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Dark Chapter In Ford's Racing History

by Larry Roberts

March 19, 2001

The Ford Motor Company is making much fanfare over the fact that this is its 100th year in automobile racing. "We can't overstate the importance of racing to our business," says Robert Rewey, Ford Group vice-president in charge of marketing. And indeed, it's the truth. If Henry Ford himself hadn't beaten Alexander Winton in a 25-mile race on a horse track outside Detroit in 1901, Ford history might have ended right then and there. That feat, plus his establishment of a month-long land speed record in 1904, gained him enough support and backing.

And it is indeed true that Ford has had an ongoing involvement in auto racing that has given it a place in motorsports history. Ford sponsored cars have won the Indy 500 several times, SCCA Trans Am championship races in the hey-day of that event in the '60s and '70s, and the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race three decades ago.

But there was a time in the mid-'30s when the Ford Motor Company went into a world-class race and came away with egg on it's face.

For the 1935 running of the Indy 500, Henry Ford gave in to his son Edsel and reluctantly agreed to field a team of 10 cars in the race. Three years earlier his company had introduced its fabled flat-head V8 into the low-priced field and the engine had quickly established a well-earned reputation for being able to blow the doors off of any other production car in America.

Rather than go the low-budget route of producing conventional front-engined, rear-drive cars with typical Ford solid axles front and rear, the promoters of the project (Preston Tucker, developer of the Tucker automobile ten years later, was the prime mover) decided instead on an advanced design that would showcase Ford's "progressive" engineering parameters. To this end, it enlisted Harry Miller, then the most prestigious builder of cars for the Indianapolis 500. Many of Miller's race car designs were front-wheel drive, which is the configuration that Ford used. Unlike the contemporary Indy cars of the day, the Miller/Fords used independent suspension front and rear. The almost-stock 150-horse 221 cubic-inch engines were rotated 180-degrees and bolted to a Miller-designed two-speed transaxle. The narrow cars were touted in the June 1935 issue of Motor magazine as having the most streamlined design in the field and the seat for the riding mechanic (an Indy car requirement of the time) was slightly to the rear of the driver so as to narrow the cars a few inches. The only recognizable Ford characteristic on the outside was the grille (a modified version of the contemporary Ford sedan) and the V8 hood ornament. Of the team of 10 cars planned, four of them made the field on the last day of qualifying, a fifth was designated the first alternate and three others were awaiting the turn when time ran out.

An accompanying article in the magazine made much of the exotic steering gear on the Ford cars, saying it was " novel in its construction that it is difficult to describe it clearly without the aid of a picture." In fact, it was so complex and untried that three of the four cars had steering gear problems and the fourth went out with a grease leak in the transaxle.

The highest placing Miller/Ford was driven by Ted Horn, a young driver who was making his first appearance in the Indy 500 and later went on to be the AAA driving champion many times. Horn finished 16th, having gone out on the 145th lap with a fried engine. None of the cars were spectacular in qualifying, being as much as eight miles per hour off the fastest time.

Henry Ford was reported to be so disappointed and disgruntled that he canceled the project immediately and the company didn't return to auto racing until many years after his death. In those days, big auto companies didn't have spin-doctors in their public relation departments who could make an expensive defeat seem like a victory.