On this day in 1904, Henry Ford sets a land-speed record of 91.37 mph on the frozen surface of Michigan’s Lake St. Clair. He was driving a four-wheel vehicle, dubbed the “999,” with a wooden chassis but no body or hood. Ford’s record was broken within a month at Ormond Beach, Florida, by a driver named William K. Vanderbilt; even so, the publicity surrounding Ford’s achievement was valuable to the auto pioneer, who in June of the previous year had incorporated the Ford Motor Company, which would eventually go on to become one of America’s Big Three automakers.
Henry Ford was born on a farm in present-day Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. In 1896, Ford, then an engineer in Detroit, built a four-wheel, self-propelled vehicle with a gasoline engine that he called the Quadricycle. Three years later, he founded the Detroit Automobile Company; however, by early 1901 the business failed. That same year, Henry Ford became involved in auto racing as a means to promote himself and gather investors for future automaking ventures. Late that year, the Henry Ford Company was established. The following year, Ford left the business after clashing with Henry Leland, who had been hired as a consultant. (Leland subsequently gave Ford’s company a new name: the Cadillac Automobile Company.)
On June 16, 1903, Ford incorporated a new company: the Ford Motor Company. In January of the following year, Ford set his record at Lake St. Clair, racing 1 mile in 39.4 seconds for a record speed of 91.37 mph. For the next several years, Ford continued to build race cars that met with varying degrees of success. In 1908, Ford launched a car for the masses, the Model T, which revolutionized the automotive industry–and American society in general–by providing affordable, reliable transportation for the average person. To promote the Model T, Ford entered it in races. In 1909, the Model T won a New York-to-Seattle race and although it was later disqualified due to a technicality, the event provided great advertising for Ford. Over the next few years, the Model T won a variety of races around the U.S. In 1913, Ford, who was reportedly unhappy with certain rules of auto racing, quit the sport. (Now that his company was a success, he didn’t require the publicity from racing anyway.)
In 1913, Ford Motor Company began employing the moving assembly line at its plant in Highland Park, Michigan, which reduced the assembly speed of a chassis from 12 hours and eight minutes to one hour and 33 minutes. The following year, Ford produced over 308,000 vehicles, more than the output of all other carmakers combined. The Model T, which was in production until 1927, became the world’s top-selling vehicle until the Volkswagen Beetle surpassed it in 1972. Henry Ford died at the age of 83 on April 7, 1947.