I climb in, twist the key, and press the starter. The Ford flathead V-8 fires up instantly and quickly settles down to a growling idle. I pull the shifter across to the left and back, engaging first gear in the three-speed transmission. Ease out the clutch, and the low, broad-shouldered convertible oozes forward, vintage whitewall tires squirming on the concrete.
We’re old friends, this old roadster and I; most of the 70 miles on the odometer are from when I drove it for a MotorTrend feature story eight years ago. Even so, I can’t quite believe I’m again behind the wheel of the actual car that appeared on the cover of the September 1949 issue—the very first issue—of MotorTrend magazine. Or, more incredibly, that I’m driving it into the freshly revamped headquarters of the MotorTrend Group in El Segundo, California.
This 1949 Kurtis Sport Car, serial number KB003, the third of only 18 ever built and the first “production” model, is a priceless piece of MotorTrend history. And it’s come home.
The Sport Car was built by Frank Kurtis, who began his car-making apprenticeship in the early 1920s at a body shop owned by L.A. Cadillac dealer Don Lee. Lee’s shop specialized in creating custom cars for Hollywood stars, and not only did Kurtis learn to shape and weld metal, but he also picked up tips on drawing and body design from Harley Earl. Yes, that Harley Earl, who also worked for Lee before founding the Art and Color Section at General Motors—the prototype for all modern automotive design studios—in 1927.
Kurtis-Kraft, Inc., the company Kurtis founded in the late 1930s, made most of its money churning out hundreds of oval-track midgets, plus racers for the famed Indy 500; Kurtis cars won five of the six 500s held from 1950 to 1955. Just before the outbreak of World War II, however, Kurtis had built a handsome, Mercury-powered sports car for a wealthy Denver cattleman, Bill Hughes. He reportedly charged Hughes just $900 for the car. Hughes later sold it to a Hollywood director for $3,200, and just after the war it changed hands again, this time for a reported $8,000.
It’s highly likely Kurtis would have heard about that sale. At about the same time, he had customized a 1941 Buick, turning it into a two-seat sports car that he drove to Indianapolis for the 1948 500. It impressed a lot of people in Gasoline Alley that year, including Ford scion Benson Ford, who urged him to build copies. All this suggested there was a market for a new type of sports car, something that combined easy American power with responsive, European-style road manners and fresh, modern styling.
The 1949 Kurtis Sport Car was that car.
It was a fitting choice for MotorTrend’s first cover. With the booming postwar economy providing jobs and prosperity, American auto enthusiasts were ready to celebrate, and California was where the party started. It was the epicenter of the explosion of creativity that spawned the hot-rodding and custom car scenes in the late 1940s, and those echoes still ripple through a state that today is home to advanced designed studios for almost every major automaker on the planet. The Kurtis was a product of that fabulous, febrile, car-crazy environment. So, too, was MotorTrend.
Tyro 21-year old publisher Robert E. “Pete” Petersen had produced the first issue of Hot Rod magazine in January 1948 to cater to enthusiasts passionate about making their cars go faster and look better, connecting them with the companies manufacturing the parts and accessories they needed. As he worked on plans to build his own car, Frank Kurtis suggested Petersen also publish a magazine that covered new vehicles.
Flush with Hot Rod magazine’s success—circulation had zoomed to 85,000 copies a month inside 18 months—but frustrated at its inability to attract advertising from conservative automakers wary of California’s automotive counter culture, Petersen took the advice. “Pete once told me Frank Kurtis was one of the inspirations for MotorTrend,” confirms noted hot-rod and classic car authority Ken Gross.
Petersen took the pictures of KB003 himself as the first issue of MotorTrend went into production. Meanwhile, his friend Walt Woron polished his first editor’s column. “We wanted a magazine that would interest the foreign car exponent, the sports car enthusiast, the custom car fan, and also be equally interesting to the stock car owner,” Woron wrote, “a magazine that brings you the trends of the automotive field: designs of the future, what’s new in motoring, news from the continent, trends in design.”
The personal connection with Frank Kurtis perhaps explains why Petersen chose the Sport Car as the cover car for his new magazine rather than, say, a Chevrolet sedan, America’s top-selling car that year. But the choice was also an eerily prescient confirmation of MotorTrend’s mission statement.
Within two years of the Kurtis appearing on our cover, a senior GM executive in Detroit had instigated secret backroom program code-named Project Opel, a proposal for a fiberglass-bodied sports car that, like the Kurtis, used many regular production car components under its shapely skin. The GM exec’s name? Harley Earl. And the car? Well, it first came to the public’s attention as the EX-122, one of the stars of GM’s 1953 Motorama Show at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. But you know it better as the Chevrolet Corvette. Frank Kurtis had the idea. GM had the money.
There’s a deep Hot Rod connection with KB003, as well. In August 1949, after the MotorTrend photo shoot, Petersen’s right-hand man and Hot Rod founding editor Wally Parks drove the car—fitted with a special full race engine built by Bobby Meeks at Edelbrock—to 142.515 mph at the inaugural Bonneville National Speed Trials. Parks autographed the glove box lid, right next to the small plaque commemorating his achievement, shortly before he died in 2007. “This is the only car I’ll ever sign,” he told owner DeWayne Ashmead at the time, “because it’s the only car worthy of my signature.”
Now it’s ours.
As I write, the Kurtis Sport Car is parked in the center of the newly rebranded MotorTrend Group head office in El Segundo. It’s surrounded by the talented people who create and manage content for all our iconic automotive media brands—among them Hot Rod, Automobile, Roadkill, 4Wheeler, Super Street, Head 2 Head, Truck Trend, Lowrider, and Wheeler Dealers—across our MotorTrend video-on-demand and MotorTrend Network TV platforms, as well as our website, magazine, and social media platforms.
The Kurtis is our touchstone, our origin artifact. It’s a reminder of how far MotorTrend has come, and, as we celebrate our 70th anniversary this year, an inspiration for us all to keep driving it forward, to keep telling stories for all of us who love cars and car culture.
I think Pete would have approved.
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