1886 - 1958
W. W. Brown (tallest in photo) with his wife, Iva Mae (Brown) Brown, and his Buick racer, in 1912.
McPherson Weekly Republican, McPherson, Kansas
After reaching the summit of Pikes Peak on July 17, 1913 without the aid of horses to pull him, W. W. Brown proceeded to drive up the steps of the summit house to fet his 1910 Model 10 “Bear Cat” to the highest point on the mountain that he possibly could.
The Buick, A Complete History, by Terry Dunham & Lawrence R. Guston
W. W. Brown seated on the pit wall at Elgin, Illinois in 1915
Trevon Richards collection
#3 W. W. Brown at the start of the 1915 Elgin Road Race, Elgin, Illinois.
John Distefano collection
W. W. Brown at Indy in 1919.
Trevon Richards collection
W. W. Brown with his Buick “Bear Cat” on the evening of July 3, 1913 at Winfield, Kansas.
Photo from the private collection of Michael A. Darrah. Please do not reproduce without his permission
This plaque was presented to W. W. Brown by the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Association in 1955 in comeration of his being the first to drive a gasoline powered automobile to the summit of Pikes Peak 42 years earlier. The plaque is now in the possession of
Dr. John Backe.
Photo from the John Distefano collection
W. W. Brown in the Buick Model 22 “Bear Cat II” on May 30, 1914 at Iowa City, Iowa.
W. W. Brown, at left, driving the #3
Du Chesneau in the 1915 Elgin
Road Race, Elgin, Illinois.
John Distefano collection
The unidentified driver in this photo
is seated behind the steering wheel
of a #3 Du Chesneau racing car that
was often driven by W. W. Brown.
John Distefano collection
W. W. Brown, behind the steering wheel, with his riding mechanic, Ernie Schweering.
Trevon Richards collection
W. W. Brown was born at Dodge City, Kansas (although one source says Colorado) and raised by his step-mother, Druzella Jane "Jennie" (Burbank) Brown.
W. W. Brown was married first on October 27, 1909 at Delta, Colorado to Iva Mae Brown and the couple had moved to Kansas City, Missouri by 1910. He was married second on June 30, 1924 in Jackson Coounty, Missouri to Alma Martha Mutch. She proceeded him in death and he was married third on January 12, 1956 in Kansas City, Missouri to Grace Irene Wetzling.
It is unknown just when Brown started his racing career but he was employed as a mechanican by the Jackson, Michigan based Buick factory racing team as early as 1908. He is known to have competed as a driver in races at Winfield, Kansas in 1912; at Belleville, Kansas in 1913; at Des Moines Speedway in 1915; at Meridian Speedway in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, and there were probably several others.
The following appeared on page 7 of the July 26, 1913 issue of the
Winfield (Kansas) Daily Free Press:
Bear Cat Went Up Pike’s Peak
W. W. Brown, Winner in (July) 4th Races Here, Performs Daring Feat in Colorado Springs,
The following interesting account tells of the drive W. W. Brown made in his “Bear Cat” Buick racer recently. Brown won second in the automobile races here on the Fourth of July. The Clipping is taken from a Colorado Springs paper:
Two Daredevil Automobile men set a new record yesterday when they drove the Buick agency, 113 North Cascade Avenue, to the summit of Pike’s Peak in three hours and 22 minutes.
W. W. Brown, a Kansas City racer, was at the wheel of the car which is known as a Buick “Bear Cat”, a 20-horsepower racing machine, and his companion was J. R. Bradley, a local automobile man.
This is the first time that a car has gone to the top of the Peak under its own power since 1900. The car which first made the trip required 24 hours for the journey.
After Brown and his companion had reached the summit yesterday afternoon, shortly before 6 o’clock, they drove their little racer, which weighed 1,400 pounds, straight up the steps onto the platform of the summit house where they posed for a photograph. They spent the night in a cabin in the mountains and returned to the Buick agency here this morning shortly after 9 o’clock.
The round trip was 58 miles and the machine used 4˝ gallons of gasoline and ˝ gallon of oil.
Brown’s little racer showed its relationship to the Buick which finished second to Barney Oldfield in the big Los Angeles road race early this month. The driver of the California car found his machine in the oil fields where it had been through a fire, and bought it for $50. Brown’s car also has been through a fire and he paid only $100 for it. Since buying the machine, it has started in 18 races and has won 15 firsts and 3 seconds.
“Never again,” said Brown, when he crawled out of the little car this morning at the conclusion of his trip. “Driving up the Peak may sound all right but when you try it, you find that it is anything but pleasant. It was impossible to hold the car on the road all the time. But at that, we didn’t have an accident until we started back. Leaving the Peak, we started down the cog road and busted a tire because the gravel wouldn’t hold when the brakes were on.
“We had to make frequent stops to roll large boulders out of the road and to make bridges over gullies. Our actual running time going up was three hours and 22 minutes.”
Brown and Bradley left here yesterday morning at 11:10. They had lunch at Cascade and left there at 12:10 o’clock. They made the trip up the Peak over the old wagon road. The road is almost impassable in places.
The following appeared in the September 6, 1954 issue of the
Colorado Springs (Colorado) Gazette Telegraph:
First Peak Driver Recalls Initial Trip Made in 1913
W. W. Brown, Kansas City, Mo., machine works owner, and credited (by) some as being the first person to drive a gasoline engine automobile to the summit of Pikes Peak, has written an account of that experience to Clifford L. Johnson, secretary of the Pikes Beak Hill Climb Assn., Inc.
He said he drove to the summit in his “Buick Bear Cat,” either in 1912 or 1913 with a man named Bradley of Colorado Springs. The Gazette Telegraph files show that the climb was made on July 18, 1913 and his companion was J.S. Bradley. Brown was identified as “H. Brown.”
The racer was a 20-horsepower car.
“I started up the Peak one Sunday morning by myself and ended close to an old gold mine. I came back down and borrowed a 30-30 rifle from a man named Bradley in Colorado Springs. I then went up on the cog road to the summit and walked down … to familiarize myself with the road before starting back up. A day or so after this, Bradley and I started driving up. It was so rough (that) Bradley lost his pipe and tobacco out of his pocket and we lost our lunch. However, on the way up, he shot a pheasant and we buried it in a snow drift.
“Upon arrival at the summit, I climbed the steps which at that time went from the railroad platform several steps to a higher platform. I tore the top step off with the flywheel as I went up. At that time, there was a stationary engine on the summit with which they ran a search light. It didn’t perform exactly right. It was thought an automobile would not operate right on the top of the Peak, also. I believe Mr. Penrose decided to build a road up the Peak after my car did perform so well up there.
“When we started to come down, I decided to come down the cog road,” Brown wrote, adding that the last stretch was so steep he had to give up and come back down the stage road. On the way down, darkness overtook them and they stopped at “an old half way house which at the time, was nothing but a cabin with some bunks in it filled with dust and straw. We cooked this wild bird we had buried on the way up. Having lost our lunch, we were hungry as wolves. We ate this without salt, pepper, bread or anything.”
He said that he broke 13 spokes in his wire wheels going up, wheels he had made himself. He also broke the aluminum crankcase. “Everyone told me to go back to the Buick factory and they would give me a new car since I was the first man to go (up) in a gas driven car, but instead, I got the dickens for coming back there, but they did fix up my motor for me.”
It is possible Brown was the first to make the top in a gasoline powered car. Records at the city library show stories from Denver and Colorado Springs papers and magazines saying that in September, 1900, a man named Ben Walker reached an elevation of 11,000 feet. He was credited with having thus driven an automobile higher than any other person in the world. The stories did not say what kind of a car he was driving. But Walker was one of the founders of the Locomobile Company which built the steam-powered Locomobiles.
Other stories of the time said that on Aug. 12, 1901, W. B. Selker and C. A. Yont reached the summit in a Locomobile and were credited with being the first men to take an “automobile” to the top of Pikes Peak.
W. W. Brown, at right, with his riding mechanic, Anthony “Topeka Slim” Gulotta, who drove in the Indianapolis “500” thirteen times between 1926 and 1939.
John Distefano collection
The Buick Trophy
a. k. a.
The R. H. Collins Trophy
R. H. Collins, manager of a Kansas City Buick dealership, awarded the Buick Trophy to the owner of the winning car in a five-mile race for privately owned entries that was contested annually at the Elm Ridge race course in Kansas City, Missouri from 1909 through 1912. Collins went on to become a vice-president of General Motors.
W. W. Brown, who was the last of the four recipients of the award, drove his own Buick 10 to victory in this race on June 15, 1912. He claimed to have purchased the car for $150 after it had been burned in a garage fire. Brown lapped the second-place finisher, defending champion Jack McLean* who was driving a Velie.
Photo from the Velie Register
A man of many nicknames, Brown was known as "Brownie" to his friends, although he went by "Bill" in his later years. He used his initials when he signed his name so he appears as "W. W. Brown" on most entry lists and racing results. The press dubbed him "Cockeye Brown" due to the way he turned his head and appeared to be looking to the right while racing although he was actually looking straight ahead, a quirk that made some of his competitors rather nervous.
Trevon Richards collection
By 1912, Brown had salvaged a Buick Model "35" passenger car that had been damaged in a Kansas City garage fire. The 2,100-pound vehicle had a 101.7-inch wheelbase and was powered by a 165-cubic inch 4-cylinder engine. With the help of his brother, Ben; and a partner, James Cox; Brown rebuilt the car and campaigned it successfully on Midwestern dirt racetracks.
The following year, Brown was claiming St. Louis as his home when he toured the Midwestern racing circuit and worked in a publicity appearance for Buick at Pikes Peak.
Early in 1914, Brown built a Buick Model 22 “Bear Cat II” but promptly sold the car to J. F. Jersezy of Chanute, Kansas, although Brown continued to drive the car for Jersezy for the remainder of the year.
By 1915, Brown had switched to driving a Du Chesneau, a car that he entered in the Indianapolis "500" but he failed to qualify for the race that year.
By 1919, Brown had returned to Kansas City and taken a ride in a Hudson that had been built by Riley Brett for Kansas City Oilman C. L. Richards. Brown qualified seventh for the Indianapolis "500" that year but only lasted fourteen laps before the engine gave up a rod. The effort garnered him a thirty-second-place finish in the official results.
Another of Brown's adventures that year was to take one of his racing cars to Santa Monica, California to appear in the movie "Roaring Road" staring Wallace Reid. Brown undoubtedly drove the car for the movie sequences as well.
He also assisted Riley Brett and Cotton Henning in building a new 181-cubic-inch, dual overhead cam, 24-valve, 6-cylinder engine for C. L. Richards' entry in the 1920 Indianapolis "500" with John Boling as driver. Starting fourteenth, Boling brought the car home in eleventh place, one lap behind winner Gaston Chevrolet. The success of that venture prompted Richards to commission Brown and the others to build a second engine. The two engines were installed in new Miller chassis for the 1921 Indianapolis "500". The two cars were named the "Junior Specials" after the son of the official car owner, another Kansas City oilman, C. L. Richards. Both cars were involved in crashes during the race and did not finish.
In 1920, he opened Brown's Machine Works at 127-129 Southwest Blvd. in Kansas City, Missouri. It was one of the most complete machine shops anywhere with the capability of building complete cars and even engines from the basic raw materials.
Brown campaigned a "Peerless 8" on Midwestern racetracks in 1921 but he had found his niche building those engines for the "Junior Specials". One of the cars he built was a street-legal, two-seat "Indy" type car that he dubbed the "Straight-8 Special". Brown also designed several precision tools and machines used in his company.
When Lakeside Speedway opened in Kansas City in 1955, Brown and his old friend, Tudy Gulotta, were appointed the official technical committee for races run there sanctioned by AAA. By then, ads for his machine shop boasted "$45,000 worth of new precision equipment to handle your machine work quickly and economically". Brown had designed much of that equipment himself.
Brown never lost his love for speed, once being stopped on the Kansas Turnpike for driving well in excess of 100 m.p.h., although he was nearly 70 years old at the time.
Brown was a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Christian Businessmen's Committee, the Gideon Society, and the First Church of the Nazarene.
W. W. Brown was a resident of the Kansas City suburb of Raytown when he passed away on June 14, 1958. He was married but had no children. He, and his wife, Grace, are buried side-by-side in Memorial Park Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.
W. W. Brown was survived by his widow, Grace Irene Brown of the home; a niece, Esther Louise (Mrs. Ralph W.) Burke of Gashland, Missouri; and a nephew, Roy Doty of Overland Park, Kansas.
October 22, 2018
Letter from John Baeke
I am pleased to tell all those who share my love and fascination of W. W. “Cockeyed” Brown and his 8-cyl ohc s/c motor, that I have just been able to acquire the biggest piece of the Brown Straight-8 Special puzzle… namely the car.
Many of you have periodically asked if I have found the car yet. Several of you were at my home, when I lived in Kansas, and had the start-up party for the initial firing of the restored motor, November, 2012.
Over the years my almost all-consuming passion for researching W.W. “Cockeyed” Brown has resulted a shelf full of binders. To those of you who also enjoy this sort of research, www.Newspapers.com has become a valuable resource. Though this database includes millions of newspapers dating back into the 1800s, from large to small cities. They have still not gotten most of the KC newspapers from the time period. That has been a frustration, as I have to do that research at the KCMO library, using spools of microfilm. I believe there is some reason for this lack of digitizing of KC papers.
Anyway, based on interviews with various old-timers, newspapers, photos, etc., here is a brief recap of the history. Some of this is still written in pencil as history continues to unfold.
According to three later owners, Ira Vail's two-man 1921 Duesenberg racecar was sold to W. W. Brown sometime in the early 1920s. The Duesenberg motor was blown. Uncertain if car was sold to W. W. Brown with, or without, the Duesenberg motor.
Brown surrendered his AAA racing license in 1922. I believe the 9/17/1922 AAA race on the KC board track was the last race he ever entered. All his attention was then directed to his machine works business in KCMO.
Brown built an inline OHC 8-cylinder motor, which (circa. 1924) was believed to have been placed in the above racecar. The motor is not some stock-block, but rather entirely of his own design and manufacture. Brown cast the block, the crank, cam and rods are all machined out of solid billet! He cast his own pistons. Gear tower, valves, cam cover, wire looms, etc. all of his own machining. Oil pan is finned aluminum. Water jacket covers have his name embossed and surrounded by engine-turnings. Brown designed and build the direct drive supercharger. The motor is truly one-of-a-kind. It would be a rolling laboratory. Over the years, W. W. Brown utilized three different induction systems; two updraft carbs; two downdraft carbs; and the final iteration, one downdraft Winfield atop the centrifugal supercharger. I have a personal letter (8/17/25) from Fred Duesenberg to W. W. Brown (“Dear Brownie”). Though it does not discuss this racecar, it does show a free exchange of engineering ideas and personal friendship. I believe it is noteworthy that the W. W. Brown supercharger looks like an 80% version of the Duesenberg model-SJ blower… or possibly it might be more accurate to describe the Duesenberg SJ blower as a 120% version of the W. W. Brown blower. Again, Brown and the Duesenbergs were friends.
Pinning down the race history of the car is difficult… a work in progress. In my growing spreadsheet database of races campaigned by W. W. Brown or by others in Brown-built racecars, I have a few newspaper accounts from the 1920s of W. W. Brown in the “Brown-Duesenberg". Whether that refers to this particular racecar; or the Revere-Duesenberg owned by George Wade (friend and fellow-Kansas Citian) is yet to be determined.
John Distafano (recently deceased) who worked at Brown’s shop, told me the W. W. Brown "Straight-8 Special” a name which seemingly was tagged to the car in the 1930s, was trailered to Indy for testing. This exercise may have been done twice. I have found no photos of the car testing at Indy; and Indianapolis Motor Speedway records (as well as Jack C. Fox’s book) do not show it was ever formally entered for qualifications. No one can tell me if Indianapolis Motor Speedway records have complete accounting of teams performing off-season testing on the bricks, which is likely what Distafano was describing.
Interestingly in the 1930s Brown may also have made a DOHC inline 8; and an uber cool four-cylinder DOHC with desmodromic valves!!!!! As for the latter, I have accumulated bucks, patterns and raw castings from a friend of mine in central Kansas. Unsure how many of these four-cylinder DOHC motors were actually made. They were designed for midget racing. Tudy (+/or Tony) Gulotta campaigned one from the Midwest to California. Tony’s daughter says as recently as the 1970s the car still existed. As for the DOHC-8, for years I have been chasing rumors of its existence, but still to no avail.
In the 1930s, W. W. Brown decided to have fun with the Straight-8 Special on city streets of KC. I have photos showing the car looking dolled up with a pair of Woodlite headlamps, horns, Ford tail lamps, Missouri license tags and even a rather Duesenberg-esque radiator mascot.
Continuing... the W. W. Brown Straight-8 Special was absolutely raced at the 1939 Pike's Peak Hill Climb. It is listed in the official program (a program without any photos). Newspaper accounts relate that the day prior to time trials, the “Brown Straight-8 Special" slid off Brown’s trailer, somewhere between KCMO and Colorado Springs. Repairs forced Brown to arrive a day late, missing time trials. As W. W. Brown didn’t arrive until the day of the race, none of the pre-race newspapers have any photos of him or his car. Rules allowed him to still compete, but at the back of the pack. The disadvantage being, with every car to run up the mountain, the road became more rutted. The Brown Straight-8 Special was driven by accomplished driver Walt Killinger, however, a coolant leak forced the car out at about half-way (mile marker-14). Newspaper accounts the following day only show images of the winner, Louis Unser. I have been earnestly searching for some fan’s photo of the car taken race-day, but to no avail. Hopefully, some scrapbook out there has such a photo.
Photos of the racecar, from months before the Hill Climb, show a different rear-end geometry; two leaf springs. Later photos show the car with a single transverse leaf spring (aft of the axle) and two massive radius arms. These changes were likely done in 1939 in preparation for the hillclimb, as this is a typical suspension set up for dirt.
Sometime following the 1939 Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, ownership of the car was transferred to Col. Lowell Whitla (Topeka). More than one individual has told me that they recall seeing the motor of the Straight-8 Special on display in W. W. Brown’s Machine Works office (circa. 1950s), with a large trophy. Later owner, Buck Boudeman, said that he was under the impression there was some business relationship between Brown and Whitla. I am unsure if it ended with the two men on friendly terms. Anyway, Whitla ended up with the racecar, but without the Brown motor. Rather the car had been given a six-cylinder Ford with Offenhauser speed equipment (head, upper end, cam, intake manifold, etc. and three Holly carburetors. A Topeka newspaper article showing the car & Whitla says the motor was “given a going over by the Offenhauser folks”. What is curious, the motor is of the same type which would have been in the '41 Ford Truck owned by W. W. Brown. Was that Brown truck motor the same motor which presently resides in the car???
Whitla was a man of some notoriety. He held the non-Navy rank of Colonel, yet (reportedly) skippered the USN Jayhawk, which seems to have been some sort of small repair vessel. [From what I know, I am sure his life story would make fascinating reading.] During his ownership, one of the stablemates to the Brown racecar was “No. 10”; the Buick, which the Chevrolet brothers drove to victory at the first Indianapolis Motor Speedway race in 1909. (This was prior to the inaugural 500-mile race in 1911.)
Whitla, got into much mischief with the Brown racecar. He referred to it as a “rubber tire laboratory”. An old article from the Topeka Journal shows the car and tells Whitla’s story. Whitla heavily modified the car following Brown’s ownership. The six-cylinder Ford motor is roughly nine inches shorter than the Brown motor. Rather than simply leave the space under the hood, Whitla shortened the hood and side panels and moved the radiator back. He added cycle fenders to all 4 corners, the fronts being stearable. He whimsically re-christened the car the “MiOwn” Special and even had a name tag in script on the radiator to that affect. The Colonel gave (or loaned) the car to his son Mark who, as a student, drove the car to Kansas State University. In later years, for a period of time, the car was stored in some Army quarters on base at Ft. Riley, Kansas where Col. Whitla was stationed. During this time, it was damaged but survived a tornado (6/8/66). Over the next couple years, Whitla disassembled the car and performed yet more modifications inside another military building. Whitla related in the published story, after the car was reassembled, he realized he could not get the car out. One Sunday with cover provided by the MPs, they knocked down a wall and freed the MiOwn Special to run again.
The next owner was Buck Boudeman who met Whitla at the annual Firestone pavilion during one year’s Indy 500s. Later, Boudeman traveled to Topeka with the intention of purchasing the No. 10 Buick. As Boudeman relates, the day he arrived, a truck was loading up the Buick, bound for its new owner, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. That is when Boudeman was introduced to the Brown racecar, aka MiOwn Special. He related how Whitla was fond of the spirits, and there were hidden bottles clanging out of the car and trailer on Boudeman's long trip home. Fortunately, Boudeman kept photos of the car during his ownership.
Next owners were Harry Robtoy, followed by Gordon Fuhr. Following Fuhr, Dick Greene either owned, or was briefly the custodian, as a biographical article from the 1983 Indianapolis Yearbook shows the car in Greene's shop. All these individuals, were heavily connected with the early days of vintage racecar preservation, names well known to old-timers today.
Following Fuhr (or Greene), the car was owned by Nelson Thorpe. Nelson (apparently) leveraged the car to finance another project, and ultimately the car was repossessed by Southwest Leasing. Absolutely no history went with the car at the time Southwest Leasing acquired it. They consigned the car to auction and the car was acquired by Pat Phinny in the 1980s, from whom I just purchased the car.
When Pat acquired the car, it was void of all the bling (headlamps, radiator mascot, etc). Pat was unaware the car had any legitimate history. It seemed to be a modern-day backyard race-car.
As many of you know, I also have the remains of the ’29 Indy winning Miller. I acquired it (circuitously) from Chuck Davis who lived on Washington Island. During one of my visits to Chuck, I saw this forlorn dirty race engine sitting on the barn floor. I was intrigued not just by the OHC and supercharger, but the embossed name WW Brown Machine Works, KC MO. This was a name I had never heard before. Chuck had no idea about any car the motor might belong. I was ultimately able to acquire the motor (2011) and, thus began my research on who is W. W. Brown and could the original racecar be found? As we all know, back in the old days once a motor was removed from a racecar, that spelled near doom for the car. Finding the car today was highly unlikely.
In my research I found some photos of the Straight-8 special, during Brown’s ownership. What struck me was the shape of the radiator shell. It seemed familiar.
In 1993, Dad and I were at the Monterey Historics, Laguna Seca. We dined at the Baja Cantina. Parked out front was this neat racecar, which Dad and I photographed. Twenty years later when I saw the old photo of the W. W. Brown Straight-8 special, I recognized that radiator and recalled the car at the Cantina. Searching through thousands of photos Dad and I had taken over the years, I located the Baja Cantina photos, it surely seemed like a match. The wheels were smaller, but the rest seemed to match.
In 2012, I struck up a friendship with Pat Phinny of Carmel, owner of the Baja Cantina. He confirmed he owned the racecar and invited me to visit his collection. I brought vintage photos which showed identical frame rivet and hole patterns. The engine has an odd front motor-mount, which mates perfectly to the empty motor mount on the car today. Even dents in the radiator match old photos. Voalla!
So, as the saying goes, the car was hiding in plain sight all these years.
So, I now have the car and motor. The next journey will be returning the car to its configuration as owned by W. W. Brown, and proving/disproving the car was the original Ira Vail Duesenberg.
W. W. “Cockeyed” Brown was a name on the verge of being forever forgotten. Once this car and motor are returned together, his genius will be brought to life for future generations to enjoy.
*According to an article appearing on page 9 of the September 22, 1911 issue of the Hutchinson News, Jack McLean displayed his “Velie 41” at the Kansas State Fair at Hutchinson, Kansas that year. The article states that McLean raced the car both at Kansas City and in “the Indianapolis motor race this past Decoration Day” (the 1911 Indianapolis “500”). To date, no independent validation of that latter claim has been located.
John Baeke and Trevon Richard