PopHistory | Henry Ford’s Great Race | Rare Techy
By Scott A. Grant
Henry Ford had a dream. He wanted to mass produce a car that everyone could afford. And now, in the spring of 1901, that dream was slipping away. His first company, the Detroit Automobile Company, had gone bankrupt. Now another company, the Henry Ford Company, was in trouble. Ford was only able to sell about 20 cars and had trouble raising the capital to continue.
Henry Ford had produced his first car, a four-wheeler, in 1896 while still working for Thomas Edison. Edison liked the design and encouraged Ford to strike out on his own. So, Ford quit his job as an engineer at the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company to seek his fortune. This turned out to be a difficult task. At that time, cars were considered a toy for the rich. Most car owners used a professional driver.
Ford realized that if he was going to succeed, he would have to strike. He needed a marketing gimmick to attract investors. Like car manufacturers throughout the ages, Henry Ford came up with the idea of racing. In May, Ford and his engineers began building a racing car. The car was built partly out of wood, but featured two major innovations: rudimentary fuel injection and ceramic spark plugs. Ford got the idea for spark plugs from Detroit Edison and had a local dentist build them.
The two-cylinder vehicle was fast—capable of reaching a top speed of 72 miles per hour at a time when the speed record was just over 66. Ford and his engineers held a race on October 10, 1901. in Grosse Pointe, north of Detroit on the shores of Lake Michigan. The race was held on a one-mile dirt oval, normally used for racehorses, consisting of 10 laps. Ford’s opponent was a well-known driver and car builder from Cleveland named Alexander Winton. Ford was a decided underdog.
Henry Ford decided that he would drive a car himself. He believed, perhaps correctly, that his entire future depended on winning this race, and he didn’t want to depend on someone else to do it for him. And so Henry Ford, with “Spider” Huff as his riding mechanic, raced toward destiny. Spider Huff’s main job was to lean like a crewman on a sailboat to provide counterweight as the raffle car flipped corners.
Ford immediately fell short of the professional. He had trouble handling corners. However, as the race progressed he improved and began to make up for the deficit, especially at times where his vehicle was clearly faster. On lap 8, with Ford almost level with his opponent, Winton’s car began to smoke. His ignition coils were fouled, exactly the problem Ford’s ceramic spark plugs were designed to combat. The crowd cheered wildly as the underdog Ford raced across the finish line.
That same day, investors began lining up to finance Henry Ford’s dreams. He left the Henry Ford Company, which became Cadillac, and founded the Ford Motor Company. Over the next six years, he produced 25 different car models, in alphabetical order from A to T. The Model T was a hit. Ford made over 15 million of them and changed the world.
Scott A. Grant is a local author, historian and racing enthusiast. By day, he is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.