Based on a market research study commissioned by Ford Motor Company rumors are circulatingthat FoMoCo will change the branding for its high performance vehicles from SVT (for Special Vehicle Team) to 999, the name of Henry Ford’s second race car, popularized by barnstorming driver Barney Oldfield. Marketers have seized on “authenticity” as a lever by which they can move consumers and I suspect that reaching back over a century for a brand name may have something to do with that. As someone who likes history I can’t complain about Ford looking into reusing a historic name, but while its true that the name 999 has been associated with Ford racing since before the establishment of the Ford Motor Company, the name SVT means something to today’s car enthusiasts and for most of them 999 is just the number before 1,000. Today’s performance consumers are more likely to recognize the name Ken Block than Barney Oldfield.
There was a time, though, when 999 was the name of the most famous racing car(s) of the early motoring age, holder of a land speed record and winner of numerous races and exhibition matches with Oldfield at the wheel, er, rather tiller. Unlike Henry Ford’s first racer, the Sweepstakes car, which was a nifty little runabout, 999 was a relatively primitive machine that was all about “brute force” in the words of the transportation curator of the Henry Ford Museum, Matt Anderson. Both the Sweepstakes car and 999 are in the Racing in America exhibit in the Museum’s Driving America display.
It’s not known exactly who first coined the phrase, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, but Henry Ford understood the publicity value in winning races with his automobiles. It was his 1901 win with the Sweepstakes car against established automaker Alexander Winton that gave him credibility with investors and allowed the information for the Henry Ford Company. Ford almost immediately ran into difficulties with his backers. Part of it was his dream of building an inexpensive car for the masses but also part of it was that Henry wanted to race cars and his partners wanted him to focus on building and selling them.
In early 1902, he told his brother in law, Milton Bryant that his interest in racing was all about dollars and cents: “… there is a barrel of money to be made in this business.… My company will kick about me following racing but they will get the Advertising and I expect to make $ where I can’t make ¢s at Manufacturing.”
By March of that year Henry had left the company that bore his name, taking with him $900 severance and the plans for a new race cars. With financial backing from bicycle racer Tom Cooper and the technical assistance of Ed “Spider Huff and C.H. Willis (who would later persuade Ford to use vanadium steel in the Model T to great success), in May 1902 Ford began construction of two race cars with huge engines and wooden frames. One was painted red and the other yellow, named respectively, Red Devil and Arrow. The had four cylinder inline engines with 7.25 inch bores and a stroke of 7 inches for a total displacement of a massive 1,155.3 cubic inches. It put out between 70 and 100 horsepower. There was no transmission. Power was transferred to the rear wheels via a wooden block clutch on the 230 lb exposed flywheel. There were also no universal joints nor was there a differential. A solid drive shaft connected to what was literally an open rear axle, just a ring and pinion gear setup. There was no rear suspension and steering was by a primitive tiller with two upright handles and a center pivot. Not only was the flywheel exposed, so was the valve gear and the crankshaft. With a bumpy ride and oil spraying everywhere, it wasn’t a pleasant drive.
As primitive as 999 looks, it did have at least a couple of features that were advanced for its day like that simple drive shaft and rear axle. Most early automobiles had a chain drive for each of the driving wheels. 999′s pneumatic “balloon” tires were also novel at the time.
Though he would later *drive Arrow to a land speed recordof 91.37 mph in the flying mile, Henry was said to be a bit intimidated by the machine. Instead he hired bicycle racer Barney Oldfield to pilot 999 in the five-mile Manufacturers’ Challenge Cup race on Oct. 25, 1902, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. In a way it was a rematch between Ford and Winton, but while the 999 became firmly associated with Henry Ford in the public mind, by the time of the actual race Ford had backed out of the venture, selling his interest to Cooper because of a poor test session a couple of weeks before the race.
According to legend, Oldfield had never driven an automobile before the race, which he won going away, covering the five miles in 5 minutes and 28 seconds, a record for the distance on a closed course. Though he sold his interest in 999, Ford, though, retained publicity rights, which proved to be invaluable. Oldfield renamed Red Devil “999″ after a famous locomotive of the day. Oldfield and Cooper took the two cars around the country, setting speed records, winning races and establishing Oldfield as the first celebrity race driver in America. Having made a name for himself driving a Ford, though, Oldfield switched to the competition, Winton, in the summer of 1903. By then Henry Ford was focusing on getting the Ford Motor Company off of the ground.
In September of that year, both the 999 and the Arrow were entered into the inaugural car race at the Wisconsin state fair. Huff was driving 999 and Frank Day piloted the Arrow. Day, though, was killed when he crashed the car. The destroyed Arrow was returned to Detroit where Ford rebuilt it, planning on a land speed record attempt that winter on frozen Lake St. Clair. On Jan. 12, 1904, Ford set a new flying mile record. Though that record would stand for less than a month, the young Ford Motor Company benefited mightily from the publicity surrounding Ford’s LSR effort.
The Detroit Tribune described the record attempt: “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. Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.”
Henry Ford driving the “999″ in an Exhibition Run against Harry Harkness in a Mercedes Simplex, at the Detroit Driving Club’s 1 Mile Track in Grosse Pointe.
Cooper sold the cars in 1904 and some years later Henry Ford would acquire it for the museum that bears his name. Shortly before his death, Henry Ford is said to have remarked to Barney Oldfield: “You made me and I made you.” Oldfield shook his head and replied “Old 999 made both of us.”
I’ll have to check with Matt Anderson to find out the current running status of “Old 999″. It was still in operating condition in 1963 when racer Dan Gurney visited the Henry Ford Museum while he was racing for Ford. Gurney would go on to win at LeMans with co-driver A.J. Foyt and as one of the leading American racers who happened to be driving for the blue oval, he was an honored guest. When the curator asked him if he’d like to drive it, Gurney jumped at the opportunity and soon afterwards the then over 60 year old race car was transported to Ford’s nearby test track where the all-American racer took it for a spin.
Richard Barrett described the scene for Ford Times magazine:
It was a bone-chilling, blustery day nearly sixty years ago when Henry Ford drove his famous “999″ racer over the ice at Lake St. Clair, Michigan, to set a new world’s speed mark of ninety-two miles per hour. The Detroit Tribune of January 13, 1904, headlined the event as a “wild drive against time.” The article went on to say, “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. Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.” As fate would surely be delighted to have it, the day last March when Dan Gurney, one of today’s racing greats, drove the same old “999″ at Ford Motor Company’s high-speed test track, the cold wind cut like a knife and a driving snow all but blinded the eyes. As the car was started up, and Gurney got his first close look, he whistled in wonder and said, “It’s a fire-breathing monster!” Henry Ford said exactly the same thing the first time he drove it.
Gurney, like Ford before him, proved his championship mettle that cold March day. With only a short briefing on the mechanics of the monster, a few questions asked and answered, he took the “999″ out on the infield track to get the “feel” of the car. A short time later, after the high-speed test track was cleared, Gurney got his flying start and roared into the “soup bowl” (a high-speed, steeply banked turn). Here’s how Gurney later described the sensation: “It’s quite a thrill. I was looking for the exhaust pipes and then I realized there are hardly any. They’re about two inches long and I could see flame coming out. The car is vibrating and everything is twisting every time it fires; you can feel everything from one end of the car to the other.
“The car is a little bit deceiving because it’s so high geared, but you’re really covering the ground. It’s sort of like comparing a running elephant to a deer. The low revs of the engine are what do it, and those four big cylinders. You can feel them working. Until it’s going forty to fifty miles an hour it doesn’t really settle down, and then it hardly seems to be turning over at all. It’s just chug, chug, chug with a lot of popping, smoke and roar. 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.”
Asked if he was concerned about controlling the flying “999″ Gurney smiled and answered, “I just prayed nobody would get in front of me. There were patches of ice and snow on the track, and at the speed I was going it would take at least two hundred yards to stop. I can imagine Henry Ford driving that thing ninety-two miles an hour on ice. Very, very tricky. You’d have to be extremely delicate with the tiller and braking or you’d really be in trouble. Having good eyesight would be a help in a panic stop, although with all the engine racket they could probably hear you coming far enough so they could get out of the way.”
Gurney later recounted the experience for the Car Crazy television show.