if anything, but he did confess that he had looked the Fairlane engine over pretty good.
If Karol does show up at Bonneville this summer, you can bet that he'll be driving a Ford product of one type or another and you can also bet that whatever class he chooses to enter will have a new record hung up before the week is over. With his slow, Texas drawl, Karol doesn't make much noise -- he lets his Fords speak for him and their voices are loud.
*From the FORD PERFORMANCE HANDBOOK, 1962, by Ray Brock and the Editors of HOT ROD magazine.
Y-block-Ford.com is a noncommercial site for information exchange regarding the Y-block Ford, Mercury and Edsel engines. If you have information, stories, photographs or data regarding performance Y-block engines, the people who built them and cars that ran them please send to yblockhead@Y-block-Ford.com. If you have Y-block parts you no longer need and would like to dispose of please let me know.