Barney Oldfield: America’s Racer
"You know me, Barney Oldfield" was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures. Indeed, during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna “Bernie” Eli Oldfield (1878–1946). He became the best-known race car driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and, in the process, helped define an emerging cult of celebrity.
Barney Oldfield Riding the "Blue Streak" Bicycle on the Salt Palace Board Track, Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 1900 / THF111772
One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early years was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio, earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after Oldfield contracted typhoid fever. He returned to racing bicycles for company-sponsored teams and sold parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders that barnstormed across the Midwest, racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to audiences beyond the track. He branded himself the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoted a "keen formula for winning," wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.
Shift to Auto Racing
Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield Seated in Race Cars, circa 1902 / THF207346
Americans were fascinated with quirky and expensive motor buggies. These boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to Americans’ desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainment. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old bicycle racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, near Detroit, in October 1901. He asked Oldfield, who began riding motorcycles himself around this time, to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.
After the Grosse Pointe event, Oldfield and Cooper pursued gold mining in Colorado. When that ended in failure, Cooper headed to Detroit to focus on automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at Cooper’s request. Cooper had purchased Henry Ford’s “999” race car and wanted Oldfield to drive it. "The Race" between the “999” and Alexander Winton's "Bullet" captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the “999” to victory over Winton's sputtering “Bullet,” the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation.
Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a wide segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.
Barney Oldfield Driving the Ford "999" Race Car, circa 1903 / THF140144
Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of a Peerless racer, the "Green Dragon," and established himself as America's premier driver.
Barney Oldfield Behind the Wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" Racecar, circa 1905 / THF228859
By 1904, Oldfield held world records in the 1-, 9-, 10-, 25-, and 50-mile speed categories. In 1907, Oldfield tried his hand at stage acting when he signed on to appear in a new musical, The Vanderbilt Cup. Over a 10-week run and a brief road tour, Oldfield “raced” his old friend Tom Cooper in stationary cars as backdrops whirled behind them and stagehands blew dirt into the front rows of the theater. The following year, Oldfield entered the open road race circuit and quickly added to his legend by sparking a feud with one of the emerging stars of the day, Ralph De Palma. In March 1910, Oldfield added the title "Speed King of the World" to his resume, driving the "Blitzen Benz" to an astonishing 131.7 miles per hour on Daytona Beach in Florida.
Barney Oldfield Driving the "Blitzen Benz" Car on a Racetrack, 1910 / THF228871
Oldfield flouted the conventions of his time, both on and off the track. He was notorious for his post-race celebrations, womanizing, and bar fights. Oldfield’s rebellious streak kept him under the scrutiny of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and, in 1910, he became the first true "outlaw" driver when he was suspended for an unsanctioned spectacle race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Undaunted, Oldfield and his manager set up dates at county and state fairs across the country, holding three-heat matches against a traveling stable of paid drivers. Oldfield padded his reputation by adding an element of drama to these events—he would lose the first match, barely win the second, and, after theatrically tweaking and cajoling his engine, win the third match. During this time, Oldfield also became a product spokesman (perhaps most notably for Firestone tires) and began racing a fellow showman, aerial barnstormer Lincoln Beachey, in matches pitting “the Dare Devil of the Earth vs. the Demon of the Skies for the Championship of the Universe!”
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829
Towards the end of his driving career, Oldfield made a final splash in the racing world with the Harry Miller-built "Golden Submarine," establishing dirt-track records from one to one hundred miles. Throughout the 1917 season, Oldfield drove the Golden Sub in a series of matches on dirt and wood tracks against his old rival Ralph De Palma, eventually winning four out of the seven races. Oldfield retired from competition racing in 1918 after winning two matches in Independence, Missouri. In typical Oldfield fashion, he ran the last race under AAA suspension for participating in an earlier unsanctioned event.
Barney Oldfield Driving "Golden Submarine" Race Car at Sheepshead Bay Board Track, Brooklyn, New York, 1917 / THF141856
Oldfield continued to keep himself at the fore of America's sports entertainment culture. In addition to ceremonial "referee" jobs at various races, he rubbed elbows with American movie, stage, and music stars and continued his rambunctious lifestyle. Between 1913 and 1945, Oldfield appeared in six movies (usually as himself) and also tried his hand as a road tester for Hudson Motor Company, salesman, bartender, club owner, and spokesman. Finally, in an attempt to raise funds to build another land-speed racer with Harry Miller, Oldfield staged a unique publicity and fundraising event. In 1933, outside Dallas, Texas, he drove an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor to a record 64.1 miles per hour.
Barney Oldfield Advertising Postcard for Plymouth Automobiles, circa 1935 / THF228879
Fittingly, Barney Oldfield's last public appearance was at the May 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile Industry held in Detroit. Oldfield was fêted for his foundational role in what had become one of the largest industries in the nation. He shared the main speaker's table with automotive icons including Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Frank Duryea, and he accepted a “trophy of progress” for his role in automotive history. Barney Oldfield passed away in October 1946, having lived—in the words of one passionate fan—“such a life as men should know.”
For more, check out our archival collection on Barney Oldfield, browse artifacts related to him in our Digital Collections, or visit the “Showmanship” zone of the Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
This post by Peter Kalinski, former Archivist at The Henry Ford, originally ran in 2014. It has been updated by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Ohio, 20th century, 19th century, racing, race cars, race car drivers, Michigan, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, Detroit, cars, by Saige Jedele, by Peter Kalinski, bicycles, archives