The Mercurial Mr. Ford


The story goes that late in life at a banquet Henry Ford said to Barney Oldfield, "We made each other." To that, Oldfield reportedly said, "Yeah, well I did a hell of a lot better job than you did."
Oldfield had fallen victim to the games of Wall Street largely responsible for the Great Depression and his considerable lifetime savings were destroyed. Ford suffered, too, but the momentum of the powerful company he had built through delivering a quality product for the everyday person had preserved his wealth and influence.
Ford was 40 years old before he formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903. He had worked with investors two years earlier to found the Henry Ford Company, but tussles with his colleagues frustrated him and he left, leaving others to recast the firm as Cadillac.
Prior to that Ford had groomed his skills as an engineer most notably in working for Thomas Edison. Concurrent with that time he toiled at his passion in a garage - think shed - behind his house. There he built his example of the greatest manifestation of the industrial age: an automobile. A Ford automobile.
It may be legend, it may be fact, but a common story is that after completing his mechanized conveyance Ford fired it up and quickly realized it was too large to get out the shed's door. He set to work knocking down a wall and soon the piston-blasting, rattling, smoky contraption emerged onto the gravel street.
Imagine the commotion, imagine the curious faces peering through windows or running out onto the road in their fits of annoyance or curiosity. Obsessed, Ford undoubtedly could not have cared less.
That was 1896. The Henry Ford Company was formed in 1901 and Ford believed the sport of auto racing that was developing in parallel to the nascent automotive industry was important to his success. Unlike Europe where there was a recognizable infrastructure of paved roads, Americans turned to horse tracks at fairgrounds as the only reasonable place to stage such contests.
In Ford's neck of the woods that meant Grosse Pointe, a mile track that for a few years staged a sprint race of five miles dubbed "The Manufacturers' Challenge Cup." In 1901 Ford entered one of his early horseless carriages against the most formidable opponent in the midwest: Millionaire Founder of the Winton Motor Carriage Company and Scottish immigrant, Alexander Winton of nearby Cleveland. Winton had his famous Bullet racer.
Ford prevailed, but only after Winton's car failed after nearly lapping him. The good news was reliability, but the victory was tainted by the lack of performance by car and/or driver.
Over the next year Ford partnered with national champion bicycle racer Tom Cooper in developing his first purpose-built race car, pictured here. The car had a wood frame and its springs were of the leaf design found on wagons. It was steered not with a wheel, but with a tiller bar. The massive iron engine had a capacity of over 1,000 cubic inches and generated the then-impressive 70 HP. As a footnote, the machine still exists today at The Henry Ford.
Its engine also had no oil pan as lubricant dripped through glass "site-feeder" bottles over the exposed cylinders. It simply wasn't designed to go much further than a five-mile sprint. Crude, yes, but its purpose was speed, and, for its era, it delivered.
Cooper, a daring and fearless athlete who, like many young testosterone-fueled gearheads of the times, had graduated from racing bicycles on wooden velodromes to driving cars at the brink of control. His buddy at the time was another bicycle and motorcycle racer by the name of Barney Oldfield. A recent appendectomy compelled Cooper to prevail upon Oldfield to try his hand with the car. An old Ford mechanic, Spider Huff, was part of the crew.
The three campaigned the crude monstrosity and at a meet in Dayton, Ohio promoter Carl Fisher dubbed the car, "999," a reference to the world's fastest locomotive of the age. In the context of the times, everyone got the analogy.
This time, in October 1902, the results were different. Not only did Oldfield win, but easily outdistanced Winton. A nervous Ford celebrated perhaps less about what accolades the success would earn but more out of relief that his brand wasn't tarnished by a trio of roughnecks.
The "999" had been a frustrating experience for Ford. The machine was a rolling conundrum and it doesn't stretch the imagination that the incurable tinkerer Ford struggled to resist the distraction from his business. His wife, Clara, knew that their financial security and future rested on the success of his fledgling car company. It wasn't hard to see that auto racing could sink him.
Ford sold the cars to Cooper but remained watchful as everyone knew his reputation was dependent on their success. Carburetion was the key issue and finally the boys sorted it out with help of a new "mixing bowl" fabricated by a coopersmith.
With the "999" dialed in, Oldfield and Cooper pressed on to rack up an impressive set of victories and speed records - including, in 1903, the first mile-a-minute on a closed circuit track. Ford even used another car of the same design to set a world land speed record of 91.37 MPH on frozen Lake St. Clair in January 1904.
Despite that noteworthy accomplishment Henry Ford remained measured in his interest in auto racing. His loyal driver, Frank Kulick, was more of a test pilot than a wheel-to-wheel competitor. Ford was in alignment with those who saw purpose-built race cars an extravagance. He was selective in where he entered Kulick and despite flirting with idea, he never invested in a full-fledged effort at the Indianapolis 500.
In 1907, in the wake of a series of deadly and damaging accidents stemming back at least two years, Ford announced his withdrawal from motorsport. The accident that really got his attention involved serious injuries to Kulick.
By 1909 Ford was back in the game, but the thing about his approach is that it was always with a thoughtful purpose. His big event upon returning was a New York to Seattle endurance run. While a Ford Model T was first to arrive in Seattle, several rules violations including illegal driver changes and bypassing difficult terrain were discovered by officials. Months after the contest the car company Shawmut, barely an asterisk in the annals of automobile history, was awarded the win.
Ford had committed to an entry in the first races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but the Shawmut protest may have left a bad taste in his mouth. He withdrew.
You don't have to spend much time reading about Henry Ford to imagine that he was a mercurial character. Despite his tepid enthusiasm for full-on, unabashed high-speed automobile competition he did have his moments. Even when he was not a participant the shadow he cast by the unparalleled success of his car company was a constant influence.
The Model T's were so ubiquitous they invariably were tuned and modified in the hands of incurable hot rod enthusiasts - such as the Chevrolet Brothers and their 1920's Fronty-Fords. Yes, Henry Ford's products were a force even without directly trying to be.
C'mon! Did you know Ford announced he was leaving auto racing in 1907? Did you know he returned in 1909? How about that record run on a frozen lake?
It won't take you long. It's at your fingertips at First Super Speedway. Extra! Extra! Read all about it!!!