TBT: Henry Ford’s Other Important Racing Feat

Jan 18, 2024

Ford Motor Company has been linked to racing since its inception, with founder Henry Ford racing to victory in the World’s Championship Sweepstakes in 1901. The seminal win helped Ford secure investors to start the company. Ford said he would never race again, but he would end up in the driver’s seat three years later in an attempt to set a land-speed record. 

Following the Sweepstakes race, Henry Ford partnered with bicycle racing champion Tom Cooper to create a pair of race cars: the Arrow and the 999. The 999 took its name from a New York Central train that made a record run between New York City and Chicago. It was a no-frills speedster that had no body and was essentially an engine sitting on a frame with a driver’s seat positioned at the rear of the car. Also, it was steered by a tiller rather than a steering wheel.

The 999 was more than nine feet long and its wheelbase and treads were larger than those of previous American racers. The 18.5-liter, four-cylinder engine was capable of producing 70 horsepower, and its size is said to have made it appear as if the 999 was just one large engine.

The early days

About six months after Ford Motor Company was incorporated in 1903, the company was selling three models, one of which was the new Model B (The company cycled through alphabetized model names before hitting it big with the Model T in 1908.). Looking to garner some attention for the fledgling company, Henry Ford claimed he would break the world’s land-speed record using a four-cylinder engine similar to the one available in the Model B. 

While the attempt would be Henry Ford’s first time racing the 999, the car had already been to the winner’s circle. Driver Barney Oldfield, who was hired because Ford and Cooper could not decide who should drive the 999, had already driven the vehicle to an American racing record on a five-mile course in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in 1902.

Warm reception on a cold day

A crowd of approximately 100 spectators gathered around the Detroit area’s Lake St. Clair on a bone-chilling January 12, 1904. Some in the crowd backed away from three-mile cinder course after hearing the rumble of the engine that powered the 999 – Henry Ford had said “the roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man.”

Henry Ford’s “flying mile” attempt nearly took on a literal meaning as he hit a bulge in the ice that sent the car airborne at 60 mph. Happily, the car skidded to a landing and continued to pick up speed, finishing the run at more than 90 mph. Officials from the American Automobile Association were on hand to certify the achievement, which was also the first time an automobile had exceeded 90 mph.

“The rush of cold air was so terrific, I had to keep my eyes almost half-closed,” Ford said. 

While Henry Ford’s record of 91.37 mph stood for just two weeks, the claim paid dividends for Ford Motor Company, as it was used in advertisements bragging about the feat. As for the 999, it was retired to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where it is still on display. In 2007, Ford channeled the record-setting run with a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered Ford Fusion. The production-based racer went considerably faster, checking in at 207 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and setting a land-speed record for a production-based fuel-cell-powered car.

While the automotive industry, and motorsports, have evolved since Henry Ford’s time, the company continues to race for the competitive advantages that come with it. Click here to read more about why we go racing. 

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