Henry Ford couldn't have foreseen his company's success in motorsports
Ford Motor Co. participated in the Automobile Manufacturers Association's ban on racing from 1957 to 1962, but then returned with its "Total Performance" program that produced NASCAR championships, victories in Trans-Am racing, drag racing and rallying. But the biggest wins of all were at Le Mans and Indianapolis.
In a wonderfully international undertaking, American racer Dan Gurney got Ford together with Colin Chapman of Britain's Lotus and, with NASCAR's Wood Brothers' team working in his pits, Scottish racer Jim Clark won the Indy 500 in 1965. A year later, the race was won - this time in a Ford-powered Lola - by British racer Graham Hill, whose father, Alfred, had taken a vacation from his dentistry practice in England to drive a Ford-powered entry at Indy in 1924.
In 1963, Henry Ford II thought he had a deal to buy Ferrari, but when Enzo Ferrari changed his mind, Ford was intent on beating him on the racetrack. The venue was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where another international effort by Ford, its GT40 and racers and team managers ranging from Gurney to Carroll Shelby to John Wyer to Holman & Moody won Europe's most famous race four years in a row from 1966 through 1969.
No racing, no Ford
The victories at Le Mans were the most significant in company history since the day Henry Ford beat Alexander Winton in 1901. Beating Ferrari is one thing, but without that earliest victory, there likely would not have been a Ford Motor Co.
Imagine: No Model T. No Rouge plant. No flathead V-8. No Ford Foundation. No Mustang. No Greenfield Village.
Such a statement may come as a shock to many people, but not to Edsel Ford II, Henry's great-grandson.
"Not only is our racing tradition older than our company," Edsel Ford said in a speech celebrating the company's motorsports centennial nearly two years ago, "but there might not even have been a Ford Motor Co. without racing.
"How could that be? Well, you have to look at where my great-grandfather, Henry Ford, was in 1901."
Where Henry Ford was, Edsel continued, was a 38-year-old who had failed at his first auto company startup and who had a wife and son to support. "The auto industry, it seemed, was growing up without him," Edsel said. "Nearly 60 companies were already making automobiles, and most of them were produced in New England and Europe, not in Detroit.
"At that low point, Henry Ford might well have slipped into obscurity as just another dreamer. … He needed to get the world's attention, and he knew how. Henry Ford built a race car."
A punchbowl and a rifle
And with that car, rookie racer Henry Ford beat one of America's leading automakers, Winton, in a 10-mile event in October 1901 to win a crystal punchbowl set - and much more.
He took $13.73 from the $1,000 prize he won and bought a Winchester rifle to use on a duck-hunting expedition on the St. Clair River. But he also used his newfound fame from motorsports to find the funding needed to start a car company.
Ford's interest in racing would cause a rift between himself and the financial backers of Henry Ford Co. Within a few months they separated, with Ford getting $900, his plans for a new race car and the right to use his name on a future automotive venture.
This time, it was Ford himself writing to his brother-in-law about the growing rift over racing: "There is a barrel of money to be made in this business," he wrote early in 1902. "My company will kick about me following racing, but they will get the Advertising, and I expect to make $ where I can't make ¢ at Manufacturing."
Ford and friends finished building his car, the 999, which bicycle racer Barney Oldfield drove to another victory over Winton - and three other competitors - to win the Manufacturers Challenge Cup on Oct. 25, 1902.
Detroit businessmen again became interested in Henry Ford and his ideas about automobiles, and they combined to establish Ford & Malcomson Co., which soon became Ford Motor Co.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Throughout - well, actually, from even before the beginning - motorsports has been an important aspect of Ford's history. At the same time, Ford has been an important part of the growth and popularity of motorsports worldwide.
Ill-fated Indy effort
Edsel Ford II noted that Ford's racing tradition had endured through four generations of a company that has been led by his great-grandfather (Henry), his grandfather (Edsel), his father (Henry II) and now his cousin (Bill). Ford's involvement in racing even endured when Ford Motor Co. officially was withdrawn from motorsports competition, as it was from 1913 until 1952 - with a momentary exception in 1935 - again from 1957 to 1962 and then throughout the decade of the 1970s (at least in North America).
The exception in 1935 was an expensive, ill-fated, multicar entry in the Indianapolis 500, an effort supported by Edsel Ford but masterminded by Preston Tucker, who a few years later would become famous by starting his own car company.
But even when Ford was not a direct participant, its products were the mainstay of grassroots racing that helped to spread the sport across the country and around the world.
The Ford Model T and its engine became the vehicle of choice for racers in the early days of motorsports. The cars were stripped of fenders and other weighty parts, and a fledgling automotive aftermarket provided such things as improved cylinder heads and made engines more powerful. Among the most famous of those new heads was the Frontenac; a race car that had one was called a "Fronty Ford." Ironically, Frontenac heads were created by the Chevrolet brothers, famous racers whose name already had been attached to a line of road cars built by Billy Durant's General Motors.
91 mph on the ice
Although Henry Ford officially had retired from racing after his victory over Winton, he briefly held the world land speed record of 91.37 mph, which he established Jan. 12, 1904, on the iced-over surface of Lake St. Clair. Ford's record fell less than a month later, but again, he capitalized on the publicity generated by racing. Oldfield became an international sports star driving early Ford cars.
But Oldfield wasn't the only driver winning in early Ford cars. Frank Kulick and Bert Lorimer covered 1,135 miles to win the 24-hour endurance race in 1907 at Detroit in a Ford Model K (actually in two of them, because the rules allowed the drivers to switch cars during the race). In 1909, Kulick and Ford Times Editor H.B. Harper finished third in a Model T in the first so-called coast-to-coast race, which was won by yet another Model T, this one driven by Bert Scott and Jimmy Smith.
Ford withdrew from racing in 1913, in part because of injuries and deaths caused by crashes and in part because his entry of Kulick and a Model T was rejected by the Indianapolis 500 because the car was too light. "We're building race cars, not trucks," Ford responded.
A Ford dealer in Indianapolis supported a Ford-powered entry for the 500 in 1923, and L.L. Corum's fifth-place finish would stand until 1963 as the best by a Ford in the world's most famous race.
Although Fords were winning many races - including the first officially sanctioned NASCAR race, won at Charlotte, N.C., in 1949 by Jim Roper in a Lincoln - Ford didn't officially return to racing until 1952. Lincoln-Mercury General Manager Benson Ford supported a multicar entry in the Pan-American road race in Mexico, where Lincolns swept the top four places in the stock class in both 1952 and 1953.
In 1955, Ford officially entered NASCAR stock car racing with a pair of "Purple Hogs," with Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly each driving a purple-painted Ford. A year later John Holman, of Holman & Moody fame, was hired to manage Ford's stock car racing program, and Ford won 14 NASCAR races and its first manufacturers' championship.
Europe leads comeback
Ford left racing to join the Automobile Manufacturers Association's ban, then returned with Total Domination. But the need to deal with new emission and safety regulations kept Ford out of racing in the 1970s, at least officially and at least in North America. In Europe, Walter Hayes, who had helped Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth launch Cosworth, was leading a racing effort that produced everything from success in world rallying and in Formula One to the creation of Formula Ford, which still serves as the development series for future international champions.
Ford returned to competition in North America in 1980.
Today, Ford races the Focus in world rallies, the Taurus and F-150 in NASCAR, and the Mustang in NHRA drag racing and is the engine supplier to CART's Indy car series. Jaguar is among the entrants in Formula One and also competes in the Trans-Am series in North America.
You can reach Larry Edsall at email@example.com.