Build Updates: Project Midget Masterpiece, The 1978 USAC Midget

While recovering from a near-fatal coronary event in 2013, OneDirt editor Bobby Kimbrough found a basket-case race car project on the internet. Recognizing the value of the chassis and pieces in the boxes, he bought the car, not knowing if he would be able to bring the vintage midget back to life before his own heart gave out. His single thought was this VW midget was too special for it to be lost. He knew this was one of four midget race cars built by Ron Butler in the late 1970s.

Ron Butler played a role in building many of motorsport’s most-iconic cars. These include the Shelby Cobras, Ford’s Le Mans winning GT 40, Butch Leal’s “California Swift” cars, and many others. All of Butler’s race cars have held prominent places in motorsports history. Our goal is to restore this Midget Masterpiece back to its racing form of the late 70s/early 80s. With Kimbrough’s recovery complete, it was finally time to restore Butler’s Midget.

How We Found The Car

One day while surfing the internet, Bobby Kimbrough happened upon an eBay auction where a large collection of parts for this Midget car were offered for sale. Not really looking to purchase another project, the name Butler caught his attention. After a quick search online to verify that Ron Butler had built a few dirt track Midgets, Kimbrough debated on the purchase. The doctors had given Kimbrough a low probability of surviving past six months, but the thought of seeing an original Butler Midget being parted out was too much – so he bid on the car.

This is the remains of the car as we found it.

Surprisingly, he won the auction and arranged to pick up the frame and parts from a residence near Jamul, California. The seller was someone well-known in vintage racing groups, and had some history on the car. The stories were told as the two men loaded up the car for transport back to La Casa de Kimbrough. Plans to resurrect the Midget began immediately, with alternative plans in case Kimbrough was unable to continue the project.

Not long after the project was underway, it stalled when some tough-to-find parts were identified. A list was made and Kimbrough stayed vigilant for the necessary parts. Willing to put suitable substitutes in place to keep the project moving forward, he found the progress to be slowed by couplers and drivetrain parts from companies that had gone out of business years ago. Of those, the Skellenger Engineering Company’s six-spline sliding coupler was the most difficult and threatened to derail the entire plan.

The car was put in preservation while other projects took priority. One day, out of the blue, an entire Skellenger drivetrain presented itself on eBay. Kimbrough bought the entire drivetrain for the crankshaft, U-joint, and the rearend sliding coupler. Once again, the project was back on the front burner, in a major way!

The car is seen here leading the pack in the pole position. Photo by Scott Daloisio.

What State It Was In

The project car was in poor condition. Left out in the weather, it showed the signs of California’s rainy seasons and the hot sun of the Jamul desert. We managed to find one of the crew members that worked on this car in the early 1980s, and questioned him about the car’s original design and its evolution during the Midget’s racing days. Butler designed the car with many of the performance features found in higher-class race cars. For example, Butler was one of the first builders to use floating brake rotors and adapted Lockheed calipers from Triumph motorcycles for the brake system. He used True Arc brake components to allow the rotors and hubs to expand at different rates due to the differences in metal materials.

Butler focused on the anti-squat and anti-dive features of his Midget car builds. He had specific ideas on how to handle these areas of weight shifting to get better traction under rapid acceleration and deceleration. Butler built his cars with a high degree of adjustability that worked very well if you knew what you were doing with the setup. Butler knew what he was doing, and his cars always did well with him at the wheel. Sadly, others did not always understand the complex suspension setup, and the cars suffered with other drivers and owners.

Ron Butler at Ventura Raceway on March 21, 2009. Photo from www.surfnsprint.com.

The Plan

We found our project car had been featured in the December, 1978 copy of Hot VW magazine. Heading back to eBay, we located a copy and purchased it for research. We have to give the print magazine writers of that time a lot of credit. These feature articles were well written and contained a lot of details that probably would be missed in much of today’s media. We were able to extract a large amount of data from the feature article and started to track down the sources.

After we understood what parts and components were on the car originally, we could finally start planning on the restoration. Our goal is to take the car back to original, or near original, to pay homage to Ron Butler’s brilliance. We’ve been able to contact Mr. Butler, and others that played a large role in creating these Midgets. Tom Lieb of SCAT Enterprises built the unique water-cooled VW Type 1 engine. He was very helpful to us when we were researching the car’s history. Jeff Terry, one of the mechanics who helped crew these Midgets provided a great deal of information. Armed with these details, we began to strip the car down, and bring it back to life as it was intended.

Follow along with our build updates as we go through the different areas and tasks during our rebuild. The full tech articles are linked above, and our brief synopsis of each update is listed below in sequence.

Butler’s Midgets ran on both dirt and asphalt. Photo by Scott Daloisio.

For build updates, newest to oldest, scroll down.

February 21, 2019: Intro To Project Midget Masterpiece

To see how our project car started, click on this link: Intro To The Midget Masterpiece.

 

 

 

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
Read My Articles

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