Kurtis Crush – Warren Alvord’s Road-Ready Kurtis 500S Roadster
Warren Alvord can still remember the first time he laid eyes on a Kurtis 500S. “I was 16 and I was at the South Mountain Hill Climb in Phoenix,” Warren says. “I saw the car and thought it was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen.”
Racing fans should recognize the Kurtis name. Frank Kurtis and his Southern California-based Kurtis Kraft company dominated the market for midget racers, sprint cars, and USAC and Indy racers for decades. Kurtis became fascinated with sports cars following World War II, first developing the two-seat Kurtis Sport in 1949 – a design that was soon sold to Earl Muntz and manufactured as the Muntz Jet.
Kurtis took another swing at the sports car market in the early-’50s, modifying his Indy car chassis design to create the two-seat Kurtis 500S. This sleek, cycle-fendered roadster had a slippery profile and curves in all the right places. It’s easy to see how it could make such a strong impression on a young Warren Alvord in the late-’60s.
As a teen, Warren vowed that he’d one day own a Kurtis 500S. The adult realization of that dream was not so easy, though. Only a few dozen versions of the 500S were produced, making them both rare and expensive. Warren first discovered this one, an ex-race car, via an eBay listing. The owner was asking more than Warren thought the car was worth, but the two men stayed in touch and, over the course of five years, eventually settled on a price on which they could both agree.
Though the car was complete, it needed a full restoration. When new, the 500S models could be bought with one of several different V8 engines – Cadillacs, Chrysler Hemis, Lincolns, or other early OHV V8s. Many were changed and upgraded through the years to keep them competitive in racing. This one had a Buick Nailhead backed by a four-speed, though both were frozen by the time Warren got the car, making it easier for him to choose a different course for the rebuild.
“You restore it and go vintage racing or put it in a museum,” Warren says, “or you do a little research and find out what Frank Kurtis did.”
Warren had learned that Kurtis had swapped a small-block Chevy V8 into one of his own 500S roadsters after Chevrolet introduced the engine in 1955. The Chevy V8’s smaller size and lighter weight made the Kurtis lighter in the nose, improving handling and drivability. “Once I found out that he [Kurtis] swapped a small block Chevy into his, I thought, ‘well, that’s what I’m going to do!’” Warren says. “That way I can drive it.”
Warren’s ultimate goal was to use his Kurtis on the street, and he knew just the person to help him achieve it: Tony Arme at American Legends Hot Rods and Muscle Cars. “I have been working with Tony for 14 years,” Warren says, “and seven years ago he married my daughter Casey.” It’s good to have family connections!
Tony and the American Legends team restored the Kurtis chassis, upgrading the torsion bar front and rear suspensions with RideTech shocks and fitting each corner with Wilwood disc brakes. They also used a Flaming River steering box and rebuilt the Ford rear axle using 3.73:1 gears. Pin-drive Halibrand wheels are a fitting choice for the race-bred roadster.
The 400hp small-block Chevy engine was built in a way that looks and feels appropriate for a ’50s-era race car, with finned aluminum Offenhauser valve covers, stainless headers and side pipes, and Hilborn fuel injection. The stack injector manifold has been modified for EFI using FAST electronics to make the setup easy to tune and drive on the street. Likewise, the more modern Tremec five-speed transmission makes for both better performance and improved street driving.
The American Legends team had to repair or replace a few of the car’s aluminum body panels but stayed true to the original Kurtis design. Hogie Shine gets credit for skillfully applying the black PPG paint.
Red vinyl upholstery provides a nice contrast for the compact cockpit, which was also treated to competition-style lap belts, Classic Instruments gauges, and a Hurst shifter. The vintage Bell three-spoke steering wheel is a story in itself, as those wheels are nearly impossible to find with the original rubber grip intact. Warren and his wife Bobbi just happened upon this one hanging in the garage of Warren’s friend Michael May while attending May’s birthday party.
“I looked up on the wall and I said, ‘what are you doing with that steering wheel?’” Warren says. “He said, ‘nothing – do you want it?’ He pulled it off the wall and he handed it to me! I was absolutely ecstatic! It was like brand new.”
The roadster’s rebuild took about a year and the result is exactly what Warren wanted – a 500S that he and Bobbi can enjoy cruising and taking to events. In fact, he says some of his favorite moments are when Bobbi is driving the roadster and he’s following her in another car, watching all the stares and second glances she gets in traffic. No doubt most onlookers are seeing a Kurtis 500S for the first time – and some of them are thinking it’s the most beautiful car they’ve ever seen.
Photos by John Jackson