How one race changed the world

     When you go to school and take history courses you often learn that we are to thank Henry Ford for the automotive age. While he did not invent the automobile, he certainly made it available to the common man due to its reasonable price. A big part of this included the implementation of the moving assembly line that made mass production a real possibility for the first time in the automotive world. But all of those changes almost did not happen.

     Henry Ford had the dream of making cars available to the working man. He had failed to get the Detroit Automobile Company off the ground from 1899 until 1901.With his name and 900 dollars Henry Ford was determined to realize his dream and make the new Ford Motor Company a success. Ford had a car he believed was not only dependable and viable. At the time there was a cartel in the fledgling auto industry in America. The Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers held the patent on the automobile. Anyone wanting to produce cars for sale in the USA had to get a production license from ALAM or face litigation for patent infringement. Ford went before the powerful ALAM with his sales pitch and design. ALAM denied the young entrepreneur for a license on several grounds. One was his previous failures, another was the cost of his car would hurt established makers' sales, especially Oldsmobile which dominated the Michigan market.

     Henry Ford now angered by the denial of an ALAM license decided to produce his cars without a license. He had always worried the cartel would not allow him a license. In that case, gaining financial backing would be extremely difficult without an ALAM license. Ford realized back in 1901 that his best chance to bring in investors was to make a name for himself on a national level. Fame would draw in investment capital. He decided to challenge the fastest man on earth at that time, Alexander Winton, head of Winton Motor Carriage Company, and expert racer to a race. If Ford, the unknown mechanic with the hand built car could defeat the most famous racer in America, he would surely make a name for himself. Winton happily accepted the challenge. He felt no fear of Ford who had never really raced a car in his life.

     The 1901 Race was held at Grosse Point Michigan on October 10th. Ford was the local boy and the crowd favorite as the underdog. When the race started it was clear that Winton was an experienced driver and Ford was not. However, Winton's car was not running well and Ford's was performing remarkably for a car of its era. Once Ford was able to get his bearings as a driver he was able to overtake the "fastest man in America" and won the race. Indeed for the time, Ford's car was greased lightening, having been clocked unofficially at nearly 70mph in early tests. So impressive was the machine that offers poured in from other racers to buy the car afterwards. The race and the performance made Ford a star in the papers overnight. The press does tend to love an underdog, and soon Ford all the capital he needed to fund the new Ford Motor Company. By the time ALAM denied his license, Ford had a war chest to fight them in litigation.

     So the Ford Motor Company started pumping out unlicensed cars and paid no royalties to ALAM. Immediately Ford's new company was profitable. In just its first year of operation the investors saw 10% dividends on their shares, and in a matter of two years investors saw a 300% return on their initial investments. This early success gave Ford the money to upgrade facilities and models culminating with the first real assembly line to build the new Model T at a state of the art facility called Highland Park. Without winning the race, there would have never been a Model T or a factory with an assembly line. These effects changed the industry. In 1901 about 4,000 cars were sold nationwide by about 50 makers. By 1909 Ford himself sold 18,000 cars without a his modern factory. The initial fame and profits allowed Ford the legal fun to battle ALAM from 1903 until they gave up trying shut down Ford production in 1911, effectively nullifying the automotive patent and destroying the cartel system.

    However, the shattering of a cartel and the invention of the assembly line are not the only repercussions of this race. Ford's success relocated the center for car manufacturing to Michigan and away from the northeastern united states. Also when the race occurred, many cars were not gasoline powered. Electric motors and steam engines were a common sight in many models. The demonstrated durability and performance of Ford's machines made gasoline the dominant choice for any new vehicle. It is hard to imagine the world we would live in had Winton won the race in 1901.

Ford at the wheel of his car called "Sweepstakes".

Alexander Winton in one of his "bullets"

Ford caught in the process of passing Winton on that fateful October day in 1901


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