1902 FORD 999

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Dan Gurney Drives the Monster in Which Henry Ford set a World's Speed Record.

Sixty years later, Dan Gurney - one of today's racing greats - drives the monster in which Henry Ford set a world's speed record.

by Richard Barrett, From the July 1963 Ford Times Magazine

It was a bone-chilling, blustery day nearly sixty years ago when Henry Ford drove his famous "999" racer over the ice at Lake St. Clair, Michigan, to set a new world's speed mark of ninety-two miles per hour. The Detroit Tribune of January 13, 1904, headlined the event as a "wild drive against time." The article went on to say, "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." As fate would surely be delighted to have it, the day last March when Dan Gurney, one of today's racing greats, drove the same old "999" at Ford Motor Company's high-speed test track, the cold wind cut like a knife and a driving snow all but blinded the eyes. As the car was started up, and Gurney got his first close look, he whistled in wonder and said, "It's a fire-breathing monster!" Henry Ford said exactly the same thing the first time he drove it.


Gurney, like Ford before him, proved his championship mettle that cold March day. With only a short briefing on the mechanics of the monster, a few questions asked and answered, he took the "999" out on the infield track to get the "feel" of the car. A short time later, after the high-speed test track was cleared, Gurney got his flying start and roared into the "soup bowl" (a high-speed, steeply banked turn). Here's how Gurney later described the sensation: "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.

"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."

Asked if he was concerned about controlling the flying "999" Gurney smiled and answered, "I just prayed nobody would get in front of me. There were patches of ice and snow on the track, and at the speed I was going it would take at least two hundred yards to stop. I can imagine Henry Ford driving that thing ninety-two miles an hour on ice. Very, very tricky. You'd have to be extremely delicate with the tiller and braking or you'd really be in trouble. Having good eyesight would be a help in a panic stop, although with all the engine racket they could probably hear you coming far enough so they could get out of the way."

Listening to Gurney, one got the uncanny feeling that the sensations he experienced and observations he made about the "999" must have been almost the same as Henry Ford's sixty years ago. In a book titled "My Life and Work," (published by Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922) Henry Ford had this to say about his famous racing car: "I put in four great big cylinders giving 80 h.p. - which up to that time had been unheard of. The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man. There was only one seat. One life to a car was enough. We let it out full speed. I cannot quite describe the sensation. Going over Niagara Falls would have been but a pastime after that ride. Cooper said he knew a man who lived on speed, that nothing could go too fast for him. He wired to Salt Lake City and on came a professional bicycle rider named Barney Oldfield. He had never driven a motor car, but he would try anything once.

"The man did not know what fear was. All that he had to do was control the monster. On this one, I put a two-handed tiller, for holding the car in line required all the strength of a strong man. The race for which we were working was at three miles, and the track was not scientifically banked. No one knew better than Oldfield what the turns meant, and while I was cranking the car for the start, he remarked cheerily: "Well, this chariot may kill me, but they will say I was going like (the devil) when she took me over the bank."

"And he did go ... he never dared look around. He did not shut off on the curves. He simply let the car go - and go it did. He was about half a mile ahead of the next man at the end of the race."

Dan Gurney would have liked Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield. It was easy to tell from the enthusiasm with which he spoke when asked to compare driving the sixty-year-old "999" and the modern car:

"The performance of the '999' compared with other cars of this day, is really outstanding. I felt it today. It's kind of fun to see what their ideas were back in those days compared to what's been developed. You can actually trace each one, like the refinement of power and other developments. You get different mutations as you do with a family tree, and you can follow them back to this one. They have all sprung from the '999'. It's got performance. If you were to take it out on the freeway, it wouldn't have any trouble keeping up with traffic."

"Golly," he added, "when you think about the great old timers in this business, you can't help but get goose bumps, you know?"

It's plain to see Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield would have liked Dan Gurney, too.