A Visit With the 1901 Ford Sweepstakes Racer

ford-sweepstakes-and-gtOn October 10, 1901—115 years ago this week—the Ford Sweepstakes racer helped to launch the automotive career of Henry Ford. MCG joined the anniversary celebration at Greenfield Village, and here’s our report. 



On the one-mile dirt oval of the Detroit Driving Club in Grosse Pointe on October 10, 1901, Henry Ford served notice to the automotive world with his first racing car. Driven by Ford himself, Sweepstakes, as the machine was called, defeated the nationally known racer of Alexander Winton, and a career was launched. The feat drew Ford acclaim and investors, and 18 months later, the Ford Motor Company was born.

And now, 115 years later, Ford marked the achievement with a ceremony at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, where the assembled media could inspect and ride the historic machine. For context, Ford also displayed its most recent and advanced race car, the 2016 Le Mans-winning Ford GT. Company executives on hand included Edsel Ford II, Henry Ford III, and Dave Pericak, director of Ford Performance, joined by Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford, and Matt Anderson, curator of transportation.




The original Sweepstakes racer is safely tucked away inside the Henry Ford Museum, too precious to operate on a regular basis. The machine used in company functions such as these is one of two exact replicas created by Glenn Miller, who also restored the original. Unlike some other early Ford race cars, built quickly to run fast, Sweepstakes was carefully constructed and engineered. Over lunch Glenn, an automotive engineer and vintage car authority, gave MCG an expert briefing on the machine. Among its intriguing mechanical features:

+   The engine is an enormous opposed twin with a bore and stoke of seven inches, yielding a displacement of 539 cubic inches (8.8 liters) and an estimated output of 40 to 50 horsepower.

+   In lieu of a carburetor, there’s a mechanical fuel vaporizer apparatus, an early sort of mechanical fuel injection system, for which Ford received one of his first patents.

+   There’s no throttle valve; engine speed is regulated by a linkage that controls the maximum lift of the atmospheric intake valve, which is operated via hand control.

A brief ride around the village in Sweepstakes with Glenn at the wheel gave us a small taste of the machine’s character. The gearing is quite low and when each of the two giant cylinders fire, you can feel the car lunge forward. Before the Grosse Pointe race in 1901, Henry Ford reportedly reached 72 mph in testing on West Grand Boulevard. That’s faster than we think we’d like to go on this raw-boned machine. Thanks to Glenn Miller, the Henry Ford, and Ford Performance for a fascinating afternoon.



Photos by The Henry Ford and Bill McGuire.