Motoring History: The Race That Changed Everything

HenryFord_youngIn the history of the Ford Motor Company, they call it the “race that changed everything.”  Henry Ford had founded the Detroit Automobile Company on August 5, 1899 and in January of 1901 the company was dissolved.  Henry Ford had already reinvented himself when he left home at age 16 and headed to Detroit to make his mark on the world.  In 1901 he would have to begin to reinvent himself once again.

On October 10, 1901 the Detroit Driving Club was holding a twenty-five lap racing event at the Grosse Point Race Track.  At that time, Alexander Winton had the best-selling gas-fueled passenger cars in America – he was also the best race driver.  But Winton wasn’t really interested in this particular race, that is until he struck a deal with race officials who allowed him to pick out the trophy (which, of course, he presumed to win).  There was also a cash prize of one thousand dollars.

Henry Ford was looking to get back in the automotive business so he turned to racing and the October 1901 race offered his best chance to get back on his feet financially.  His designers and fellow engineers and mechanics began working on their entry.

They named their race car “Sweepstakes”.  It was a two-cylinder engine with a simple mechanical fuel injection system with porcelain insulators – precursors to the modern spark plug – made from denture ceramic by a local dentist.  As a mechanical engineer Ford concentrated on the power train, and while only a two-cylinder engine, it had a displacement of 538 cubic inches – 180 more than NASCAR allows today.  Race cars of that day were at least 40 horsepower – this one was a mere 26.

FordSweepstakesFord and his designer claimed that the car had reached 72 mph on road tests, about 6 mph above what most race cars of that day would run.  Henry wasn’t a race car driver but he couldn’t afford to hire one, so he sat in the driver’s seat the day of the race; seated beside him was his mechanic who would be expected to repair on-the-fly if necessary.

On race day there were about eight thousand spectators.  The courthouse closed that day so lawyers could attend.  There were thirteen teams from Detroit alone and Winton, the star attraction, was driving a 70 horsepower car.  Race officials decided the day would include several races.  As it turns out, however, by the time the main event rolled around only Winton, Ford and one other racer were left to line up.  The Driving Club had decided to change the event from a 25-lap race to a 10-lap sprint.

As expected, Winton took an early lead, but Sweepstakes was lighter and began to catch up.  By lap seven Ford was close.  During lap eight Winton’s car began to sputter and misfire.  Consequently, Ford passed him and won the race.  The crowd roared with approval.  Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, wrote to her brother: “The people went wild.  One man threw his hat up and when it came down he stamped on it.  Another man had to hit his wife on the head to keep her from going off the handle.  She stood up in her seat … screamed ‘I’d bet $50 on Ford if I had it.’”

Sweepstakes(Ford)He was presented with the $1,000 check and investment offers began to pour in, and in 1903 the Ford Motor Company was founded.  The rest, as they say, is history.  But that isn’t all there is to Henry Ford’s story, of course.  Over the next week or two I’ll tell Henry Ford’s story and it’s a fascinating one.  He had some interesting views on business and culture – really just about everything – and he even founded his own paper so he could espouse them freely.  Like all businessmen, he had successes and he made some big mistakes.  One of those mistakes will be the subject of this week’s Ghost Town Wednesday article – stay tuned.

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

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© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.

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