After 100 Years, Ford’s First Race Car Gains a Place of Honor
As Ford Motor Company celebrates its centenary, there is renewed interest in how Henry Ford put the pieces together to establish his company in June, 1903.
One of those pieces is Sweepstakes, a car he built and raced in 1901. This car is significant because it won, first time out, and brought Henry Ford far-reaching publicity and recognition. The fame and reputation Ford gained when he defeated Alexander Winton on October 10, 1901, paved the way for him. It helped bring financial backing for the Henry Ford Company … for building the 999 and Arrow race cars … and ultimately for founding the Ford Motor Company.
For his victory on October, 10, 1901, Henry Ford won $1,000 in prize money, and a cut glass punch bowl as a trophy. The punch bowl had been selected by Winton’s sales manager, who persuaded the race organizers to let him pick something that would look good in Winton’s home. That’s how confident they were, and how much of an underdog Ford was considered. The bowl occupied a place of honor in Henry Ford’s home until after his death in 1947. But knowledge of its history seems to have died with him, for the bowl was sold at auction in 1951 with no significance attached.
Sweepstakes, too, drifted into obscurity. Ford sold the car in 1902, got it back in the 1930s, restored it, used it for some promotion, then moved it into the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Sweepstakes remained there, displayed to the public on and off, until 1987, resting under the supposition that it was a replica made in the ’30s, not the original. Then it was put under wraps in a storage warehouse.
That all changed as the centennial of the 1901 race approached.
John Valentine, chief engineer at Ford Research and Vehicle Technology, thought it would be great to have even a replica of Sweepstakes running at special events during the Ford Racing 100th Anniversary celebrations. With the cooperation of Henry Ford Museum, he started the ball rolling and arranged for Glenn Miller, a development engineer at Ford Special Vehicle Engineering, to lead a project to get the car out of mothballs and, if possible, put it into running order.
When Miller and Malcolm Collum, conservator at Henry Ford Museum, removed the car’s bodywork and started looking deeper into its workings, they soon were convinced that this was, in fact, the original Sweepstakes.
“We were seeing things that just never would have been replicated in the 1930s to make a display car,” Miller said. “There were holes in the frame in various places — in the steering box area, for example — where it was obvious that parts had been attached, then moved or replaced with something else. In other words, this car had evolved, as all race cars do. Also, in the 1930s, Henry Ford never would have gone to the trouble of recreating the whole, intricate fuel “vaporizer” system. To make a car that looked right and ran, he would just have used a carburetor.”
Knowing they had the real Sweepstakes on their hands, the scope of the project changed. The task became a thorough restoration of the original car, and the building of two running replicas for displays and special events.
“My job was to see that the 1901 race car was disassembled and refurbished as carefully as possible,” said Collum, “so as to preserve the original integrity and document the process.”
“From the start, we set the ground rules,” Collum added. “We had to make sure the original car was not damaged.… We didn’t want someone taking a file to it.”
It was decided that the two replicas would act as stand-ins for Sweepstakes at such prestigious events as the Goodwood Festival in England and the Monterey Historic Automobile Races in Pebble Beach, California. Meanwhile, the restored original would take up residence at the Henry Ford Museum.
“Racing and this car were pivotal to Henry Ford in his early engineering successes, and his efforts to raise money for his second and third companies,” said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at Henry Ford Museum. “With the restoration complete, it has gone back on the floor at the museum, in a display with other important Ford race cars.”
1901 Ford Sweepstakes - The Race Car That Changed Everything
When Henry Ford began building “Sweepstakes” in 1901, he had a specific purpose in mind: publicity and recognition.
In 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.
In fact, 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.
Many years later when recalling that time, Ford said, “I never thought anything of racing, but the public refused to think about the automobile as anything but a fast toy. Therefore, we had to race.”
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.
Sweepstakes – A Gamble
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, sound 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 is made of ash wood reinforced with steel plates, suspended on its front and rear axles by leaf springs. The axles are located by a Ford-patented “reach-rod” system. The wire-spoke wheels are 71 cm (28 inches) in diameter, fitted with 10 cm (four inch) diameter tyres from the Diamond Rubber Company, which eventually became part of BFGoodrich Tires. These were an early form of “tubeless” tyre, in that the tyre is a one-piece circular tube with bolts embedded in the rubber for attaching it to the wheel rim.
The engine is mounted in the middle of the car on the left-hand side, under the seat. It has two cylinders, horizontally opposed, with the crankshaft aligned transversely across the chassis. The cast-steel connecting rods reflect steam-power technology, with brass crank bearings as separate pieces bolted to the ends of the rods. The block and pistons are cast iron and, with a 178 mm bore and stroke, the total displacement is 8.8 litres (539 cubic inches).
The cooling system holds 35 litres of water, circulated by a pump located on the outboard side of the engine. The pump is driven by a chain from a gear on the outboard end of the crankshaft.
The fuel tank holds approximately 22 litres of gasoline, fed to the engine by gravity.
The engine oiling system is simply a series of drip mechanisms that deliver oil to the desired locations. Since the crankshaft spins in the open, a lot of oil is thrown around when the engine is running, soon covering not only many external parts of the car, but also the driver and riding mechanic. This was called a “total-loss” oiling system, because none of the oil is recovered or recirculated.
The cast-iron flywheel, mounted on the inboard end of the crankshaft, measures 609 mm in diameter and weighs 136 kg. A secondary wheel, which fits into a flange machined into the inside of the flywheel’s rim, acts as the high-gear clutch.
Next to the high-gear clutch is the two-speed planetary transmission, with a first-gear band and a reverse band. A sprocket, mounted at the centre line of the car, carries the drive chain, which runs to another sprocket on the differential in the rear axle.
According to Oliver Barthel, the engine block and pistons were cast elsewhere, but all the machining and assembly was done at their Cass Avenue shop.
Several elements in the car were innovative and technologically advanced for the time.
The induction system, then called a “vaporiser,” is a rudimentary form of mechanical fuel injection, throttled by varying the amount of intake valve opening, and the ignition system is a forerunner of today’s distributorless coil-on-plug systems. It is called a “wasted-spark” system, because the spark fires on both the compression and the exhaust strokes. Both the vaporiser and the spark coil system were patented by Ford.
The “Huff” ignition system was innovative because it had porcelain insulators on the spark plugs. Spark plug fouling was prevalent in those early engines, so Ford and his team engaged the services of a Detroit dentist, Dr. W. E. Sandborn, to make ceramic insulators for their plugs. The electrical insulation gives a hotter, more consistent spark. In fact, after the 1901 race Alexander Winton bought several of Ford’s spark coil systems for his cars.
Fifty-one years later, Barthel said he believed they were the first porcelain-insulator spark plugs made anywhere.
In the same reminiscences, recorded in 1952 for the Henry Ford Museum Archives, Barthel described their first test session: “The first trial run was made in July, 1901, on the north boulevard over a measured half mile (800 metres). It was timed by an electric timing device that Huff and I had specially made for this test. This section of the boulevard was closed off by a special police guard for the duration of the test. The timer recorded the speed for this straightaway test run at the rate of 72 miles per hour (116 km/h).”
While there are no records or descriptions about how Sweepstakes was operated, from the positions of the controls it is reasonable to assume that Henry Ford operated the steering, the throttle lever, the reverse gear pedal, the gearshift lever, and the brake lever. From his position crouched on the left running board, the principal job of Huff, the riding mechanic, was to counter-balance the car in the turns. He also would operate the controls for spark advance, the ignition on/off switch, and the oiling system if necessary.
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 publicised.
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.
The Sweepstakes Saga
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.
By then it had been stored in a warehouse for many years, and the wooden body had been destroyed in a fire. Ford had new bodywork made to restore the car, and promotional photographs taken in the ’30s show that the result of this work was not an exact replica of the original.
After this point, the car was stored at the Henry Ford Museum and, over time, all but forgotten. With no papers to verify it as the original Sweepstakes, museum personnel came to believe it was a replica built by Henry Ford in the ’30s.
It wasn’t until the approach of the 1901 race’s 100th anniversary that steps were taken to verify the car’s authenticity. Restoration of the original Sweepstakes, along with the building of two working replicas, began in preparation for the Ford Racing 100th Anniversary celebrations.
1901 Ford Sweepstakes - Discovery and Restoration
Striking It Rich
On a balmy afternoon in Dearborn, Mich., in 2000, Glenn Miller, a development engineer at Ford Special Vehicle Engineering, and Malcolm Collum, senior conservator at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, struck automotive gold.
Their unexpected windfall: the original 1901 race car built and campaigned by Henry Ford and aptly named “Sweepstakes.”
“We walked into a house full of goodies that day,” recalled Collum, who had worked on restoration of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk engine and was one of those responsible for the verification of Sweepstakes. “We knew about the location [in Dearborn], but everybody thought the automobile stored there was just a replica of Henry’s original 1901 race car. It turned out to be a real win situation for us.”
The car had disappeared from public view in 1987, and the discovery of its true identity launched a bold plan by Ford Motor Company to restore Sweepstakes to its original specifications for permanent display, and to produce two running replicas in preparation for the Ford Racing 100th Anniversary celebrations.
According to Collum, “It was like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
“From records and photos, we knew that the car had been involved in a fire and that the wooden body had been destroyed. We also knew that Henry Ford had a new body made for the vehicle in the ’30s, but that this work was not an exact replica of the original.
“Glenn and I had agreed that, if the vehicle was phony-baloney, then we'd just get it started anyway. We thought, 'Let's get this thing going and drive it.'
“When we leaned in to the engine area from opposite sides of the chassis, we checked the induction system, looked up at each other and just started smiling. We realized that this was the car Henry had built in 1901 and raced to victory against Alexander Winton in front of 8,000 spectators at the Detroit Driving Club in Grosse Pointe.”
Miller was equally convinced the vehicle the pair had unearthed was the original 1901 race car, with which Ford had defeated Winton’s heavily favored “Bullet” in the 10-lap shootout that had the citizens of Detroit cheering wildly.
“We could see it had a direct rudimentary fuel injection system,” said Miller, a collector of early automobiles and a Ford racing buff. “There’s no way Henry would have gone to the trouble of duplicating that system in the ’30s, with the carburettors they had available then. We were able to verify the car from that and other engine parts.”
However, the plan to restore “Sweepstakes” to its original form and build two working replicas would place a high demand on both time and resources.
Work on the cars was begun in January, 2001, with aim of having both replicas up and running by June, less than nine months after Sweepstakes resurfaced.
A team from Ford Special Vehicle Engineering joined fabrication specialists Trakon Show & Display, and began work at Trakon’s Sterling Heights, Michigan-based facility. With more than two dozen individuals working 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, the first replica’s engine burst to life on May 24.
“It was so exciting,” said Miller. “We were very relieved.
“There were no patterns or blueprints to work with,” added Miller, who was placed in charge of the project. “We were provided with photos of the original 1901 car by the Henry Ford Museum, and this helped tremendously. But the rest depended on skilled craftsmanship, hard work and a passion for the program.”
One of the many challenges that confronted Miller and his team was attempting to duplicate the tyres on the 1901 “Sweepstakes.”
“The rubber on the 1901 Ford race car were single tube-type tyres manufactured by the Diamond Rubber Company, which later was merged with BFGoodrich Tires,” said Miller. “They basically looked like doughnuts, with the tube being the tyre.
“Actually, bolts embedded in the rubber held the tyres onto the wheel rim. You just can’t buy them anymore, so we had to make some concessions in replicating them.”
Back on Stage
Like Miller and Collum, Bob Casey, curator of transportation at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, has been involved with the Sweepstakes project from the beginning.
“After the fire destroyed the bodywork on the original 1901 race car, people felt Henry Ford had commissioned that a replica of the original be built in the ’30s,” said Casey. “As there weren’t solid records of the restoration of the car kept during the ’40s, the assumption was it was just a replica, nothing else.
“Because of this, it wasn’t given pride of place in the Henry Ford Museum, where it had been on display, and so was consequently pulled from the exhibit.”
However, after finding patterns of corrosion on the chassis that were consistent with the vehicle being sprayed with hoses and standing in water as a result of the warehouse fire, Casey and Collum were further convinced that the car found in a Dearborn warehouse last October was Sweepstakes, not a replica.
Today, Sweepstakes is back where it belongs but now in prime place, pristine condition and drawing huge crowds daily at the Henry Ford Museum.
“Henry Ford’s 1901 race car, with its fuel induction system, dropped frame, and low center of gravity compared to other race cars of the time, was one well-engineered vehicle,” said Casey. “He adhered to the principle of building lighter, smaller vehicles rather than bigger and heavier. Handling meant a lot to Henry and he was well ahead of his time in building race cars.
“Today, I think he’d be excited about what’s going on in racing technology, but not totally surprised.”
1901 Ford Sweepstakes - Replicating the Original
When the first 1901 “Sweepstakes” replica engine burst into life with a loud backfire and a puff of smoke on May 24, 2001, there was a generous round of applause from people on the workshop floor of Trakon Show & Display in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
“We were really pleased, to say the least,” recalled Ron Trendler, administration project manager at Trakon, and one of several dozen people who had worked on the program to restore Henry Ford’s original 1901 race car and produce two running replicas in celebration of the Ford Racing 100th Anniversary.
“Truthfully, we were all a little nervous, but after a few moments, the engine finally fired up, and it was absolutely thrilling.”
Trendler, along with Trakon President Dick Henderson, Sr., were among those present at the historic start-up of the replica engine.
“We were contacted along with several other vendors in November, 2000 to bid on the job,” explained Trendler. “We were awarded the job the last week of December and threw everything at it in January.”
With the original car partially disassembled and shipped to Trakon’s shop, the challenge to restore Sweepstakes and fabricate two replicas was enormous but intriguing, according to Henderson.
“The ground rule was: the replicas had to look identical to the original,” said Henderson, who, in 1996, headed Trakon’s involvement in chrome plating 30 pickup trucks for display at the opening and closing ceremonies at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
“I didn’t see any panic; we just planned to get the job done right.”
With no blueprints or drawings of the 1901 Sweepstakes to work from, Trakon depended largely on photos from the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village to help with the integrity of the replica build.
“You’ve got to remember, we were duplicating parts from old photos and a car that probably hadn’t been started in close to 100 years,” explained Glenn Miller, development engineer, Ford Special Vehicle Engineering, and head of the Sweepstakes project.
According to Miller, Trakon’s job of building the replicas was a much tougher assignment than restoring the original 1901 Ford race car, whose chassis was walnut-blasted (using ground walnut shells as the blast medium) to clean up years of dirt and grime, then repainted, waxed and polished.
“Everything had to be done from scratch with the replicas,” said Miller. “There were no patterns or blueprints available on the car. Pistons had to be manufactured, parts machined, and the frame made out of ash. Meticulous care had to be taken to match original paint and bodywork particulars as well.”
Malcolm Collum, senior conservator at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, worked closely with Trakon and Miller on the Sweepstakes project.
“My job was to see that the 1901 race car was disassembled and refurbished as carefully as possible, so as to preserve the original integrity of the car and document the process,” said Collum.
“As well, we didn’t want the replicas to look like they’d been mass produced. They needed to have that same handmade quality of the original Ford race car.
“I believe the public will see this when the cars go on display.”
Development Engineer, Special Vehicle Engineering
The 1901 Ford Sweepstakes project is an ideal assignment for Glenn Miller, who has been an old-car aficionado for most of his life. He took charge of the overall program to restore the original car and to build the two working replicas from January 2001.
Glenn says he came by his interest in antique autos from his father, who “played with” cars from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. From that influence, Glenn developed a love for very old cars, and now has a collection of early automobiles, including a 1901 Geneva steam car.
“I was especially interested in early race cars,” Miller says, “but I could never afford them. So this assignment has been like a dream come true.”
Miller’s avocation has helped the Sweepstakes project in several ways. From his experience with his own collection, he knows the suppliers where various components can be made. Miller also has a shop at his home that’s well equipped for working on antique cars, and in this shop Miller built the two wooden bodies for the Sweepstakes replicas. In addition, over the years he has developed a well-tuned knowledge of what’s right and what is not on very early automobiles. That knowledge was particularly valuable when it came to verifying that the car in the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit was indeed the original Sweepstakes.
Miller joined Ford Special Vehicle Engineering in Detroit about three-years-ago and, with the completion of the Sweepstakes restoration, now works in the Ford GT program. Before that he worked at the Small Car Vehicle Center as a chassis development engineer, on such projects as the Escort ZX2 and the Focus.
He is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, and started at Ford Motor Company in 1976 as a technician in the NVH Lab.