If there was a Hall of Fame for the greatest race cars to not make Indy 500 history, the Rayfield-Hughes Special would be one of its oldest members. Innovative and powerful, this streamliner is nonetheless long forgotten, save for myths still circulating around Chrisman, Ill. — home of the Rayfield Motor Company from 1912 to 1915.
Founded in Springfield, Ill., in May 1910, the Rayfield firm relocated east to Chrisman in December 1911, bringing along chief engineer William Rayfield, who modeled his beloved automobile after France’s Renault, with its radiator mounted distinctively behind the engine. Rayfield also followed other automakers to the track, well aware of how much a race-winning reputation could help a small company get big in a hurry. After a failed attempt to take one of his cars racing outside Chicago in 1912, he went back to work on a second competition vehicle, meant this time to tour the bricks at Indy.
“My father spent a couple years up every night at his drawing board working on that race car,” remembered William’s son, George T. Rayfield, in 1992. Reportedly George T.’s father spent about $10,000 on his dream machine, part of that going to veteran Mercer team driver Hughie Hughes to both help build and drive it.
The 1,950-pound Rayfield-Hughes Special was powered by a 442 cubic-inch twin-cam six with inclined valves and dual Mea magnetos. Impressed with the car’s sleek form, Motor Age scribe C.G. Sinsabaugh touted it as the top example of wind-cheating design in the 1914 Indy field.
Expectations were predictably great when the Rayfield team headed east to Indianapolis on May 20, 1914. “All are hoping that the car will carry off some of the big stake money,” wrote Chrisman Weekly Courier Editor C.L. Livingston. “If it does, it will certainly put Chrisman and the Rayfield Motor Company on the map.”
The map unfortunately wouldn’t have it. As George T. Rayfield recalled, he and his father were at breakfast on May 28, 1914, when “someone came running in, shouting we’d better run over and see what our crazy driver had done.” Showing off, Hughie Hughes had wound the racer’s engine beyond its limits, fracturing the crankcase, as well as William Rayfield’s heart.
Failing fortunes prevented a return to Indianapolis. Rayfield went into bankruptcy in October 1915, and all properties were sold off the following February. The repaired Indy car went to racing enthusiast Horace Benjamin of nearby Danville for $1,500. Benjamin then resold it in October 1916.
Two months later came news of Hughie Hughes’ death in a racing accident in Pennsylvania. No one knows the Rayfield-Hughes Special’s final resting place.