Motoring History: Ford 999 Ices A Record

Ford999Granted, the record didn’t last for long, but on this day in 1904 Henry Ford set a land speed record on the frozen surface of Lake St. Clair in Michigan.  After founding the Detroit Automobile Company in August of 1899, only to have it go under by January 1901, Henry Ford still loved cars and racing.  It was time to re-invent himself.

In October of 1901 he thought his best chance to restore himself financially was to race and win against the best race car driver in America at the time, Alexander Winton.  Winton’s cars were more advanced and Henry wasn’t favored to win, but win he did.  In the annals of Ford Motor Company history it is referred to as  “The Race That Changed Everything”.  You can read an article from last year here.

The following year Henry worked with bicyclist Tom Cooper to create two racers, similar in build, one painted red and the other yellow.  What they came up with was a huge engine with an exposed chassis and no body work covering it.  There was also no suspension or differential mechanisms.  Steering was handled with a pivoting metal bar with hand grips.

As it turned out, the cars didn’t run well and Henry sold out to Barney Oldfield (later an accomplished automobile racer) and Tom Cooper, preserving his rights to later promote the cars should they become operable.  Instead, Henry turned to nurturing his new venture, The Ford Motor Company.  However, in the summer of 1902 Oldfield and Cooper had succeeded in getting the red car to run.

The red car was named “999″ in honor of Empire State Express No. 999, a steam locomotive which had set a world record in 1893 of 112.5 mph.  The yellow one was named “Arrow”.  Oldfield took up racing and made a name for himself, setting a course speed record in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in October 1902 with the 999.

The Arrow won some races as well, but in 1903 was crashed during a race which killed driver Frank Day.  Henry Ford bought the Arrow and repaired it, intent upon setting a record of his own on a frozen lake.  The original 999 had been retired by that time, and newspapers began to dub the Arrow as the “new 999″ and the renaming stuck.

Henry got his chance in January of 1904.  On January 9 he had just missed a chance to break a record that had been set by another driver the previous week because of some loose bolts.  Undeterred, Henry tried again three days later; this time the 999 was ready and Henry succeeded in breaking the record, lowering it 6-3/5 seconds.

The_Washington_Times_Thu__Jan_14__1904_That afternoon Henry Ford set a land speed record, albeit on a frozen lake (not exactly “land”) of 91.37 mph (39.4 seconds).  Although a frozen lake, the record was declared legitimate owing to the belief that a hardened beach or a frozen lake was harder than a macadam road.  The four mile long, fifteen foot wide ice track had been scraped clean of snow and then covered with hot cinders, ashes and sand the night before the trial.  This was to allow better traction for the racer’s rubber tires.

Overnight, however, some water sloshed over the course and created some bumps.  Despite this Henry found a way to succeed by having his mechanic ride in the engine front, manipulating the carburetor – it wouldn’t operate properly because of the excessive bouncing over bumps.  According to The Washington Times (14 Jan 1904, p. 8):

Half way over the measured mile the car slewed from the track into the bank of snow at the side thrown up by the scrapers.  Ford regained control and brought it back to the track again, but lost perhaps a second.  Past the finishing line the car had a mile to slow up in and Ford threw out the engine and put on brakes, but straight ahead the machine flew toward the hulk of a wreck sticking above the ice half a mile farther on.  A collision was avoided by make a sharp turn into the snow.

An article written by Richard Barrett for the July 1963 issue of the Ford Times Magazine noted  Detroit Tribune headlines on January 13: “Wild Drive Against Time”.  The Tribune noted that Henry wasn’t wearing goggles or any sort of protection for his face.  “Humped over” the steering mechanism, he was “taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.”

Two weeks later the record was broken by William K. Vanderbilt at Ormond Beach, Florida in a time of 39 seconds, shaving off just .4 of a second.  While his record didn’t stand for long, Henry Ford garnered widespread publicity for the Ford Motor Company.  He continued to build race cars, some successful, some not.

In 1908 the Model T line was launched, a car for the common everyday man.  To promote the line, Henry entered it in races.  In 1909 the car won a New York to Seattle race (later disqualified due to a technicality), but it was still great publicity for the company.

By 1913, Henry Ford became disenchanted with new auto racing rules and quit the sport.  Not that he needed the publicity.  By that time, Ford Motor Company was quite successful and with the introduction of assembly line operations that same year, the company mass-produced automobiles for the masses at record rates.  A replica of the original 999 is on display at the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Michigan.

Last year I wrote a series of articles on Henry Ford, including the one linked above about “The Race That Changed Everything.”  If you’re interested in reading more about Henry Ford, here are the links:  Henry Ford (Part I); Henry Ford – Maker of Men (Part II); Henry Ford (Part III); Fordlandia (Part One); Fordlandia (Part Two).

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


  1. Excellent article and your research was dead on. Many tend to overlook the fact that Henry sold the car before it actually raced.

    • That was such a fascinating article to write … thanks for stopping by!


Leave a Comment