No. 31: “Car Crazy: The Battle for Supremacy Between Ford and Olds and the Dawn of the Automobile Age”
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Chapter One below this context.
The little-told tale of the skullduggery, possessed personalities, speed obsessions, and the courtroom and business dramas that opened the nascent auto industry to the genius of Henry Ford, he of the iconic Model T, came to the page with “Car Crazy: The Battle for Supremacy Between Ford and Olds and the Dawn of the Automobile Age,” published in 2015.
The book also featured a race from Manhattan to Portland, Oregon – in 1905, between two cars that were steered with a tiller. There were few roads then, let alone coast-to-coast highways. It was quite the battle, "Old Scout" against "Old Steady," played out over several weeks.
|The start of the coast-to-coast race in Manhattan.|
Another battle was between the new machine and the old-fashioned horse, portrayed by some of the early carmakers as temperamental, unreliable, a thing of the past – and defended by many as noble, necessary and god-given.
“Car Crazy” was my third book from PublicAffairs, which brought out my other car book, “Men and Speed,” and “The Xeno Chronicles.” Thanks again to publisher Clive Priddle, editor Lisa Kaufman, publicity VP Jaime Leifer, marketing director Lindsay Fradkoff and many others.
One of Lisa’s brilliant touches was suggesting I create a Cast of Characters. If we ever bring this book to the screen, it will be a good starting point for the writers!
Karl Benz, German engineer, inventor and manufacturer.
Roy Chapin, Oldsmobile sales chief and test driver; founder of Hudson Motor Car.
James Couzens, Ford Motor Company secretary.
Billy Durant, creator of General Motors.
Charles and Frank Duryea, builders of the first U.S. production car.
Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company.
Edward “Spider” Huff, Ford’s brilliant but bedeviled leading engineer.
Émile Levassor, founder of French pioneer Panhard et Levassor.
Alexander Malcomson, early partner of Henry Ford.
Ransom Olds, founder of Oldsmobile.
Frederic Smith, secretary-treasurer of Oldsmobile.
Tom Cooper, a winner on the track who dies in a midnight race through Central Park.
Dwight Huss, one of two men who compete in history’s first race across the continent.
Webb Jay, whose racing career ends when his crashes his steam car, “Whistling Billy.”
Ernest Keeler, a young racing star who dies in a crash three days after Cooper.
Percy Megargel, a writer and romantic who races Huss from Manhattan to Oregon, then drives back to the West Coast for history’s first winter continental crossing, back to New York.
Barney Oldfield, greatest racecar driver of the early era… and maybe ever.
David Fassett, rode with Megargel on the winter crossing.
Barton Stanchfield, rode with Megargel during the cross-continent race.
Milford Wigle, rode with Huss during the cross-continent race.
The Patent players
Frederick P. Fish, president of AT&T and lawyer for the anti-Ford side.
Charles M. Hough, judge who decided the Selden Suit.
Walter C. Noyes, judge who decided the Selden suit on appeal.
George Selden, who claimed in a U.S. patent to have invented the automobile.
Ralzemond Parker, battled-hardened lawyer hired to defend Ford in the Selden suit.
The Good Roads evangelists
James Abbott, official with the Federal Highway Administration’s precursor agency.
Albert Pope, bicycle- and car-making magnate.
Isaac Potter, editor, engineer and lawyer.
Roy Stone, first head of the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry.
Lone John, a lunatic Wyoming shepherd.
Big Nose George Parrott, an outlaw who meets a most bizarre fate.
The Road Hog, any of various anti-car farmers.
The ruffians, lads and men in New York who stoned ‘evil’ motorists.
Edward R. Thomas, wealthy Manhattan heir and murderous driver.
It was a time when sane people did crazy things.
Henry Ford was one of those people.
On January 9, 1904, on the shore of frozen Anchor Bay, Lake St. Clair, some 30 miles northeast of Detroit, he vowed to be the first person to drive 100 miles per hour. The possibility that he might spin out of control and be killed as he roared across the ice did not deter him.
|Henry Ford with his 100-mph car, legendary Barney Oldfield at the wheel.|
It did, however, attract a crowd.
Ford had deliberately scheduled his attempt for a Saturday, when kindly employers gave their workers the afternoon off. Then he’d created publicity that had filled the Detroit papers all week, mesmerizing a city that had already begun to thrum with the business of motors.
A brilliant inventor and engineer, Ford also was a skilled marketer. He knew that machine-powered speed excited many people unlike anything before — and that word of the latest spectacle sent consumers to dealers, where they could buy an automobile of their own. He knew also that cars angered and alienated other people — the horse-bound traditionalists — but with time, he believed, almost everyone would come around.
“Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Works of Detroit will attempt to lower the Worlds Record,” read the handbills Ford had arranged to be posted. “The race will be over a four-mile straight track on the ice opposite The Hotel Chesterfield. The snow will be cleared from the ice and the track will be sanded. The races will start at 2 o’clock and continue until Mr. Ford lowers the world’s record. He proposes to make a mile in 36 seconds.”
That would greatly eclipse the existing auto record of 84.732 miles per hour, set in 1903. It conceivably would be faster than anyone had ever moved on land.
The claimed land speed record was 112.5 miles per hour by the crew of a locomotive on May 10, 1893, on a stretch of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mighty New York Central Railroad, but in this era so rife with tall tales, doubt existed that the train, the 999, had really travelled faster than about 90 miles per hour. Nonetheless, the train had generated international headlines — and Ford, hoping to capitalize on its fame, named one of the two identical racecars that he built after it. Like that 62-ton locomotive, Ford’s 999 racer and its twin, Arrow — the machine that Ford had brought to frozen Lake St. Clair — were essentially monster motors on wheels, producing as much as 80 horsepower, ten or more times the power of many stock models — “built to speed, and speed alone,” wrote The Automobile and Motor Review.
Many in the crowd knew about Ford, this slightly built 40-year-old man with the piercing gray eyes, prominent nose and long, thin hands who seemed always to have a sly grin on his lips. He had been building and driving horseless carriages around Detroit since 1896, when American-built cars were little more than a dream, and had founded and then left two other companies before incorporating a third, the Ford Motor Company, on June 16, 1903.
Son of a farmer, raised on a farm outside Detroit, Ford should have been destined to till the land, like so many of his 19th-century peers. But even as a young child his father’s tools fascinated him more than horses or fields, and by the time he turned teenager, machines had become his obsession. At first it was unpowered machines, the watches and clocks he taught himself to take apart and repair. And then, not long after, he saw his first steam engine. The operator took the time to explain its mechanizations to the boy. And thus was Ford’s true destiny revealed to him.
Many in the shivering crowd also already knew about Ford’s racecars from the man who had steered several of them to national headlines: Barney Oldfield, the greatest American racecar driver of the early era, a man even more daring than Ford. A champion bicyclist at age 16, Oldfield had never driven a motor vehicle of any kind until Ford, seeking publicity for his second attempt at an auto company, asked him to race the 999 in a competition. At the time, Ford himself was leery of driving it, except on the test track. Saying he would try anything once, Oldfield, 24, agreed. Ford entered the 999 into the October 1902 Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup at Detroit’s Grosse Pointe Blue Ribbon Track, venerable home of harness racing, and set about acquainting Oldfield with the car’s quirky features.
“It took us only a week to teach him to drive,” Ford later recalled. “The man did not know what fear was. All that he had to learn was how to control the monster.” Meaning specifically, how to steer it through corners without rolling over.
“The steering wheel had not yet been thought of,” Ford recalled. “On this one, I put a two-handed tiller, for holding the car in line required all the strength of a strong man.”
While Ford was cranking the 999 to life, Oldfield said: “Well, this chariot may kill me, but they will say afterward that I was going like hell when she took me over the bank.”
He did go like hell, winning that October 1902 race against the already legendary automaker and racer Alexander Winton, who until then was thought to be invincible.
In the summer of 1903, Oldfield drove Ford’s Arrow to world records at Midwest fairgrounds and then on July 25, at a track in Yonkers, New York. A few weeks later, he raced again at Grosse Pointe. He had just passed the leader when a tire exploded and Arrow plowed into a fence, killing a spectator from Ohio. Oldfield, a newspaper reported, and “escaped by a miracle, as his machine was reduced to a mass of tangled iron and wood. That more people were not killed or maimed is a cause for wonder.” Cocky and gifted, a man who loved women as much as machines, Oldfield would maim and kill many more before the end of his career.
As Oldfield recovered from his injuries, the repaired Arrow took the starting flag in Milwaukee a week after the luckless Ohio man’s death. Promising young racer Frank Day was at the wheel. But the Arrow proved too much to manage, and he spun out of control. Ford’s racer rolled end over end, landing “on the unfortunate chauffeur, grinding him into the ground, an unrecognizable mess,” a paper reported.
For those who did not share autoists’ enthusiasm — and there were many who did not, influential politicians, judges, and editorialists among them — Day’s death was new cause for condemnation.
“We saw the young man who rode to his death on the day preceding the fatality,” the Wisconsin State Journal opined. “A cleaner, fresher youth never delighted his parents’ eyes. The wind tousled his abundant hair on his clear forehead as he whirled about the track; determination and enthusiasm were in his eyes; the cheers of the impassioned mob impelled him as soldiers go to certain death under martial music.”
And then, an unrecognizable mess.
“We are not wholesome enough to enjoy the triumphs of the soil and noble horses and royal-blooded cattle,” the State Journal proclaimed. “The incident is a disgrace.”
For Ford, it was a disquieting but momentary setback. Back in Michigan, he rebuilt Arrow once again. He had further use for its awesome power.
Pure speed was not the only lure for the spectators in their gloves and fur-trimmed coats at Lake St. Clair on that January day in 1904. In the first half-decade of what would be called the American Century, railroads, ships, bicycles, horses and horse-pulled vehicles still transported most people and goods, but the country was witnessing an astonishing proliferation of horseless carriage manufacturers and models. Every new entry seemed to generate buzz. Whether you liked cars or hated them, lived in a city where they swarmed the streets or in the country where they were rarely, if ever, seen, you could hardly get through a day without talking about them.
Car-making had started in earnest in America just a decade before, with bicycle maker Charles Duryea, 31, in partnership with his 24-year-old mechanic brother, Frank—the first Americans to publicly declare their intention of creating a commercial enterprise from building and selling cars, contraptions most folks at the time thought were cobbled together by men possessing more free time than common sense. In September 1893 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Frank completed construction of a vehicle that married a custom-built single-cylinder gasoline motor to a horse-drawn phaeton buggy purchased second-hand for $70.
Shortly before he road-tested the car, Frank granted an interview to the Springfield Evening Union, which published a story on September 16, 1893, under the headline:
“A new motor carriage when, if the preliminary tests prove successful as expected, will revolutionize the mode of travel on highways, and do away with the horse as a means of transportation, is being made in this city,” the reporter wrote. “It is quite probable that within a short period of time one may be able to see an ordinary carriage in almost every respect running along the streets or climbing country hills without visible means of propulsion.”
Frank was more than a good pitchman. The car he had built with his brother’s support and the backing of lone financial backer Erwin F. Markham, a nurse who had invested $1,000 in the Duryeas, did indeed succeed its first time on the road. On the afternoon of September 20, the vehicle was hauled by horse from Frank’s machine shop to a friend’s yard on the outskirts of the city. The next morning, Frank took a streetcar out to the neighborhood. As he rode, he fantasized that “once well started on the open road, the machine would roll along sweetly for at least a mile or two… With this pleasant thought in mind, I enthusiastically pushed the car from under the apple tree.”
Frank started the engine and his car chugged onto Spruce Street. “America’s first gasoline automobile had now appeared,” he would recall. “It had done what it was designed and built to do, in that it carried the driver on the road and had been steered in the direction the driver wished to go.”
The car only travelled about 100 feet before stalling — but it restarted quickly, and each time again after successive stallings, providing sufficient encouragement for the Duryeas to continue. By March 1895, they had a smoother-operating machine that successfully completed an 18-mile round trip to Westfield, Massachusetts, along rough, steep, horse-ravaged roads — a feat that suggested the brothers really were onto something. On September 21, 1895, they incorporated the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.
“Those who have taken the pains to search below the surface for the great tendencies of the age know that a giant industry is struggling into being,” wrote the editor of The Horseless Age, America’s second automobile journal, in its inaugural issue, published in November 1895. “It is often said that a civilization may be measured by its facilities of Locomotion. If this is true, as seems abundantly proved by present facts and the testimony of History, the New Civilization that is rolling in with the Horseless Carriage will be Higher Civilization than the one that you enjoy.”
Like The Horseless Age’s editor, the growing ranks of motorists saw the car as the future; along with the locomotive, the telegram, photography, and electricity, it was a technology that would move mankind valiantly forward. They envisioned a time when a motorist could comfortably drive from East Coast to West and all points between –– when everyone could, and would, own a car.
This vision of the future seemed fairly delusional to the naysayers, whose numbers grew as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. They viewed the gas- and steam-powered car, by whatever name, as a loud, dangerous and polluting fiend that threatened the social fabric — an enemy of God-fearing people and noble horses. They dismissed the car, however propelled, as a fad soon to fade. Common sense alone told you it couldn’t last.
In those early days, most cars were so finicky that repair kits were included as standard features and wealthy owners hired mechanics to ride with them. Many cars had no cabins, roofs, headlamps, or doors. They could explode or burst into flame for no apparent reason. “As gasoline tanks and leads sometimes leak and the fluid more rarely becomes ignited,” The Automobile, a leading weekly wrote, “it is a wise precaution on the part of the automobilist to carry a fire extinguisher in the car for such emergencies. Even though it may never be required, it will add something to the driver’s feeling of security; and should it ever be wanted, it will, like a revolver in the West, be wanted badly.”
And if the machine itself was at a primitive stage of development, the experience of motoring was cruder still. No training, registration or licenses to drive were required in most jurisdictions. There were few stop signs and no traffic lights. Accidents that injured or killed motorists and pedestrians abounded. Only a tiny percentage of U.S. roads were hard-surfaced. Service stations were scarce, gasoline rare in the outskirts and smaller cities, maps unreliable or non-existent. Motorists venturing off the beaten path were advised to carry guns, for protection against wildlife, irate horse-loving citizens, and ornery constables determined to avenge the evil of the new machine.
Regardless, the car was a siren’s call to inventors, entrepreneurs and all manner of tinkerers. In America, as in Europe, a new sort of gold rush was underway.
Like the Duryeas, some of the new manufacturers had been building bicycles before falling under the spell of the self-propelled machine. Horse-drawn carriage builders also sensed opportunity, as did blacksmiths, ship builders, sewing-machine makers, and many others. Unlike the railroad, petroleum, coal, and steel industries, the cost of entry was minimal. Not even a technical background was required, at least to stake a claim: In March 1901, an industry publication reported that The Reverend H.A. Frantz of Cherryville, Pennsylvania, “believes he has received a call to the motor trade, and will henceforth make petrol cars in place of sermons.”
This was an era when many car companies managed to build just a single vehicle or two a year and annual production of a few dozen was cause for Hallelujah. The Duryea brothers’ Duryea Motor Wagon Company, the first U.S. firm to serially produce a car, built and sold just 13 vehicles during its first full year of operation, 1896; sales were sporadic after that and in 1898, with Frank and Charles feuding, the company went out of business.
This was by far the most common story of the early era. According to calculations Charles Duryea made in 1909, in the years 1900 to 1908, 502 U.S. car makers went into business, an average of 55 a year, or more than one a week. Of that total, 273 failed, and another 29 went into some other field, a failure rate of greater than 60 percent.
Given his obsession with machines and his gift for building and improving them, Henry Ford seemed to have decent odds at enduring success. His business record, however, suggested he had much to learn. Two previous companies he’d started had failed, and rival firms—particularly industry leader Olds Motor Works, whose founder Ransom Eli Olds also was greatly gifted with machines —were already building devoted followings. Ford needed more than just a good car if he were to succeed. In this frenzied period, so filled with competition, he needed attention. Speed records and racing got attention.
|Henry Ford and his iconic Model T.|
The winter sun shone weakly, bringing no warmth to the people lining the shore near the front porch of the Hotel Chesterfield. Among them were Ford’s wife, Clara, and the couple’s only child, their 10-year-old son, Edsel.
The Chesterfield, since it first opened in 1900, was one of the finest establishments in the resort community of New Baltimore, known for its mineral baths, opera house, saloons, and bathing, fishing, and sailing on Anchor Bay, just an hour by rail from Detroit. It offered the best food and amenities, including electric lights and steam heat throughout. Here was a clientele that might buy a Ford car; possibly, a potential investor or two was lurking in the crowd that second Saturday of January 1904. A much larger audience would read about Ford’s attempt in the newspapers, thanks to the reporters on hand.
The ice-boat races Ford had arranged as a sort of opening act ended and the Arrow racecar was brought onto the ice. It was ugly and weird. It looked like it had been concocted by someone who had failed his mechanics apprenticeship and taken to whisky, not by an engineering genius. How else to explain its steel-reinforced wood frame, spoked wheels, single seat, and bewildering arrangement of exposed wires, gears, levers and controls – all in the service of an open motor that occupied nearly half the length of the vehicle and drenched the driver in oil and grease when it fired, for it had no oil pan or engine compartment.
Men hired by Ford had cleared a 15-foot-wide strip of ice four miles long on Anchor Bay, then coated it with cinders from the coal-fired power plant north of The Hotel Chesterfield. The first two miles would allow Arrow to come up to speed, the third mile would be timed, and the last was for deceleration. The event would have been easier (not to mention warmer) on the long, flat sands of Ormond Beach, Florida, just north of Daytona, future birthplace of NASCAR, where racing already was enormously popular. But the auto show at New York's Madison Square Garden, America’s largest, began the next weekend, before the start of the Daytona season. Ford hoped to arrive in Manhattan with a headline-making story of the incredible cars he could build.
Assuming no tragic accident occurred, that is. A thought that, when Ford walked onto the ice, left him uncharacteristically unnerved.
But it was too late to stop.
“If I had called off the trial,” he later said, “we would have secured an immense amount of the wrong kind of advertising.”
Starting any car in 1904 was never easy — but firing in sub-freezing temperatures one of the largest automobile engines ever built was akin to raising the dead. Ford called on Edward S. “Spider” Huff, one of a small group of employees whose mechanical skills and ingenuity rivaled the boss’s. So valuable was Huff to Ford that the boss not only forgave him his habit of chewing tobacco, which Ford loathed, but allowed him to install a spittoon in his car. He also overlooked Spider’s disappearances for days inside houses of ill repute, where he sought relief from his recurring depression.
Spider warmed parts of Arrow with a blow torch and poured hot water into the cooling system to help coax the beast to life. A spectator volunteered to hand-crank the open engine, whose cast-iron heart was four massive seven-by-seven-inch cylinders.
The motor caught with a thunder that rattled the windows of the Hotel Chesterfield. Flame shot from Arrow’s exhausts and oil sprayed everywhere.
“The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man,” Ford said of the first time they had been fired. More shock had awaited when he took Arrow and 999 onto the test track on its maiden run. “We let them out at full speed,” he said. “I cannot quite describe the sensation. Going over Niagara Falls would have been but a pastime after a ride in one of them.”
Ford took his seat. A warm-up run revealed something no test course or track had predicted: when the car hit fissures in the ice, the impact rattled the vehicle so violently that the driver could not keep a steady hand on the gas. Ford would never be able to bring Arrow full-throttle alone. Spider would have to ride with him, one hand controlling the gas and the other holding on, while hunkered down on the floorboards. There was no other place on the racecar. “There was only one seat,” Ford said.
The afternoon was advancing, the January sun weakening. The American Automobile Association, the AAA, had agreed to officially certify the race –– but the organization’s three timers were tardy and Ford decided to make a run without them. His speed would not be official, but at least he’d have a number. As the iceboats circled, Spider and Ford drove to the start of the four-mile course. Men with stopwatches stood ready.
Spider leaned on the gas and Arrow rocketed down the ice. This time, the fissures did more than rattle and shake — they launched the car repeatedly into the air. The laws of physics were being tested, but Ford and Spider miraculously maintained control.
Some four minutes later, they coasted to a stop.
A speed of 100 miles an hour had been clocked.
That indeed buried the existing mark of 84.732 miles per hour, set on solid ground two months before by Arthur Duray, a 21-year-old who drove a French-built stock car that, its manufacturer claimed, could run not just on gasoline but also gin or brandy, presumably an enticement to the upper-class buyer in those twilight days of the Gilded Age. Duray’s record was the latest in a series of officially sanctioned advances that dated back to 1898, when a wedge-shaped, battery-powered vehicle had reached 39.2 mph, about as fast as a thoroughbred could gallop.
But Ford’s mark was not official: the AAA timekeepers had not arrived.
When they finally did, Ford brought Arrow back to the start of the course. But the car’s 225-pound flywheel whirred loose, nearly hitting him and Spider. “Ford narrowly escaped with his life,” wrote the Detroit Journal, which called Ford “a mechanic who began to design automobiles several years ago, when the craze for them began.”
Repairs could not be accomplished in the waning light, and the contest was postponed until Tuesday afternoon, January 12. With luck, Ford might still make it to New York a hero.