U.S. Racing Past, Ford's racing roots began with Sweepstakes
By KEVIN A. WILSON
(Photos © 2003 Walter G. Acre / Actionsportsinc.com)
IT’S A RACE CAR. REALLY. IT has no nifty painted numbers on it or advertising logos—not even one for its maker—but it’s a genuine high-performance racing machine, direct ancestor to the GT40 and the Talladega, the Lotus 49 and the No. 9 NASCAR T-Bird that made Awesome Bill a millionaire. It’s a few days before The Winston race and today, on the one-fifth-mile oval outside Turn Three at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, usual home to Legends mini-car races, we’re going to both ride on and drive this 26-hp thoroughbred. The prospect makes us a little anxious.
It’s called the Sweepstakes, it dates to 1901, and it’s the prize-winning stud that sired the entire Ford racing stable. Speaking of stables, it looks like it could be pulled by horses, and we can’t see how else Henry Ford could have started this contraption. Hand cranking is pretty much out of the question with the inertia of a 300-pound flywheel to overcome. Yep, a 300-pound flywheel. The 24-inch-diameter cast-iron wheel, hanging under the wagon there, looks like something off a locomotive or a steam-driven cotton mill.
Harley-Davidson guys who love their big twins should get a load of this horizontally opposed two-cylinder, which mounts transversely amidships. The block and pistons are cast iron; the crankshaft is cast steel as are the connecting rods, with bolt-on brass bearing caps, again like a big ol’ steam engine. With a 7.0-inch bore and 7.0-inch stroke, it displaces 539 cubic inches (8.8 liters).
Total-loss lubrication with the crank spinning in the open made for a cloud of oil everywhere it went—lucky for us, it has a cover on it today to prevent oiling down the pavement, driver and riding mechanic. You’ll find this lump on the left side of the ash-framed buggy, directly under the riding mechanic’s seat. Cylinder one points forward, cylinder two aft; the power shaft emerges toward the center, to facilitate chain drive via a two-speed planetary transmission and a pair of big cycle-like sprockets. What we would, today, call the final drive ratio is 1.56:1.
At idle it sounds like a jazz drummer rhythmically beating an empty 55-gallon steel drum with a pair of wooden mallets. Pockit ah pockit ah pockit ah. The “ah” is the F-head valvetrain doing its tap dance, the exhausts operated mechanically and the intake valve opening in response to atmospheric pressure. You can pretty much count the individual cylinder firings as you hear them at idle. Flat out, this beast spins at about 900 rpm and the beats come closer together, pockit-ah-pockit
ahpockitahpockitahpockitah, but never fully merge into a roar. Watching it circulate on the little oval, where it tops out at what looks like a peak of about 40 mph and a stopwatched quick lap works out to an average in the low- 30-mph range, it seems simple enough. Until you get a good look at the controls, none of which resembles anything to be found in the cockpit of the modern Mustang, let alone the Multimatic Ford Focus that raced at Daytona.
Technically, the car I’m going to drive is a replica, but it’s a painstakingly accurate one—to the point of custom machining each of the nuts, bolts and screws—patterned precisely after the original, which survives in The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. That such a thing exists for us today, that it matters enough to be preserved for a century and then re-created in such exacting detail, you may put down to the fact that it won its first race, a 10-mile trophy dash on a horse track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the only wheel-to-wheel competition in which Henry Ford himself ever drove. Had it not won, had it faltered in the one moment it was given to shine, there’s a good chance Ford Motor Co. itself wouldn’t exist at all.
FROM 100 YEARS AWAY, it sometimes looks to us as though there was a predestined, straight-line relationship between Henry Ford’s Quadricycle of 1896 and the arrival of the world-changing Model T in 1909, but that’s only because we know how the story ends. For Henry Ford, those 13 years were as uncertain and full of turmoil as those in anyone’s life, all bumps and starts and dead-ends. After building his first car, Henry was involved in not one, but two Detroit-area automotive start-up ventures before he got to 1903 and the founding of the company that bears his name. One of them went belly up; another survived to become Cadillac, but only after Henry was more or less tossed aside for pushing his vision of motorizing the masses in a company that wanted to cater to the people who had money.
It was along that bumpy road of life, in May 1901, that Henry Ford found it necessary to prove himself, yet again, as an engineer, visionary and, not at all incidentally, a worthy investment for the capitalists looking to get into this growing automobile business. Ford claimed not to have much regard for racing in itself, but there was fame, and prize money as well, to be had, and he needed both. So he set up shop at Cass Avenue and Amsterdam in downtown Detroit with Oliver “Otto” Barthel, who was put in charge of the project, and Ed “Spider” Huff, who was responsible for the electrical and ignition systems. Huff also became the riding mechanic, crouching on that big running board and hanging on to a cabinet handle on the side of the car to help balance it in turns, while he operated the controls for spark advance, the ignition on/off switch and the oiling system, as needed. These folks had help in the shop from a blacksmith named Charlie Mitchell and a pair of lathe operators named Ed Verlinden and George Wettrick (who did double duty as engine assembler).
The first test of the machine came on a public road closed off by police for the occasion in July 1901. Over a half-mile measured and timed using electrical devices invented by Huff and Barthel (they had to create everything, remember), it was clocked at 72 mph.
The Sweepstakes had two memorable inventions to its credit. One was an early form of fuel injection, called a vaporizer, throttled by varying the amount of intake valve opening and with what its re-creators call a “spoon” that ladles gasoline into the air intake. Huff invented the ignition mechanism using a spark coil for each cylinder, an early version of today’s coil-on-plug systems. They call it a “wasted spark” design because the coils fired as each piston reached the top of its stroke, regardless of whether it was compression or exhaust. Fouling was common, so Ford and company engaged a Detroit dentist, W.E. Sandborn, to make porcelain ceramic insulators for a hotter spark that remains more consistent over miles of use. The replica uses Model T spark plugs, but these are fired using Huff’s original wasted-spark mechanism.
OPERATING THE LATHE when it came time to replicate the Sweepstakes was Joe Carpenter, who works at Trakon, in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a builder of show cars for the auto industry. Carpenter will be my driving partner in this adventure. After the original car had been discovered under a tarp in a Dearborn warehouse used by the museum, Carpenter and others at Trakon had to figure out how to replicate the technologies used to build it. Such seemingly simple devices as the 28x4-inch wire-spoke wheels or the worm-drive steering gear on the solid front axle had been created in Ford’s Cass Avenue shop, and Carpenter got to do it all over again from scratch.
When it came time to start the original, restored engine for the first time, they had it on a stand, Carpenter remembers, and tried to hand crank it.
Mechanic "Spider" Huff hung off the left side, clinging to a cabinet handle.
“That was a joke. So we put a truck up on a lift, started it up, put the engine on its stand underneath and lowered the truck until the rear tire was on the flywheel, and put the truck in gear,” he says. It worked, but friends, do not try this trick at home. Sometimes they start the Sweepstakes replica by towing it behind a lawn tractor, but the niftiest method they’ve devised uses a starter motor borrowed from the NHRA Funny Car program.
While Carpenter was machining, carpenters (lowercase c) were building the buggy on an ash frame reinforced with steel plates. You can see the end-grain of the wood in the dark-red painted main frame rails when you look at the front of the car. The wheelbase is 96 inches, or seven inches shorter than that on a Focus, while the 56-inch track is nearly three inches narrower and the 2200-pound curb weight is about 350 pounds lighter. It’s so high that climbing aboard is as if you were sitting on the roof of the Focus.
Like a horse-drawn buggy in Amish country, the entire machine is the product of a wood shop and a machine shop. This is nowhere more evident than in the steering wheel, four brass spokes with a wooden rim, so close to the diamond-pleated benchseat that you pretty much straddle it, a feat probably more comfortable for those who grew up on horseback.
It’s raining when we finally climb aboard for our first few orientation laps with Carpenter driving. He moves the throttle lever, a little slab of sheetmetal sticking up through the seat between us, and releases the external brake lever. Then he pushes down on the red lever to engage the low gear of the two-speed planetary transmission. With the lever in the center of its travel—which it returns to whenever you stop applying pressure—it’s in neutral, and while you’re lifting on it you get high gear.
Once rolling, Carpenter drives down the straights, pulling up for high, down for low gear in the turns. Wind tickles my beard and rain spots my glasses. The world outside blurs as we race in high gear, pockitahpockitahpockitah-pockitah past the grandstands, and I imagine the handful of support crew as a cheering crowd as Carpenter gears down and we lean over for the next corner. We do this for a heaping handful of laps until I’m flat giggling, and then it’s my turn.
IN THE ORIGINAL RACE Ford initially fell behind Alexander Winton, his only competitor on the track (others had been eliminated in preliminary heats and by mechanical failure) and, at the time, a far more successful automotive manufacturer and engineer. Underdog Henry Ford had never before driven in a race and slowed too much for the turns on the dirt oval. After a few laps, with Huff’s encouragement Ford found he could hold the throttle open around the corners, and began closing the gap on the Scottish-born Winton. Some say Winton experienced spark fouling, and that he subsequently bought Ford’s spark-coil systems for his own cars suggests that it’s true. Victory brought Ford a bit of money to keep going on and more importantly, as the local underdog, his success made good copy for the newspapers—publicity of the sort that you can’t buy. Backers stepped forward offering to finance this hotshot who beat Winton, and were eventually signed aboard when the Ford Motor Co. was founded in 1903.
A MODERN DRIVER FINDS the Sweepstakes a real handful to drive. Or rather, four hands full, maybe five or six, hence the need for a riding mechanic. You need one to steer with, one to operate the gear lever and another for the throttle control or, alternatively, the outside brake lever. Meanwhile, someone has to tend the ignition timing and operate those little levers on the dash that send lubrication to the appropriate points.
Carpenter shouts, “Brake, brake!” as we go into a turn at what seems a comically slow pace until we try to get those tires to turn the vehicle. They’re really just big white rubber tubes—no tread, no grip. Understeer? How about no steer? It’s not pushing so much as paying no attention at all. The outside edge of the turn is approaching in slow motion while I pull up harder, harder on the long brake lever to little evident effect but then, ah, yes, we’re turning. Must have slowed down, eh?
Carpenter leans over by my ear and shouts, “We call it stop-by-appointment.” Uh-huh.
The engine doesn’t exactly push you back in the seat, but it’s clearly a torquey beast under there. Compared to the only other car I’ve driven of like age—a 1903 Curved Dash Oldsmobile—it’s an Outlaw Sprint car, all loud bangs and high velocity. Ten miles of driving it is looking like a long day’s work by the time I coast out of the fourth turn on my last lap and make for the “pit,” yanking the brake lever with all my might down half the length of the straight.
In reality, it surely only took a quarter-hour or less for Henry Ford to secure his future. My guess is he never forgot the experience.
(Photo) First Racer: Henry Ford and riding mechanic “Spider” Huff stayed close behind Alexander Winton’s favored, more powerful car in the early stages of the 10-mile Sweepstakes race until the Winton Faltered and Ford passed it on the seventh Lap. Ford went on to win.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....