Why Couldn’t They Get it Right?

File this under: Things that have always annoyed me.

Some of the “winning” cars in the IMS Museum have a somewhat sketchy past. Just how much of the car was actually driven to victory remains a mystery when it comes to some of the cars – AJ Foyt’s 1977 winner comes to mind. There are some rumors that the actual winning tub belongs to someone else and that perhaps not a single part on the display car was on the track that day in 1977.

Little Al’s winning 1992 Galmer raised eyebrows when it was in the museum a few years ago. Not only were all the stickers and decals all in the wrong spots, but the rear wing clearly belonged to a Lola instead of the Alan Mertens designed car that was carrying it in the museum.

The iconic Marmon Wasp carries no mystery. There is documentation tracing this car all the way back before it ever won the Inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Donald Davidson estimates that 95-97% of what we see today is original to the car. I think that is absolutely remarkable for a car over 110 years-old.

What I find troubling is; why have they gone to so much trouble to keep the Marmon Wasp so authentic, if they can’t even get the paint job right? I really have two main gripes about the paint scheme on the Marmon today – one will always be debated, but one is clearly incorrect. Here are two photos for comparison – one from 1911, one from present day. We aren’t going to discuss the white tires, because those cannot be found today.



First, let’s talk about the color. The photographs from 110 years ago show what appears to be a much darker car. I’ve read where “experts” explain it away by the type of black & white film that was used at the time was unable to properly display that shade of yellow in black & white. I’ve read where others say that is a myth and that they got the color wrong, when it was repainted back during the fifties.

Unfortunately, anyone that was present that day when Ray Harroun drove the car to victory in 1911 has long since left the planet. When people called in to The Talk of Gasoline Alley to discuss the discrepancy in color, Donald Davidson would always say that Ray Harroun was consulted about the color, and supposedly said “Yes…This is how I remember it”.

Well, Harroun was an old man by then. Who knows what condition his eyesight was in when shown the color? How good was his memory by that time. Is it possible they could have shown him a purple bowling ball and he would have given the same response?

Some people can look at a car and tell immediately that the color is off by a shade or two. Others are doing well to identify the basic color. Harroun was an engineer for his day job. Most engineers I know, including my two brothers, are great at numbers, figures and logic; not so much at identifying shades of color.

According to Donald Davidson, the car has only been painted twice since it won the inaugural race. At some point after the 1911 win, the car was painted a very light, almost a cream yellow. With that came some garish writing on the hood and tail of the car saying something about being the winner of the 1st 500 mile race. Here is that version in a still photo, taken from The Crucible of Speed – a 1946 documentary produced by Firestone. That is actually Ray Harroun pointing out things about the Marmon Wasp he drove to victory thirty-five years earlier.


Then, according to Donald, it was painted sometime in the fifties the way it appears today.

As I said earlier – this is a question we will never know the answer to. It will be debated among race fans for decades. If someone held a gun to my head to give my honest opinion on this, my bet would be that whoever painted the car for the final time – got it wrong. They could have verified it back then. They can’t now.

What leads me to believe that this was not an all-out effort to get the car right, is my second beef. On this, there is no debate. They got it wrong.

The font for the number “32” is incorrect. The size is wrong, too. If you look at the car number on the Marmon Wasp today, it is is a collegiate block number font, like you would see on most any football or basketball jersey up through the eighties. The “3” looks much like the “3” on the 1991 winning car of Rick Mears or the aforementioned wining car of Al Unser, Jr. in 1992. The same goes for the “2”. Both digits are plain and boring – just blocked off on all ends.

If you look at the photo of the winning car of 1911, the font is decidedly more aggressive looking. Both ends of the “3” come to a point, as well as the top-portion of the “2”. The numbers were also much larger in 1911 than they are today. Why would they be so careless in their restoration of the car, with so many photos in existence? If they exist now, they existed when they restored the car also.

Many will think that only an obsessive compulsive would ever notice that. I don’t think I have OCD, but to me the difference is as clear as night and day. These are the things that an expert restorer would pick up on. Whoever did this restoration in the fifties, obviously did not. That’s why I question how accurate the current color is. The car clearly looks darker in 1911 than it does today. Is that truly a function of the black & white film of the day, or is it more a function of a lazy job of restoration? They got the font wrong, why would I not assume they got the color wrong too?

There are so many iconic cars in the museum that I find myself staring at and imagining that car running on the track just, beyond the walls of the museum. The Boyle Maserati, The Fuel Injection Special, The Pink Zink, The Novi, The Blue Crown Specials are all cars that I look at in awe as my mind wanders to yesteryear. When I look at the most iconic of them all – the Marmon Wasp – I just find myself asking “Why couldn’t they get it right?”

George Phillips

Please Note:  For those that have been asking on social media. The annual Oilpressure.com Indianapolis Trivia Contest that everyone seems to enjoy, will be posted Wednesday May 12.

9 Responses to “Why Couldn’t They Get it Right?”

  1. Dave from Mukwonago Says:

    A few years ago the Smithsonian Channel offered “colorized” footage of the 1911 Indy 500. Is this representative of the actual color of the Wasp, or is this just the “tail wagging the dog” showing us the color close to what we have it now?

  2. James T Suel Says:

    I have always been aware of some things that didn’t seem right about some of the winning cars in the museum. Often wondered about the color of the wasp. The beautiful 1960 Rathman winner has a lot of things that are not right. Not knowing any better on the color of the wasp, I just accepted the film story, until now!

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Shade tree mechanic.

    Most any autobody person could be consulted and asked what the original paint color was on a racing “machine” under certain circumstances.

    Given the opportunity, the autobody person would naturally carefully remove each layer of paint until the base metal is reached.

    Voila !

    The last paint layer revealed has the answer.

  4. Mark Wick Says:

    Gordon Johncock’s first winning car is also wrong. The rear wing is from another year, and the font used on the numbers is also clearly wrong. That car is displayed as it was when given to the museum so the fault is not with the staff there.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    It’s pretty remarkable how many original parts are on some of these cars given their age and the fact that they aren’t encased in amber after they win. Many were used for years and years after their wins, enduring damage and wear and tear.

    I’m willing to take Harroun’s word on the color of the Marmon, old man/engineer or not. The number font on the Marmon Wasp seems like an easy correction, though.

  6. I went out searching old newspapers on-line to see if anyone mentioned the color of the car. The only thing I have found is the April 6, 1912 copy of the Age-Herald. The article is titled FAMOUS RACER IS COMING FOR MEET Marmon “Wasp” Will Be Here Next Thursday.

    “The famous Marmon racing automobile, “Wasp,” which won the international sweepstakes 500-mile race at Indianapolis, is coming to the great aviation meet-automobile show and races at the Alabama State Fair grounds……..In the fall of 1909 when the Marmon cars made their first appearance in races, the color adopted for them was yellow and black, with the yellow predominating. These cars showed their capability at once by winning a number of races and they were dubbed “yellow jackets” by the motor fiends who attend the big events. In the spring of 1910 when the Marmon six-cylinder car was prepared for races it was immediately spoken of as the “Wasp” and this name has remained with the powerful racer.”

    Even though the black and white photo looks like a color other than yellow, this would seem to indicate it probably was yellow in the first 500.

  7. Mark J Reinhart Says:

    The numbers in the 1911 photo clearly shows outlining in white. I do not dispute that the car color was yellow but it would have been a dark enough shade of yellow for the white outline to stand out. Likely a cadmium based paint color of a dark shade of yellow.

  8. Jim Kroeger Says:

    Another restoration that bothers me is Dan Gurney’s 1962 Thompson. I’ve seen this car and the blue is way darker than vintage photos and the exhaust exits out the top of the engine rather than below. If you’re going to spend serious money on a restoration, why not get these clearly-visible details right?

    As for the Jim Rathman’s 1960 car, at least one book I read says the car in the IMS museum is pretty much a replica and the original is elsewhere and was restored by Ohio resident Bob McConnell in the ’90s to it’s 1964 configuration. I saw this car in 1963 in St. Louis when it was owned by Walter Weir and it was painted orange and black.

  9. John Sanderson Says:

    We crawled all over, around, in, and under the Wasp, a few years ago, while creating 1/8 scale models, everything was photographed. Looking at flaked off paint and hidden areas underneath, there was never ANY trace of a color, other than the cadmium yellow, on the car, unless the car was completely disassembled when restored in the ’50s.
    We saw every IMS photo of the Wasp and several that were of a similar car. The color was always a question, while seeing what appears to be a dark color. Back in that time period, you did NOT have a wide variety of colors. Talking to photography experts, the “dark” color IS a result of the film technology, NOT the paint!
    Also, understand that the IMS Museum has never really had a big restoration budget, or staff to do them. Car restoration in the ’50s was much different, than in the last 50 years. Preserving an old race car was just a nice thing to do, with the available funds, talent, and resources. Keeping them runnable was paramount, pretty and shiny was good enough.
    20-20 hindsight is a nice hobby, but so what? UNLESS you are doing a restoration, it isn’t rewriting anything. Besides, every race car is a disposable, work-in-progress. The best race car was the most recent and fastest one! Recognizing history is a side job to selling tickets.

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