This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

New Land Speed Record

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January 12, 1904: Ford Sets Speed Record

Henry Ford flies across Lake St. Clair in his famous “999” racer, covering 1 mile in 39.4 seconds for a record speed of 91.37 mph. Faster than anyone had gone in an automobile. [above picture: Henry Ford on the “999”, 1904]

Henry Ford driving the "999" Racer, Lake St. Clair, Michigan, January 1904

Henry Ford driving the “999” Racer, Lake St. Clair, Michigan, January 1904

The new land speed record that was set on that icy cold January day stood for only a month, but was plenty of time to bring home some great publicity for Ford’s new company. An article in the Detroit Tribune of January 13, 1904 described the scene:

“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.”

Henry Ford in back and Ed ‘Spider’ Huff driving the "999", Lake St. Clair, Michigan, January 1904

Henry Ford in back with Ed ‘Spider’ Huff driving the “999”

Dan Gurney, one of America racing greats, got a chance to drive the race car. I’ll let him describe racing the car.

“It’s a fire-breathing monster!” he starts, “It’s quite a thrill. I was looking for the exhaust pipes and then I realized there are hardly any. They’re about two inches long and I could see flame coming out. The car is vibrating and everything is twisting every time it fires; you can feel everything from one end of the car to the other.”

Dan Gurney on the "999"

Dan Gurney in the “999”

“The car is a little bit deceiving because it’s so high geared, but you’re really covering the ground. It’s sort of like comparing a running elephant to a deer. The low revs of the engine are what do it, and those four big cylinders. You can feel them working. Until it’s going forty to fifty miles an hour it doesn’t really settle down, and then it hardly seems to be turning over at all. It’s just chug, chug, chug with a lot of popping, smoke and roar. All the while you’re sitting there, straddling that big engine high on the single seat and remembering to keep your feet out of the way of that exposed flywheel. It’s as big as a man-hole cover.”

No. 999 preserved on static display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, photo from 2003

The “999” at the Ford museum

The “999” was basically a frame with a monster engine attached, no body work. The motor was huge for that time, an 1156 cubic inch inline-4. They figured power anywhere from 70 to 100 horsepower. No rear suspension, no differential, no transmission. The steering was a crude pivoting metal bar. Total cost for the project was about $5000.00.

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The car was named “999” after the Empire State Express No. 999. Number 999 was a type 4-4-0 American steam locomotive which had famously set a world speed record of 112.5 mph on May 10, 1893, making it the first man-made vehicle to exceed 100 mph under its own propulsion.

No. 999 preserved on static display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, photo from 2003

No. 999 preserved on static display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, photo from 2003

Ford continued to build race cars over the next few years. He entered the Model T in several events winning the famous New York to Seattle race in 1909. Although he was later disqualified on a technicality the event proved great advertising for the Ford Motor Company. Eventually Ford pulled out of racing as his motor cars were a huge success.

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