119 years ago, Henry Ford made history in his “999”

Henry Ford 999 vs Harkness race cars 1903
Henry Ford raced Harry Harkness in the “999” in 1903 at Grosse Pointe Racetrack. The Henry Ford

It was a cold and blustery winter’s day in southeast Michigan on January 12, 1904, the kind of day that only the heartiest of souls embrace. Henry Ford, 40 years old and quickly making a name for himself as a car builder, did not flinch. He had something to prove. Again.

Henry himself had defeated renowned racing driver Alexander Winton in a head-to-head showdown in 1901, and another of Ford’s race cars—nicknamed “999” in honor of the record-setting Empire State Express 999 locomotive that had surpassed 112 mph—was driven to victory by Barney Oldfield in the 1902 Manufacturers’ Challenge Cup.

A third Ford racer, nearly identical to 999 and named Arrow, crashed in a race in 1903, killing its driver, Frank Day. Ford reconstructed the damaged car, and in an attempt to change its luck, he also dubbed it 999. That decision would prove prolific, as the “new 999,” sometimes referred to as the “Red Devil,” would become even more famous than the first.

Ford 999 vintage race car cockpit seatback
The Henry Ford

As dawn arrived on the morning of January 12, 1904, Ford was determined to set a new land speed record, regardless of the harsh weather, except that it wouldn’t actually take place on land. The attempt would be made on ice-covered Lake St. Clair, near New Baltimore, north of Detroit.

Powered by a huge 18.9-liter inline-four engine that produced 80 horsepower, the rechristened 999 had a wooden chassis but neither body nor hood. It was built for speed, not comfort, providing plenty of the first and none of the second. With Ford at the wheel and the wind howling even before he hit the throttle, 999 covered one mile in 39.4 seconds, establishing a record speed of 91.37 mph.

999 Ford World Record Ad
The Henry Ford

The following day’s account in the Detroit Tribune described Ford’s feat as a “wild drive against time.” The newspaper hailed Ford’s toughness and determination, writing, “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.”

In Ford’s 1922 autobiography, My Life and Work, he did his best to describe the car and the experience. In the end, it seems he was still left grasping for a proper analogy.

“I put in four great big cylinders giving 80 hp—which up to that time had been unheard of,” he wrote. “The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man. There was only one seat. One life to a car was enough. We let it out full speed. I cannot quite describe the sensation. Going over Niagara Falls would have been but a pastime after that ride.”

Ford’s feat was so historic and received so much publicity that few people today know that his record was broken a mere 15 days later. On January 27, 1904, William K. Vanderbilt, driving a 90-hp Mercedes race car, covered the flying mile in 39 seconds on packed oceanfront sand in Ormond Beach, Florida, good enough for 92.3 mph.

Regardless, the publicity that Ford received ultimately propelled him to fame and fortune. Four years later, the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in Detroit, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield with 999 race car
Henry Ford (R) and Barney Oldfield (L) with the “999”. The Henry Ford

Nearly 60 years after Ford’s 999 established a world speed record, legendary racer Dan Gurney had an opportunity to drive the car himself, and he came away impressed with both the machine and the man, Henry Ford.

“The performance of the 999, compared with other cars of this day, is really outstanding,” he said in the July 1963 issue of Ford Times Magazine. “I felt it today. It’s kind of fun to see what their ideas were back in those days compared to what’s been developed. You can actually trace each one, like the refinement of power and other developments. You get different mutations as you do with a family tree, and you can follow them back to this one. They have all sprung from the 999.  It’s got performance. If you were to take it out on the freeway, it wouldn’t have any trouble keeping up with traffic … Golly, when you think about the great old timers in this business, you can’t help but get goose bumps, you know?”

Oh, we know. And it has nothing to do with the frigid weather on that historic day 119 years ago.

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    Awesome car and the “The Henry Ford” is an awesome museum…if you have not been it is a must see… as is Greenfield Village, and when in Michigan don’t forget the Gilmore car museum that is 2 hours west of Detroit…I love Michigan, so much to see and do, so much automobile history….

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