We’ve documented how the bicycling industry helped birth the automotive and road building industries. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that bicycle racing helped birth auto racing — and the Ford Motor Company.
The below story by Anthony J. Yanik was originally published in Winter 2009/2010 issue of WHEELS, a journal of the National Automotive History Collection, located at the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library.
Barney Oldfield Meets Mr. Ford
YEARS AFTER HE HAD BECOME a famous racing star, Barney Oldfield would kid everyone about the day he “made” Henry Ford. “Henry Ford said “we made each other, I guess I did the better job of it,” he commented in 1915.
That he helped add to the reputation of Henry is indisputable, but the truth of the matter was that Henry Ford launched Barney Oldfield on a career that made his name a household word on the racing barnstorming circuit prior to World War I.
In April 1902, having been let go by from his second auto company, Henry Ford had become enamored of the racing scene. He asked Tom Cooper, then the most famous professional bicycle racer of the day, to join him in a new project: the build a race car and enter it in the Manufacturers Challenge Cup that would take place at Grosse Pointe, Michigan on October 25.
The two went immediately to work aided by another young man, C. Harold Wills. By September, they had managed to complete two entries. One, painted a bright yellow, was dubbed the “999” after a record setting New York Central train. The other was painted bright red and christened the “Arrow.”
Both were brutes of a machine with cylinders the size of gun power kegs. Each could develop up to 100 horsepower, about eight times that of a conventional car. “The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man!” Ford once said.
About the middle of September, Henry decided to take one of them out on the track. He covered the mile in the exceedingly quick time of 68 seconds, very fast for that time. The run also scared the life out of Ford who compared it to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He declined to pilot it in the race. Cooper, who witnessed Ford’s panic when he brought the racer in, also begged out of the job. This left the two with a pair of racing brutes that promised much success, but no one had the courage to race them.
Cooper finally resolved the dilemma by wiring an old bicycle-racing buddy of his, Bcrna “Barney” Oldfield, who was campaigning out in Salt Lake City. Oldfield never had driven an automobile in his life, but that did not deter him from accepting Cooper’s offer to be on hand as soon as he could break away from his other commitments, with the promise to the on hand at least by race time.
Two weeks from race time, Henry stepped in with a most surprising request, that Cooper buy out his rights to both racers for $350 each plus $100 for additional parts. For Cooper, it seemed like a good bargain, which it indeed was in light of future events. In the larger picture, it was at this moment that Henry Ford was forging a partnership with Alexander Malcomson to form an automobile company (Ford’s third), and he probably could have used the cash. More importantly, there may have been the fear that if both racers fared poorly, they would discredit his attempts to begin a new Ford company.
Oldfield arrived in Detroit in time to learn the rudiments of driving an automobile, and took the “999” out for several practice runs. Come October 25, he and the “999” sat on the starting line in Grosse Pointe for the feature five-mile race for the Manufacturers Challenge Cup. Three other racers were entered, one of them being the “Buffet” which Alexander Winton had engineered especially for the race. Winton already had become famous for racing his own cars across the country, usually winning. This, however, would not be his day. Oldfield had the “999” away from the starting line like a cannon ball. His approach to this race, as it would be to all subsequent races, was to push the accelerator down to the floorboards and dare the car to go out of his control. By the end of the race he was on the verge of lapping the other cars except for the Bullet which had dropped out with mechanical problems well in the rear of the charging Oldfield.
The race received good press, especially a picture of Henry Ford standing next to the “999” with Oldfield still in the cockpit. Henry took bow after bow for designing the racer without mentioning the fact that he no longer owned it. Never mind. The attendant fame helped in bringing attention to his new company.
Cooper and Oldfield subsequently took both the “999” and the “Arrow” across the country on tour, taking turns driving them along with Spider Huff. Regardless it was always the “999” and Oldfield that won their intramural competitions, a pattern that would emerge over the next decade with other Oldfield-driven vehicles. Nine months later Oldfield drove the “999” to the then world’s record time of 55.8 seconds for the mile on a circular track in New York.
Oldfield was only 24 years of age when Cooper hired him to pilot the “999.” He had been born in the small town of Wauseon, Ohio on January 29, 1878. A decade later his family moved to Toledo, Ohio. Oldfield had an adventurous streak and quit school before he reached 16 years of age in order to take a job as a bellhop and elevator operator in Toledo’s Monticello Hotel. Taking a fancy to a bicycle owned by one of the tenants, he would sneak it out at night and pedal all around the city, promptly returning it before daylight.
In 1894 he entered an 18-mile bicycle race over the roads of northwest Ohio. To his delight, he finished second. This prompted him to join the Dauntless factory racing team the following year. He did so well that he decided to turn professional, which led to him barnstorming across the country. It was on one of his tours that Cooper reached him and invited him to drive the “999” in the Grosse Pointe race. The notoriety he gained from beating Winton in that race convinced him to hang up his bicycle and become a professional racecar driver. His prowess with the “999” through 1903 was making him more famous than ever. (He even hired his own press agent.)
In the fall of 1903 Alexander Winton, still looking to give his car the free publicity that came from racing victories, hired Oldfield as his race driver for the princely salary of $2500 per year and the right to keep all of his race earnings. He even offered to pay his racing expenses. Winton sent Oldfield to Grosse Pointe to even that score where he found himself racing against his old mentor, Tom Cooper, in the “999.” Worse yet. Cooper beat him in two of three races in which they ran against each other.
Oldfield departed from Winton during the summer of 1904. He had accepted an offer to drive for Peerless who had constructed a powerful racing car called the “Green Dragon.” His adventures in the “Green Dragon” made his name legendary’. He had a penchant for winning match races by narrow margins over supposedly local competition. Not generally known was that his competition was on his own payroll! The entire crew usually traveled from exhibition to exhibition in Oldfield’s private railroad car.
Oldfield subsequently took over the reins of the Blitzen Benz. In this enormously powerful 200 horsepower racing car he set a world land speed record of 131.72 mph at Daytona Beach on March 16, 1910.
In 1912 he temporarily left barnstorming to return to regular racing competition. He now drove the 300 horsepower, front-wheel drive Christie racecar. The Christie was reputed to be the fastest sprint car in the world. Oldfield proved that point by scorching it through a two-mile record breaking run of one minute and 35.8 seconds. In 1916 he took the Christie to the Indianapolis Speedway, becoming the first driver ever to circle that oval at an average speed over 100 mph. His relationship with Indianapolis led him to friendship with Harry Miller, the innovative Indy car builder of much fame. They joined forces to build an enclosed racing car, which was christened the “Golden Submarine.” Although the car looked quite slippery, and over time broke just about every dirt track record between one and 100 miles, it was not a successful match racer, losing races to both Louis Chevrolet and Ralph De Palma.
In 1917, although only 39 years of age, Oldfield retired from racing, having made enough money in that business to avoid taking further chances with his life. That is, he retired with one exception. In October 1933 he set the land speed record for tractors, driving an Allis-Chalmers to a top speed of 64.2 mph during an exhibition run in Dallas, Texas. Tongue-in-cheek fashion, he had the numerals “999” painted on the side of the tractor’s radiator.
Oldfield continued to live the life of a celebrity but no longer as a part of the racing scene. His earnings did not cease inasmuch as he continued to be in demand as a spokesman for such products as Bosch spark plugs, Firestone tires, Plymouth cars, Pepsi-Cola and Mobil Oil.
For all of his early publicity garnering years, Oldfield quietly moved out of the public eye as time passed. He was only 68 years of age when died in California in 1946.