The "Great Races": Henry Ford's Victory in 1901

Dearborn, MI -- Henry Ford's one and only race on October 10, 1901, in nearby Grosse Pointe, Michigan change the world. It was that race, in which Mr. Ford upset Alexander Winton, the country's foremost racer, that allowed him to attract the ...

The "Great Races": Henry Ford's Victory in 1901

Dearborn, MI -- Henry Ford's one and only race on October 10, 1901, in nearby Grosse Pointe, Michigan change the world.

It was that race, in which Mr. Ford upset Alexander Winton, the country's foremost racer, that allowed him to attract the publicity and investors to start the Ford Motor Company less than two years later in 1903.

Ford had a vision for the automobile as a mass-produced, inexpensive, reliable mode of transportation that a majority of people could afford. At the time, that was a revolutionary idea, for in 1901 the automobile was far beyond the means of most people. It was primarily a novelty for the very wealthy.

In those times New England was the hotbed, not Detroit. Total U.S. production was about 4,000 from more than 50 companies making cars. At that time, nobody knew where the industry was going; the predominant sources of motor power for automobiles were steam and electricity, not gasoline. However, makers of automobiles did use racing to demonstrate the worth of their products, and the superiority of their ideas and expertise.

Henry Ford at the wheel of Sweepstakes with "Spider" Huff posed in his position as riding mechanic . Photo: Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford was sure somebody would succeed in producing the mass-market car he envisioned. He wanted to be sure he was the one who did it. That's why Ford--with Oliver "Otto", Ed "Spider" Huff and a few other helpers -- built the race car they called "Sweepstakes."

That autumn, Henry Ford, at age 38, was struggling to establish an auto manufacturing business. His first venture, the Detroit Automobile Company, which he and several partners had founded in 1899, had closed after a year and some 19 or 20 vehicles produced.

In the aftermath of the Detroit Automobile Company, Ford was starting over. To get financial backing, he had to convince potential investors that his ideas were sound, and that his automobiles could be a commercial success. He needed to promote his name and build his reputation and racing was a high-profile way to do it.

They entered Sweepstakes in a race event sponsored and promoted by the Detroit Driving Club, run on the afternoon of Thursday, October 10, on the club's one-mile dirt oval in Grosse Pointe, just east of Detroit.

According to the published entry list, 13 cars were from Detroit, including one driven by Ransom E. Olds. Others were from as far away as Buffalo, Pittsburgh and New York, but the favorite by far was Alexander Winton, from Cleveland. He was an established, successful automobile builder, and the most famous racer in the United States at the time.

It was to be a 25-lap race. The winner's prize would be $1,000 and a cut-glass punch bowl. Some 8,000 spectators came out to watch, and many newspaper reporters were on hand to write about the event. However, preliminary races took longer to run than expected, and the feature was shortened to 10 laps.

Various difficulties beset many of the machines, and by race time the entries had dwindled to three. One of those had a mechanical problem on the start line and withdrew. The race was between Henry Ford and Alexander Winton.

Winton had reason to be confident. His car, the "Bullet," had about 70 horsepower, and it was a proven winner. Henry Ford had never driven in a race before. His car had two horizontally opposed cylinders with seven-inch bore and seven-inch stroke, and produced 26 horsepower.

Ford was the undisputed underdog, albeit the sentimental favorite of the partisan crowd.

It looked as though Winton would win easily. He pulled away at the start and opened up a lead of as much as a fifth of a mile. Ford's inexperience showed, letting off the gas into the turns, while Winton drove through the turns with the power on.

Henry Ford (4) about to pass Alexander Winton Photo: Ford Motor Company

But after five laps Ford slowly began to closing the gap. Then, on lap seven, Winton's car slowed noticeably. It began to sputter and smoke. Ford passed him right in front of the grandstand and drove on to win by a big margin. He averaged about 45 miles per hour.

One advantage Henry Ford had in that race was a technologically superior ignition system. In 1901 engines, inconsistent spark and electrode fouling were endemic ignition problems that often caused misfiring. In an attempt to solve this problem, the team commissioned a local dentist to fashion a porcelain case to insulate the race-car's spark coil. This insulation provided a hotter, more consistent spark and an engine that ran better, longer.

The idea of ceramic insulation eventually led to the spark plug, and is an early example of product development through innovation inspired by a desire to win races.

We can only speculate about what might have happened if Ford had not won that day. Probably he would have tried again and again.

However, the importance of that victory cannot be understated. It was a race that changed the world. The acclaim brought him one step closer to achieving his dream, because several people watching that day would come forward and offer financial support for subsequent efforts. Henry Ford established Ford Motor Company 20 months later, in June 1903. He proved his belief in a low-cost production and created the car that literally put the world on wheels.

-Ford Racing-

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