31 Days of History: 23 July

On this day in 1903 (106 years ago), the Ford Motor Company sold its first car. The “Model A” was delivered to its new owner, Dr. Ernst Pfenning of Chicago, Illinois.
A 1903 Ford Model A

In 1898, Henry Ford started the Detroit Automobile Company, but it closed after 2.5 years of little success. During this time, Ford had been attempting to sell “the horseless carriage”, or as he preferred to call it, the “Quadricycle”. They cost $200, but he only sold three of them (which might explain why the company closed).

A Ford "Quadricycle"

In 1901 Henry Ford greatly increased his visibility by winning a high-profile car race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (more of that in a moment).

Ford was 40 years old when he began Ford in 1902 with 11 original investors putting up the $31,000 in start-up money. Later in life, Ford admitted that the company only had $223.65 left in the account when they sold their first car. In all, Ford managed to sell 1,708 Model A’s.

Henry Ford

The Model A came as a two-seater or four-seater, but the top was extra. It had an 8 horsepower engine and could reach a top speed of 45 mph. It sold for a base price of $750 (equivalent to $18,200 in 2009 dollars!). A rubber roof was available for $30, or a leather roof for $50, and the car was only sold in red.

A two-seater Model A

In 1901, Henry Ford entered a high-profile car race with Alexander Winton; the race would become known as “The Race That Changed The World”.

Before we get to the race, we need a little background on Winton. Alexander Winton was a Scottish immigrant who owned the Winton Bicycle Company (of Cleveland, Ohio). Starting as far back as 1897, Winton had produced and sold several varieties of cars; he sold more than one hundred Winton vehicles in 1899, making the company the largest manufacturer of gas-powered automobiles in the United States. This success led to the first automobile dealership being opened by H.W. Koler in Reading, Pennsylvania (to deliver the vehicles Winton built the first auto hauler in America in 1899). Many people automatically equate Henry Ford with the development of the automobile, but in actuality, Alexander Winton had significantly more impact on the evolution of the car.

Alexander Winton

The race was a 10-lap affair, with Winton driving his “Bullet Car #1” and Ford driving “Sweepstakes” (it was the only race Ford ever entered). In those days, auto manufacturers (there were more than 40 companies producing cars at the time) used racing to showcase and highlight their products. With his new gasoline-powered car (many other cars ran on electricity or steam), Ford hoped to generate some much needed publicity for his car. It worked, because at the end of the race, Ford won, and the national publicity helped provide the motivation and impetus in the next 2 years as he started the Ford Motor Company. His revolutionary ideas about mass production would change modern manufacturing, and with the rise of the automobile age, change how the world viewed transportation.

The Winton "Bullet" (left) and the Ford Sweepstakes (right)

Sweepstakes (left) passes Bullet (right)

If you want the specific details of the race, click here: (for example, why were there only 2 cars in the race when 13 were scheduled to start?)

After the race, Winton went on to build multiple cars and was very successful throughout the early part of the 1910’s and 20’s, but fell on hard times at the onset of the Great Depression. Winton ceased production in 1924, and was later purchased and absorbed by General Motors.

The DC Connection: in 1903, H. Nelson Jackson became the first person to drive a car across the continental United States, taking 64 days to drive to San Francisco to New York. Jackson had made a $50 bet that it could be done, and purchased a 1903 Winton for the task. You can see his 1903 Winton, and the goggles that his mascot “Bud” wore across country, on the first floor of the American History Museum.

A 1903 picture of H. Nelson Jackon, his mechanic Sewall Crocker, and Bud

The 1903 Winton in the American History Museum

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