Two of the world’s great car companies, Ford and Rolls-Royce, celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of their founders – Henry Ford and Henry Royce – this year. The men both had a profound impact on the industry they were pioneering, one as a builder of cars for the masses, the other exclusively for the moneyed few.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Ford and Royce weren’t dilettante automotive “hoorah Henries” but serious-minded, Victorian-era men, who had boot-strapped themselves up from humble beginnings. Self-described mechanics fast approaching middle-age, and happiest twiddling a wrench or spanner, or wielding a draughtsman’s pen.
Neither had much time for frivolous pursuits, and the cars they created reflected this, yet it was in the dust and danger of early motoring competition the seminal events occurred that helped launch their companies on the road to success.
In 1901, a down-but-not-quite-out Henry Ford had just seen his first automotive venture – the Detroit Automobile Co. – dismantle itself, but sought a second chance by building a racing car to take on the acknowledged star of the day. In storybook fashion he won, and his exercise in self-promotion generated the capital to create the Ford Motor Co. in 1903. Twenty-five years later, Ford’s Model T would account for half the cars in the world.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Royce was fiddling with the switch that would alter his career’s current flow from electrical products to motorized propulsion. He would build his first car in 1903, and join forces with aristocrat, car salesman, racer and aviator Charles Rolls a year later to create Rolls-Royce Ltd.
Royce recognized the importance of proving his vehicles in competition, but left the driving to young daredevil Rolls, who failed to win the important Tourist Trophy event of 1905, but managed the feat in 1906. This win and success in long distance trials with its new-in-1906, 40/50 Silver Ghost, established Rolls-Royce as the “Best British Car.”
But, while Rolls-Royce was proving popular in North America, it had yet to establish its reputation in Europe. Following the Alpine Trial of 1913, however, in which its four-car team put up a sterling performance, it felt it could justify awarding itself “The Best Car in the World” status.
According to a narration by Edsel B. Ford II, his great-grandfather was “38 years old and broke” when he hatched the scheme to build a car to compete in the Detroit Driving Club’s race on the Grosse Point horse racing track in 1901. He was convinced a win, or even a good performance, in front of Detroit’s elite would gain him the notoriety needed to promote his return to car-making. But to do so would mean taking on competition that included America’s leading car maker and racer, Alexander Winton.
A self-assured Winton had agreed to headline the race only if he could pre-select the first-place trophy, choosing a large and elegant cut-glass punch bowl.
Ford’s team put together a racer Edsel B. describes as looking like “a cross between a baby carriage and a small grand piano,” that exposed the driver and riding mechanic “from the ankles on up.”
It rode on 28-inch-tall wheels shod with four-inch-wide tires, and was powered by a twin-cylinder engine displacing 538 cubic inches –180 more than NASCAR allows – and making 26 hp, which gave it a top speed of more than 70 mph. It had an early form of fuel injection, a 300-pound flywheel, and a local dentist provided denture ceramic insulation for the spark plugs.
It was christened Sweepstakes, perhaps because it was a long-shot gamble. Ford, who had had never raced before – a local bicycle racer provided tips on cornering lines – faced the era’s greatest driver in a proven, 70-hp car. He was putting his reputation and future on the line.
In the 10-lap race, before a crowd of 8,000, Winton charged off into an early lead, but Sweepstakes closed the gap, and then the Winton began misfiring, allowing Ford to make the pass for the win coming off the final corner. Edsel B. says Ford was heard to proclaim “never again” after accepting the $1,000 winner’s cheque, and that classy punch bowl.
“He knew how much Winton – who was standing nearby – desired it. So my great-grandfather did what any true professional worth his salt would do – he took it home. And smiled every time he looked at it for the next 46 years.”
By 1913, Rolls-Royce enjoyed a reputation for quality and reliability, but perhaps lacked a little panache in European eyes. Managing director Claude Johnson (Rolls was gone, dead after an airplane crash) determined success in the Alpine Trial would remedy that.
Four Silver Ghosts, three factory cars and a privateer, made their way to the mid-summer start in Vienna. They had been meticulously prepared, fitted with four-speed gearboxes and strengthened chassis and suspensions – the latter tested on a “bump machine” – to cope with Alpine extremes, which included freezing temperatures, rain, snow, mud, rough rutted roads, and inclines as steep as 28 degrees in some of the passes.
Ahead was six days of motoring that would crisscross 1,462 miles of some of the most spectacular terrain on the planet. For five of those days, the four Silver Ghosts dominated, finishing penalty-free, and hitting 70 mph at times, while their main Minerva competition faded.
But on Day 6, a speeding Minerva, driven by a non-entrant, crashed into one of the team cars under eyebrow-raising circumstances. It was repaired and limped to Vienna in third gear; the only day the team didn’t get a first-through-fourth-place finish.
This venerable British marque, now owned by BMW, celebrated this defining event in its history by sending a works team to take part this summer in the 1,800-mile, centenary re-run of the 1913 Alpenfahrt, backed by no less than 47 private Silver Ghosts.
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