Bobby Unser’s 1952 Kurtis Kraft faces another uphill battle
This speedy little race car has quite a history: several Indianapolis 500 starts, a famous driver, and, ultimately, three straight victories. Pretty spectacular, right? Except those victories weren’t at Indy, and the car no longer has the engine that made them possible.
So what does that mean for the 1952 Kurtis Kraft 4000 at Mecum’s upcoming Indianapolis auction? As always, it depends on who’s buying and just how particular they are when it comes to historic preservation.
The car’s real claim to fame is its back-to-back-to-back wins at Pikes Peak in 1959–61, with Bobby Unser behind the wheel. Unfortunately, it isn’t wearing that livery today. After a meticulous restoration by Jim Mann in 2014, the car is decked out in the John Zink Special red-over-black livery and #31 the car wore when Gene Hartley drove it in the 1954 Indianapolis 500—perhaps to coincide with its participation in the Indianapolis Historic Racing Exhibition in 2015. Hartley finished 23rd in ’54 after completing 168 of 200 laps, dropping out due to a bad clutch.
The Kurtis Kraft’s best Indy finish was seventh in 1952 with rookie driver Jimmy Reece at the helm. It also finished 23rd in 1953 (Jerry Hoyt), sidelined by overheating issues after 107 laps.
“Winning at Pikes Peak is significant, especially with multiple victories by a famous driver, but a Pikes Peak win doesn’t have the same cachet as a win at Le Mans, Daytona, Monaco, or Indy,” says Hagerty valuation editor Andrew Newton. “The car’s career at Indy is unremarkable, especially in the 1950s when Kurtises won five times.”
The race car’s link to Unser cannot be overlooked. In fact, Newton says, “The majority of the value here is in its Unser/Pikes Peak history.” Unser is not only one of the fastest drivers in the history of motorsports, he had a stranglehold on the title of “King of the Mountain” by capturing Pikes Peak an amazing 13 times, setting nine track records in the process. The Kurtis Kraft car (Serial #356-52) was powered by a Pontiac engine for Unser’s three consecutive Pikes Peak wins, but it now carries a 270-cubic-inch Offenhauser inline-four.
Newton says that while “there is less that an owner can do, event-wise, with an old Indy car than an old Formula One or sports racing car,” the Kurtis Kraft’s current Offenhauser engine “probably makes it more usable.”
Mecum’s presale estimate is $275,000–$350,000. The car crosses the block on May 18.
A 1952 Kurtis Kraft 4000—the Bowes Seal Fast Special that finished fifth in the 1952 Indianapolis 500—sold for $495,000 at RM Sotheby’s 2015 Amelia Island sale. More recently, the gorgeous 1952 Kurtis Kraft 4000 that Ed Elisian drove in the 1955 Indy 500 vaulted past its $165,000–$185,000 estimate and went for $291,500 at Mecum’s 2018 Indianapolis auction. Elisian finished 30th in the race, only because he stopped to help after a horrific crash that killed his idol, the legendary Bill Vukovich. Last August, a 1957 Kurtis Kraft 500G Bardahl Special (11th at Indy that year) sold for $258,500 at Mecum’s Monterey auction.
Although the 1952 Kurtis Kraft 4000 at Mecum’s upcoming Indy event doesn’t have its original engine, perhaps the allure and prestige of its history at Indy—along with Bobby Unser’s prowess in the car at another venue—will be enough to put it back in the spotlight. It certainly knows what to do when faced with an uphill battle.