Henry Ford Became The Fastest Man On Earth On A Frozen Lake
Going fast is all relative, with today’s family cars capable of smashing what inventors like Henry Ford worked tirelessly to perfect at the turn of the 20th century.
Doing 91.4 mph in 1904 may not sound all that impressive, but just six years earlier, the fastest car in the world did 27.4 mph—barely quick enough to keep up with a modern ebike.
Twenty years later, the fastest road cars were routinely hitting more than 100 mph, showing that Henry Ford was smart to grab publicity for his fledgling automotive venture with a speed record.
To build the fastest vehicle on earth, Ford had to produce a vehicle at the very edge of automotive construction and material science—he even turned to the then-new Valvoline to help keep his monster of an engine sufficiently lubricated.
It had no bodywork. No suspension. No differential. No steering wheel, either, control was with a tiller instead. Its 4-cylinder, 18.8-litre engine had between 70 and 100 horsepower. There were two built, one with a red chassis (“999”) and one with a yellow chassis (“Arrow”). The first was completed in 1902, after Henry Ford, the car’s designer, had sold his stake in the venture to future land speed record seeker Barney Oldfield and bicycle racer Tom Cooper.
Oldfield won his first race with 999, the 1902 Manufacturers’ Challenge Cup, against his rival, Alexander Winton, whose company was backed by the Vanderbilts. Oldfield’s 999 would run for another year and be destroyed. Its sister car, Arrow, still raced successfully, however, and in late 1903 its driver Frank Day crashed the car and was killed.
In the meantime, Henry Ford had started a new venture. He bought back the wreckage, fixed the damage, and decided to overcome his fear of driving the machine—something he originally did not want to do—and attempt a land speed record on Lake St. Clair to gain publicity for his new firm, the Ford Motor Company that exists today.
In 1904, reporters from The Detroit Tribune witnessed what they’d later describe thusly:
“As Ford flashed by, it was noticed he wore no goggles or other face protection. Humped over his steering tiller, the tremendous speed throwing the machine in zig-zag fashion,” they said. “Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.”
Ford’s record stood for just 14 days, when it fell to Fred Marriott in the Stanley Rocket, which was to be the last world land speed record ever set by a steam engine.
Thankfully, Ford Motor Company retained what had been renamed the “new” 999 and, in 1963, invited racer Dan Gurney to try it out. He said:
“All the while you’re sitting there, straddling that big engine high on the single seat and remembering to keep your feet out of the way of that exposed flywheel. It’s as big as a man-hole cover.”
Historical photos via Ford Archive