Henry Ford Races 999 Across Frozen Lake St. Clair to Set Speed Record
The Ford No. 999. From thenehnryford.org
January 12, 1904 marked the day Henry Ford set a land speed record in his No. 999 race car on the frozen Lake St. Clair, which separates Michigan and Ontario, Canada. The No. 999, little more than a giant engine encased in a wood frame with a seat and a metal bar for steering, thundered across the lake(!) at a top speed of 91.37mph. The bare-bones racer was a joint effort between Ford and cyclist Tom Cooper, at a cost of $5,000 (somewhere between $100,000-$300,000 in today’s currency). The culmination of their work and investment was the 999 for Ford and the Arrow for Cooper.
Although the cars were built for racing, neither Ford nor his engineers could bring themselves to actually pilot the thing. The engine itself was an 18.8L inline-4 and made between 50-100hp, and suspension was nonexistent. Frustrated with mounting car starting problems only two weeks before its first scheduled race, Ford sold his portion to Barney Oldfield for the sum of $800. Once Oldfield and Cooper fixed the mechanical defects, Oldfield used Ford’s 999 to win the 1902 Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup at the Grosse Pointe race track, beating the defending champion by half a mile; it set a time record at the track at 5 minutes, 28 seconds. A year later, Oldfield set another record at the Indiana Fairgrounds dirt track, with a speed of 60mp; at that time it was the highest speed ever achieved at a closed circuit.
In June of 1903, Henry Ford formed the Ford Motor Company. While the company was struggling to get financial backing and get its first car, the Model A, off the ground, Ford also realized he had to get his name on the lips of potential customers before everything could really fall into place. In September, Cooper’s Arrow race car was crashed during a race, killing driver Frank Day. Ford bought the wrecked chariot and repaired it with the goal of setting a new speed record. As the old 999 was already out of commission at this point, Ford renamed it “No. 999.”
On January 12, 1904, Ford trudged up to the frozen banks of Lake St. Claire, grabbed the handlebar-like steering apparatus, and stomped on the accelerator. The No. 999 hit 91.37mph to set a new land-speed record, and Ford made sure everyone knew it. The record lasted only a month, but it was enough to make Ford and his company a household name.