Classic Race Cars

Ford 999 (1902)

April 10, 2013

Ford 999, Henry Ford and Barney OldfieldIn May, 1902, Henry Ford and Tom Cooper, along with several assistants, began building two race cars. These cars were later named as 999 (painted yellow) and Arrow (painted red). Originally, the two cars could be differentiated by their intake manifolds. The 999 had right-angle bends in the runners, while the bends in the Arrow’s manifold were more gentle and curving, which made this car the faster of the two. However, parts and paint were swapped between the two so often that precisely which car was which became obscured.

Both cars had inline four-cylinder engines, displacing 1155.3 cubic inches (7.25 in bore, 7 in. stroke), developing somewhere between 70 and 100 horsepower. The flywheel weighed 230 pounds, and was connected to the rear axle through a wooden-block clutch and a solid shaft (no universal joints), that terminated in a ring and pinion gear (no differential) to transmit power to the rear wheels.

The driver steered with an iron bar that pivoted in the middle, and there was no rear suspension. Also, both the crankshaft and valve gear were exposed, so the driver not only was jolted by every ripple in the road, but also was continually sprayed by oil.

The 999’s first race was at the Grosse Pointe track on Oct. 25, 1902. This was the race that launched the career of Barney Oldfield who had never driven a car prior to his first run in the 999. There were four cars in the race but nobody could stay with Oldfield. He won easily with a time of five minutes, 28 seconds, which set a record for a five-mile race on a closed course.

Although Henry Ford’s name is part of the legend of these cars, during the time they were winning races and setting records, Henry Ford owned no part of them. He sold his share to Tom Cooper after the cars didn’t start at the first test session, about two weeks before the first race.

After the win at the Grosse Pointe, Cooper and Oldfield were touring the country with the 999 and Arrow, winning races and setting speed records. In September 1903, Ed “Spider” Huff and Frank Day drove the cars in the race at the Wisconsin Fairgrounds. Unfortunately, Day crashed the Arrow and was killed. The wrecked car was shipped back to Detroit, where Ford rebuilt it for a land speed record run on the ice of Lake St. Clair during the winter. On January 12, 1904, Ford and Huff set a flying-mile record of 91.37 mph. By this time, the car was being referred to variously as the new 999 or the Red Devil 999.