There are many well-known milestones in Ford Motor Company history, but one moment in particular was recorded nearly two years before the company was even founded – 120 years ago this week. On Oct. 10, 1901, Henry Ford took the wheel in his first and only automotive race at a dirt horse track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, near Detroit.
Five years removed from creating his first vehicle, the Quadracycle, and having already failed at his first auto company startup, Ford, 38, was determined to bring attention to his vision for what the automobile could be. His entry for the 10-mile event at Blue Ribbon Track – Sweepstakes – was built with the help of designer Otto Barthel and racer Ed “Spider” Huff, who rode along as the mechanic in the race.
A newcomer to racing, Ford was up against renowned driver Alexander Winton. Adding to his longshot odds, Ford’s racer had just 26 horsepower versus the typical 40-horsepower race cars at that time, and significantly less than Winton’s, which produced 70 horsepower. But the efficient, lightweight Ford race car would eventually overtake Winton’s on the eighth lap of the 10-lap event. As Winton’s car sputtered, Ford surged to the lead in front of 8,000 spectators in the grandstands.
Ford averaged 45 mph – peaking at 72 mph, a new record – throughout. Despite his lack of motorsports experience, he built a large lead and won in part due to an improved ignition system. The system featured a precursor to the modern spark plug, developed with help from a local dentist, an early form of fuel injection.
For his epic upset, Ford was awarded a cut-glass punch bowl set – a trophy chosen by promoters for Winton, whom they were certain would prevail. The punch bowl remained in Henry Ford’s home until his death in 1947, then went to a New York art gallery before being sold to a private collector in 1951. The Ford family has requested help in locating the heirloom, but to no avail. The company was able to track down the original Sweepstakes, however, restoring it and creating replicas for demonstrations as part of Ford’s racing centennial celebration in 2001.
More important than the punch bowl, though, were the numerous attendees who approached Henry Ford that day about helping to fund his future endeavors. (A $1,000 prize for winning is also mentioned in some accounts of the race.) Weeks after the event, the Henry Ford Company was founded. Ford would later resign from the company, which was renamed Cadillac Automobile Company within months.
After building two more race cars – larger and more powerful than Sweepstakes – and again defeating Winton, this time with a different driver at the wheel, Ford Motor Company was founded June 16, 1903. Henry Ford would again capture the world’s attention a few short years later with the introduction of the Model T.
At Ford Motor Company’s racing centennial 20 years ago, Edsel B. Ford II, former company director, said, “If my great-grandfather hadn’t believed in the value of auto racing, the Ford Motor Company as we know it probably wouldn’t exist today.”