Classic Race Cars

Henry Ford’s Sweepstakes (1901)

March 31, 2011

Ford Sweepstakes_01In late 1900, Henry Ford’s fortunes were at a low ebb. His first venture in auto manufacturing, the Detroit Automobile Company, was going out of business after producing 19 or 20 vehicles in a year of operation. The cars had not sold well and Ford wanted to develop a better one, but his stockholders decided to dissolve the company. The car Ford wanted to build would be mass-produced, uncomplicated, reliable, and sold at a price most people could afford. That was a revolutionary idea in 1901, when the automobile was still a novelty, and much too expensive for all but the very wealthy.

At that time Henry Ford was thought of in Detroit as being a bit of an eccentric. He was not well known, especially beyond Detroit. He had been a mechanical engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company when he produced his first working automobile, the Quadricycle of 1896. That car brought him some local recognition, but nothing like the sensations being created in the press by famous drivers and builders like Alexander Winton, Frank Duryea, Ransom E. Olds, and particularly such European racers as Henri Fournier and Fernand Charron.

Racing proved the worth of a builder’s engineering talent by demonstrating the speed and reliability of the product. There was a lot to prove, because the infant auto industry of 1901 was bursting at the seams with ideas, experiments and innovations. It was in a state of entrepreneurial ferment: Total U.S. auto production was about 4,000 units, from more than 50 companies, and the short lifespan of the Detroit Automobile Company was not unusual. No one knew what course the industry would take. At the turn of the last century New England was the auto manufacturing hub, not Detroit, and the predominant sources of power for automobiles were steam and electricity, not gasoline.

Henry Ford was confident that somebody would succeed in producing the mass-market car he envisioned, and above all else he wanted to be the one to do it. But that would require significant financial investment. He needed to prove to potential backers that he had good ideas, and that his automobiles could be a commercial success. Racing Sweepstakes would provide a high-profile way to promote his name and reputation. Still, Sweepstakes was a gamble. Fame, as well as significant prize money, could be won, but only if the car proved to be a winner. And Ford was facing tough odds. There were plenty of successful builders and racers to provide fierce and experienced competition.

Construction of Sweepstakes started in May, 1901, in a shop at Cass Avenue and Amsterdam Street in Detroit. Working with Henry Ford were Oliver “Otto” Barthel, the overall project engineer, and Ed “Spider” Huff, who was responsible for the electrical and ignition systems, and also was Ford’s riding mechanic. They were assisted by Ed Verlinden, a lathe operator, Charlie Mitchell, a blacksmith, and George Wettrick, a lathe hand and engine assembler.

The car’s frame was made of ash wood reinforced with steel plates, suspended on its front and rear axles by leaf springs. The axles were located by a Ford-patented “reach-rod” system. The wire-spoke wheels were 28 inches in diameter, fitted with four-inch-diameter tires from the Diamond Rubber Company, which eventually became part of BFGoodrich Tires. These were an early form of “tubeless” tire, in that the tire is a one-piece circular tube with bolts embedded in the rubber for attaching it to the wheel rim. The 2-cylinder engine was mounted in the middle of the car on the left-hand side, under the seat.

Grosse Pointe race against Alexander Winton

Sweepstakes carried Henry Ford to victory in the first and only race he ever drove — the race against Alexander Winton on October 10, 1901, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Since Ford was the underdog, and the local favorite who defeated one of the best and most successful racers in the country, his victory was popular and widely publicized. In fact, Ford’s win changed everything for him, and ultimately for the history of the auto industry. Several people watching that day came forward with offers of financial support, which set him on the road to establishing Ford Motor Company in June, 1903. Ford went on to prove his belief in low-cost production with the Model T, the car that put the world on wheels.

Following Ford’s October, 1901, victory, he received several offers from people who wanted to buy his race car. “Ford’s machine caused a lot of talk among the visiting chauffeurs,” reported the Detroit News on Oct. 11, “and one of the best of them is today dickering to buy the car or a new one made on the exact pattern.” However, Ford did not sell Sweepstakes until March of 1902. That was the same month he left the Henry Ford Company (which ultimately became Cadillac), his second manufacturing venture, launched after the October, 1901 race. Ford was dissatisfied with his situation there, and wanted to build better, faster race cars. The 999 and Arrow were the results, appearing later in 1902.

William C. Rands bought Sweepstakes for approximately $2,000. Rands, who owned a bicycle store on Woodward Ave., entered it in several races with a driver named Harry Cunningham, who also on occasion drove the Arrow for Henry Ford and Tom Cooper. As the auto industry grew, Rands became a large aftermarket supplier of such parts as convertible tops and windshields, and he offered Sweepstakes back to Henry Ford sometime in the early 1930s.


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