100 years ago Henry Ford took to the race track. It was a defining moment in the history of the car.
Ford's involvement in motorsport is a century old today. Ten laps around a one-mile dirt oval 100 years ago by Henry Ford himself set his fledgling company on track to become one of the world's largest organisations.
A crowd of eight thousand gathered at the Detroit Driving Club’s track in Grosse Pointe, Michegan on Oct. 10th 1901, to watch more than a dozen cars compete in a race event that was being touted as what "ought to be the largest affair of its kind held, so far, in this country." The spectators were to witness a showdown between the most noted car racer in the United States and a little-known mechanic and tinkerer whose first venture into auto manufacturing ended one year after it began.
Ford had Failed
Henry Ford, along with several other partners, had founded the Detroit Automobile Company two years earlier, in 1899, but the business closed the following year, producing less than two dozen vehicles. Ford had wanted to develop better cars, but his stockholders decided to dissolve the company instead. By 1901, he was looking to start another company in an over-crowded industry that catered to a niche market.
In 1901 More than 50 car manufacturers existed in the US, mostly in New England, producing more than 4,000 vehicles, powered mainly by steam or electricity, not petrol. In addition, cars were primarily a novelty for the very wealthy. "The public refused to think about the automobile as anything but a fast toy," Ford would say years later. But, he had the opposite view. He believed that the car could be a mass-produced, inexpensive, reliable mode of transportation that a majority of people could afford.
Racing for a Backer
In order to establish financial backing for his next business enterprise, Ford needed to convince potential investors that that his ideas were sound, and that his affordable cars could be a commercial success. He needed to promote his name and build his reputation, and racing was a high-profile way to do both. And that’s how a 38-year-old hopeful businessman found himself soon to be entered in his very first race.
In May 1901, Ford, with the help of several others, started working on an car nicknamed "Sweepstakes," which would later be entered in the race in Grosse Pointe. Its frame was made from ash and its two-cylinder engine was 539 cubic inches (8.8 litres). Sweepstakes would be completed and test driven within two months. Over a measured half mile, Sweepstakes was timed at 72 miles per hour, not bad for 1901!
Ford – who produced his first working car, the Quadricycle in 1896 – was just one of 13 entrants from Detroit, as was Ransom E. Olds, founder of Oldsmobile and later REO. Others came from as far away as Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The favourite, though, hailed from just the other side of Lake Erie. Alexander Winton, from Cleveland, was not only an car manufacturer, he was the most celebrated racer in the country. Winton’s business manager convinced the race promoters to allow him to help pick out the trophy, which turned out to be a cut-glass punch bowl, perfect for Winton’s home.
Two horse race...
Because of attrition to the cars of most of the competitors and the length of the earlier races, the day’s featured event was shortened from 25 to10 laps. Only three cars were entered, but when one of those experienced a mechanical problem at the start line and was forced to withdraw, the finale became a two-car showdown between Alexander Winton’s "Bullet" and Henry Ford’s "Sweepstakes."
Winton, like Ford, was an car manufacturer, but unlike Ford, was a successful and celebrated racer whereas Ford had never raced before. And, the power produced by the two cars was as different as the racing experience of the two drivers. Bullet produced about 70 horsepower, nearly three times that of Sweepstakes’ 26.
Ford’s debut as a driver didn’t start well. His inexperience showed as he backed off in the corners . Ford and Sweepstakes fell behind by as much as a fifth of a mile.
One horse race...
But, midway through the race, Ford slowly started to make up ground. And then, on the seventh lap, Winton’s car, slowing noticeably, began to sputter and smoke. With the timing of a master showman, Ford, the decided underdog and sentimental favorite to the hometown crowd, passed Winton right in front of the crowded grandstand and went on to win by a wide margin. Sweepstakes averaged 45 miles an hour during its 10-mile historical journey.
Sweepstakes’ engine featured a technologically advanced ignition system. In the systems in use at the time, inconsistent spark and electrode fouling were common, often causing engines to misfire. The team that built Sweepstakes – Ford, Oliver "Otto" Barthel, Ed "Spider" Huff, Ed Vanderlinden, Charlie Mitchell and George Wettrick – commissioned a local dentist to put together a case made of porcelain to insulate the spark coil. With the porcelain insulation, there was a hotter, more consistent spark, helping the engine run better, longer. The ceramic insulation eventually led to the introduction of the spark plug.
Just the beginning
Ford’s wife, Clara, perhaps best captured Ford’s achievement in a letter she wrote to her brother, Milton Bryant. "Henry has been covering himself with glory and dust," she penned. "I wish you could’ve seen him. . . . The people went wild. . . . That race has advertised him far and wide. And the next thing will be to make some money out of it. I’m afraid it will be a hard struggle."
In addition to "glory and dust," Ford won the $1,000 prize and the cut-glass punch bowl that was earmarked for Winton’s home in Cleveland. More important, though, Ford won the financial backers who would help him start the Henry Ford Company and, ultimately, Ford Motor Company in June 1903. Ford went on to prove his belief in low-cost production with the famed Model T, the car that put the world on wheels. The Model T, like Sweepstakes, also produced 26 horsepower.
The car that started it all, Sweepstakes, was sold by Henry Ford in March 1902 then re-acquired in the early 1930s. It had been stored in a warehouse for many years, and the wooden body had been destroyed by fire. It was restored, used for some promotions and moved to Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michegan, where it remained, displayed to the public off and on, until 1987. Sweepstakes, painstakingly restored again during the past year, will be on display at the Ford Racing Centennial Festival in Dearborn on Saturday and Sunday, October 13-14th 2001.