Car Wars



Chapter One: Fastest Man on Earth

The 999 and Arrow

It was a time when sane people did crazy things.

Henry Ford was one of those people.

On January 9, 1904, on the shore of frozen Anchor Bay, Lake St. Clair, some 30 miles northeast of Detroit, he vowed to be the first person to drive 100 miles per hour. The possibility that he might spin out of control and be killed as he roared across the ice did not deter him. It did, however, attract a crowd.

Ford had deliberately scheduled his attempt for a Saturday, when kindly employers gave their workers the afternoon off. Then he’d created publicity that had filled the Detroit papers all week, mesmerizing a city that had already begun to thrum with the business of motors. A brilliant inventor and engineer, Ford also was a skilled marketer. He knew that machine-powered speed excited many people unlike anything before — and that word of the latest spectacle sent consumers to dealers, where they could buy an automobile of their own. He knew also that cars angered and alienated other people — the horse-bound traditionalists — but with time, he believed, almost everyone would come around.

“Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Works of Detroit will attempt to lower the Worlds Record,” read the handbills Ford had arranged to be posted. “The race will be over a four-mile straight track on the ice opposite The Hotel Chesterfield. The snow will be cleared from the ice and the track will be sanded. The races will start at 2 o’clock and continue until Mr. Ford lowers the world’s record. He proposes to make a mile in 36 seconds.”

That would greatly eclipse the existing auto record of 84.732 miles per hour, set in 1903. It conceivably would be faster than anyone had ever moved on land.  


That would greatly eclipse the existing auto record of 84.732 miles per hour, set in 1903. It conceivably would be faster than anyone had ever moved on land.

The claimed land speed record was 112.5 miles per hour by the crew of a locomotive on May 10, 1893, on a stretch of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mighty New York Central Railroad, but in this era so rife with tall tales, doubt existed that the train, the 999, had really travelled faster than about 90 miles per hour. Nonetheless, the train had generated international headlines — and Ford, hoping to capitalize on its fame, named one of the two identical racecars that he built after it. Like that 62-ton locomotive, Ford’s 999 racer and its twin, Arrow — the machine that Ford had brought to frozen Lake St. Clair — were essentially monster motors on wheels, producing as much as 80 horsepower, ten or more times the power of many stock models — “built to speed, and speed alone,” wrote The Automobile and Motor Review.

Many in the crowd knew about Ford, this slightly built 40-year-old man with the piercing gray eyes, prominent nose and long, thin hands who seemed always to have a sly grin on his lips. He had been building and driving horseless carriages around Detroit since 1896, when American-built cars were little more than a dream, and had founded and then left two other companies before incorporating a third, the Ford Motor Company, on June 16, 1903.

Son of a farmer, raised on a farm outside Detroit, Ford should have been destined to till the land, like so many of his 19th-century peers. But even as a young child his father’s tools fascinated him more than horses or fields, and by the time he turned teenager, machines had become his obsession. At first it was unpowered machines, the watches and clocks he taught himself to take apart and repair. And then, not long after, he saw his first steam engine. The operator took the time to explain its mechanizations to the boy. And thus was Ford’s true destiny revealed to him.

Many in the shivering crowd also already knew about Ford’s racecars from the man who had steered several of them to national headlines: Barney Oldfield, the greatest American racecar driver of the early era, a man even more daring than Ford. A champion bicyclist at age 16, Oldfield had never driven a motor vehicle of any kind until Ford, seeking publicity for his second attempt at an auto company, asked him to race the 999 in a competition. At the time, Ford himself was leery of driving it, except on the test track. Saying he would try anything once, Oldfield, 24, agreed. Ford entered the 999 into the October 1902 Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup at Detroit’s Grosse Pointe Blue Ribbon Track, venerable home of harness racing, and set about acquainting Oldfield with the car’s quirky features.

“It took us only a week to teach him to drive,” Ford later recalled. “The man did not know what fear was. All that he had to learn was how to control the monster.” Meaning specifically, how to steer it through corners without rolling over.

“The steering wheel had not yet been thought of,” Ford recalled. “On this one, I put a two-handed tiller, for holding the car in line required all the strength of a strong man.”

While Ford was cranking the 999 to life, Oldfield said: “Well, this chariot may kill me, but they will say afterward that I was going like hell when she took me over the bank.”

He did go like hell, winning that October 1902 race against the already legendary automaker and racer Alexander Winton, who until then was thought to be invincible.

In the summer of 1903, Oldfield drove Ford’s Arrow to world records at Midwest fairgrounds and then on July 25, at a track in Yonkers, New York. A few weeks later, he raced again at Grosse Pointe. He had just passed the leader when a tire exploded and Arrow plowed into a fence, killing a spectator from Ohio. Oldfield, a newspaper reported, and “escaped by a miracle, as his machine was reduced to a mass of tangled iron and wood. That more people were not killed or maimed is a cause for wonder.” Cocky and gifted, a man who loved women as much as machines, Oldfield would maim and kill many more before the end of his career.

As Oldfield recovered from his injuries, the repaired Arrow took the starting flag in Milwaukee a week after the luckless Ohio man’s death. Promising young racer Frank Day was at the wheel. But the Arrow proved too much to manage, and he spun out of control. Ford’s racer rolled end over end, landing “on the unfortunate chauffeur, grinding him into the ground, an unrecognizable mess,” a paper reported.

For those who did not share autoists’ enthusiasm — and there were many who did not, influential politicians, judges, and editorialists among them — Day’s death was new cause for condemnation.

“We saw the young man who rode to his death on the day preceding the fatality,” the Wisconsin State Journal opined. “A cleaner, fresher youth never delighted his parents’ eyes. The wind tousled his abundant hair on his clear forehead as he whirled about the track; determination and enthusiasm were in his eyes; the cheers of the impassioned mob impelled him as soldiers go to certain death under martial music.”

And then, an unrecognizable mess. “We are not wholesome enough to enjoy the triumphs of the soil and noble horses and royal-blooded cattle,” the State Journal proclaimed. “The incident is a disgrace.”

For Ford, it was a disquieting but momentary setback. Back in Michigan, he rebuilt Arrow once again. He had further use for its awesome power.


Contents Copyright © 1997-2015 G. Wayne Miller