Ford 999 record car
Ford 999 record car. Click image to enlarge

Review and photo by Bill Vance

The Ford Motor Company has a long and proud racing history dating from its Model T days. It has included such venues as Indianapolis, LeMans, and Daytona. Racing lies at the very roots of Ford’s heritage because it was Henry Ford’s car racing fame that helped attract the financial backing that made him successful in the automobile business. He was even, albeit briefly, the holder of the world’s land speed record.

Henry built his first little “Quadricycle” car in 1896. He sold it and built another, and with local Detroit financing, launched the Detroit Automobile Co. in August, 1899. But Henry seemed more interested in racing and the company was out of business in a few months.

Paralleling Henry’s involvement in the car business was a bicycle-cum-carmaker named Alexander Winton of Cleveland. By the turn of the century Winton was the largest manufacturer of gasoline powered cars in America, and had gained his reputation from racing.

When Winton announced that he was coming to the lakeside resort of Grosse Pointe, near Detroit, to race in the fall of 1901, Henry Ford decided to build a car to compete with him.

The 10-mile (16 km) race took place on a newly constructed one-mile track on October 10, 1901. Several entrants were expected, but only Winton and Ford finally appeared. The well established Winton was the heavy favourite. Ford’s two-cylinder car produced only 26 horsepower compared with the Winton’s 40 and Winton already had a successful racing record.

The Winton jumped into the lead, clearly indicating his experienced driving and his car’s superior speed. But after a few laps the Winton began smoking and losing power. Ford gained confidence, and aided by Spider Huff his faithful riding mechanic who hung out of the car on the corners, he surged ahead to win the race.

It was a dramatic upset and as a result of his racing success, in less than two months Henry Ford was back in the car business with the Henry Ford Co. But this didn’t dampen his continued interest in racing. He wanted to build a bigger, faster car.

Unfortunately, Henry Ford was spending too much time and energy on racing ideas, and the Henry Ford Company’s backers called in Henry Leland, Detroit’s top engine maker, to re-organize the company. Not surprisingly, difference arose between the two Henrys, and Ford was soon dispatched. The company was streamlined and turned into the Cadillac Automobile Company.

Free again from corporate responsibilities, in the Spring of 1902 Henry teamed up with engineer C. Harold Wills to construct two new racing cars. They were financed by bicycle racer Tom Cooper and were named “Arrow” and “999” after celebrated express trains.

Arrow and 999 were large, brutish cars powered by huge four-cylinder engines with a bore and stroke of 184 X 178 mm (7.25 X 7.0 in.) and displacing 18.9 litres (1,155 cu in.). There were no bodies, the cars being comprised of metal reinforced ash frames with a single central seat. Steering was by a vertical shaft with a tee-handle at the top.

There was no transmission or differential, the drive going to the rear wheels via a shaft and two exposed bevel gears with about a one-to-one ratio. At 96 km/h (60 mph) the engine was turning a mere 700 rpm. There were leaf springs in front but no suspension at the rear.

In October of 1902 Ford and Winton had another challenge race. When Cooper decided that bicycles were safer, Ford engaged another bicycle racer, the fearless Barney Oldfield to drive 999. Although he had never driven a car before, Oldfield easily vanquished the Winton “Bullet.” It launched Oldfield on a famous auto racing career, and Oldfield liked to say that he and Ford “made” each other but that “I did much the best job of it.”

Henry Ford’s third attempt to start a car company with new financiers was successful, and the Ford Motor Co. was formed in June, 1903. But Ford still had the high speed bug and felt that racing publicity would benefit his fledgling new company.

Since Oldfield had gone to drive for Winton, Henry Ford decided to try for a record himself. A cinder-covered, three-mile course was laid out on the ice of Lake St. Clair. Henry set out with 999, and on January 12, 1904, the American Automobile Association timers recorded his time of 39.4 seconds for the mile, a speed of 147 km/h (91.37 mph).

Although he almost scared himself to death in the process, Henry Ford had set a new land speed record, albeit on ice, but who’s to quibble. His glory was fleeting however; William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. surpassed Henry’s speed in a Mercedes just 10 days later.

Henry Ford gave up racing at that point and concentrated on building road cars, culminating in his world conquering Model T of which more than 15 million were produced. But Henry’s daring speed record had accomplished his goal of giving the Ford Motor Co. invaluable publicity, and it did get him into the record books, however fleetingly.

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