The Frehlan Torpedo had two distinctions. In 1973 it was the last front engine race car to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Second, it was the last car to qualify for the 500 using the 215 cubic Oldsmobile V-8 engine. The Torpedo did not finish the race, it suffered damage after striking debris from Jerry Grant's blown engine, but the Torpedo was a true original which competed well against a field dominated by professional chassis and engine constructors. The Torpedo won a great deal of short-term respect for its creator, engineer "Sliderule Eddie" Frehlan.
Sliderule Eddie came to racing from the worlds of aviation and hot rodding. By day he was an aerodynamic engineer, whose most important project was the North American A-5 Vigilante, the Navy's first supersonic bomber. Designed to deliver nuclear weapons off an aircraft carrier, the Vigilante was powered by a pair of afterburning General Electric J-79 Turbojets and was capable of up to Mach 2.5. The Vigilante was a technological marvel, with a cutting edge avionics suite and both titanium and lithium alloys used in the frame, the Vigilante was a project to be proud of. But the Navy decided to put its leg of the nuclear triad into ballistic missile submarine rather then carrier-borne bombers. Expensive and maintenance-intensive, the Vigilante's production was cut and existing models converted into reconnaissance aircraft, where the Vig served until 1979 as the RA-5C. With Vigilante production winding down and little design work left at North American Aviation's Columbus, Ohio plant, Sliderule Eddie decided to put his engineering skills into hot rodding. At the time, he owned the fastest '57 Crown Victoria anyone had ever seen, complete with a blown Ford 427 side-oiler that had terrorized the Columbus street racing scene for decades. But as much fun a the Ford was, without a jet to work on Frehlan soon sought a bigger challenge. Being a traditionalist he set his sights on Indy.
At first he intended to follow the trail blazed by STP founder Andy Granatelli and use a turboshaft engine to drive his race car. After all, the turbine fit right in with his jet experience. But Sliderule Eddie soon recognized that USAC had its tail buried in the past and didn't want the turbines to win. So he took a look around and decided to do things his own way.
First of all, he put the engine up front. Front-engine roadsters had dominated Indy from Day one until Jim Clark and Dan Gurney brought the mid-engined Lotus 38 over and beat everybody. Most racer quickly saw the monocoque-chassied, mid-engined layout of the Lotus was the quick way to go, and pretty much all Indy (and Formula 1) cars have followed the pattern set by Lotus founder Colin Chapman. Sliderule Eddie saw why, as the layout gave a much better handling balance, but thought he could keep the 'mid-engined' bit but still maintain the handling advantages by moving the motor and radiator behind the front wheels. He'd noticed that Indy cars had a bad habit of smacking the wall, and as he put it: "if I'm going into the the wall, I'd rather have that big motor in front of me than behind."
Eddie also made an unusual engine choice, the 215-cubic V-8 Oldsmobile put in the first Cutlass. At the time most indy cars were powered by two engines. Either they used the Ford Cosworth DFX (a variant of F1 DFV engine) or they used an Offenhauser. But Sliderule Eddie saw something in the Olds mill. For one thing, making it go thrilled the hot-rodder at his soul. Second, the engine was all-American and all-aluminum, two big points in its favor. Despite the Ford name, the DFX was essentially a British engine, and Frehlan wanted an all-American car. Plus everybody ran the Offy, which bored him. The Olds was compact and lightweight, so he thought he could turn it into a giant-killer.
Eventually, he found a way. Using his experience from jet engine inlet design, he recognized that a lot more air would be available at 175MPH then you could ever get at slower speeds. So he designed an efficient inlet that ducted every bit of the cooling air from the radiator into the Olds' fuel injection system. Essentially he gave it it a really big Ram Air with the world's first airbox. He tuned it at North American's wind tunnel so the motor would make peak power with air being driven into the motor. He had to add a a vent to get the engine started in the pits, but he got the Olds mill making plenty of power even if it had poor acceleration until you got up to 100MPH. At Indy, high speeds meant a lot more. Frehlan realized that no matter how quick his Crown Vic was, he wasn't ready for Indy. So he hired local SCCA racing champ Chuck Fergus to shoe his odd beast. (It's not known if photographs involving trophy girl Linda Hurst had anything to do do with Fergus' decision to drive the odd racer)
The long-wheelbase dictated by his "motor-in-the-middle" design proved no disadvantages at Indy, where the banking is high and corners fast. When he got done 'Sliderule Eddie' Frehlan had created a very odd race car, but one with a low frontal area, decent downforce (thanks to more wind-tunnel work) that really could go. The press dubbed it the 'Frehlan Torpedo' because it sort of looked like one, being so long and low. A few of the smarter reporters noted the aviation engineering and construction techniques that had gone into the car, but most laughing joked it looked like it had been "sunk off Savo Island." But the laughing stopped once they solved some teething problems and got her to run.
Fergus put the Torpedo 19th on the grid on opening day and stayed there. Finished in bare aluminum, it stood out from the field. The inexperienced crew didn't do so well on the first pit stop, but once the car got going it was fast and stable in traffic. Fergus got her up to 11th place when on Lap 58 Swede Savage spun and hit the inside wall hard. The race was stopped, and on the restart the slow initial acceleration of the Olds V-8 dropped the Torpedo to 14th. But once the car got up to speed Fergus started picking people off. He was up to 10th when he ran over debris from George Snider's blown engine. A sheered nut got sucked into the inlet and damaged the radiator. Fergus brought the Torpedo into the pits for the last time on lap 80, for a final placing of 19th.
'Sliderule Eddie' Frehlan never raced the Torpedo again. With her slow acceleration and long wheelbase, she really was only quick on a long oval like Indy. He died three months later in a gardening accident, and the Torpedo went to his youngest son, Freddy, who lost the car in a poker game. It was a popular attraction at Ohio car shows for the next few years, then disappeared. But in the fall of 2011 it was re-discovered in a New Albany, Ohio barn. Everything was there including the injected Olds V-8. So don't be too surprised if you see the Frehlan Torpedo show up at a vintage race near you. You'll know it because there will be nothing else like it out on track. The Frehlan Torpedo, like its creator, was a true American original.