Frank Kulick: Early Ford Racer
Frank Kulick sitting in a 1910 Ford Model T race car. / THF123278
Frank Kulick (1882–1968) was a lucky man who beat rivals and cheated death on the race track. But his greatest stroke of luck may have been being in the right place at the right time. Born in Michigan, Kulick started his first job—in a Detroit foundry—at age 12. He was listed as a spring maker in the 1900 census. But in 1903 he was working for Northern Manufacturing Company—an automobile company founded by Detroit auto pioneer Charles Brady King.
That’s where Frank Kulick met Henry Ford.
Ford stopped by Northern to borrow a car. Impressed with young Kulick, Ford lured him to his own Ford Motor Company, where Kulick signed on as one of Ford Motor’s first employees. Kulick was there at Lake St. Clair in January 1904 when Henry Ford set a land speed record of 91.37 miles per hour with his “Arrow” racer. Not long after, Ford told Kulick, “I’m going to build you a racing car.” By that fall, Frank Kulick was driving to promote Ford Motor Company on race tracks and in newspapers.
Frank Kulick scored his early victories driving this four-cylinder Ford racer. Its engine consisted of a pair of two-cylinder (1903) Model A engines mated together. / THF95388
Kulick went head-to-head with drivers who became legends in American motorsport—people like Barney Oldfield, whose cigar-chomping bravado set the mold for racing heroics, and Carl Fisher, who established Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 and the Indianapolis 500 two years later. Kulick firmly established his credentials with an improbable win at Yonkers, New York, in November 1904. Through skillful driving in the corners and a bit of good luck (which is to say, bad luck for his competitors), Kulick’s little 20-horsepower Ford pulled out a win against a 90-horsepower Fiat and a 60-horsepower Renault. Kulick covered a mile in 55 seconds—an impressive racing speed of 65 miles per hour.
Frank Kulick (second from right) and Henry Ford (third from left) were photographed in New Jersey with the Model K racer in 1905. / THF95015
Frank Kulick’s four-cylinder, 20-horsepower car was superseded in 1905 by a larger car with a six-cylinder, 60-horsepower engine. It was one of a series of cars using engines based on the six-cylinder unit that appeared in the Ford Model K. The bigger engine did not bring better results. Henry Ford himself drove one of the cars twice in the summer of 1905, chasing new land speed records on the New Jersey beach. But the car came up short each time.
With Kulick at the wheel, Ford tried again for a record at Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1906—this time with the six-cylinder engine improved to 100 horsepower. But Kulick had trouble with the soft sand, and he managed no better than 40 miles per hour on the straightaway. (The record was broken at the Ormond Beach event—but by a steam-powered Stanley that hit 127.66 miles per hour.)
The end of the road for Ford’s six-cylinder racers nearly ended Frank Kulick’s career—and his life. It happened in October 1907, on the one-mile oval at the Michigan State Fairgrounds near Detroit. Kulick was trying to lap the dirt track in fewer than 50 seconds—a speed better than 72 miles per hour. His latest car was dubbed “666”—a name that simultaneously called attention to its cylinder count and paid homage to Henry Ford’s earlier “999.” In retrospect, that nefarious name was a bad omen.
Miraculously, Frank Kulick survived this crash in 1907, but it left him with a broken leg and a permanent limp. / THF125717
As Kulick was going through a turn on the fairgrounds oval, his rear wheel collapsed. Car and driver went careening off the track, through the fence, and down a 15-foot embankment. When rescuers arrived, they found Kulick some 40 feet from his wrecked racer. He was alive, but with his right kneecap fractured and his right leg broken in two places. Frank Kulick survived the crash, but his injuries healed slowly and imperfectly. He wore a brace for two years, and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life—his right leg having come out of the ordeal 1 ½ inches shorter than his left leg. The “666” was repaired, but it never competed again.
Henry Ford was horrified by Kulick’s accident, and he very nearly swore his company off racing for good. It wasn’t until 1910 that Kulick competed again under the company’s colors. By then, Ford Motor Company wasn’t building anything but the Model T, so Kulick naturally raced in a series of highly modified T-based cars. Arguably, his first effort in the renewed campaign was more show business than sport. Kulick went to frozen Lake St. Clair, northeast of Detroit, that February to challenge an ice boat. He easily won the match and earned quick headlines for the Model T.
Kulick posed in a Model T racer at the Algonquin Hill Climb, near Chicago, in 1912. / THF140161
Over the next two years, Kulick and his nimble Model T racers crossed the country competing—and frequently winning—road races and hill climbs. Despite Kulick’s success, Henry Ford remained lukewarm on racing. Ford Motor Company built nearly 70,000 cars in 1912 and still struggled to meet customer demand, so it certainly didn’t need the promotion—or problems—that came with an active motorsport program. Kulick later recalled that, after a race at Detroit in September 1912, Henry pulled $1,000 in cash from his pocket and told Frank, “I’ll give you that to quit racing.” Despite the generous offer (almost $30,000 in today’s dollars), Kulick continued a bit longer.
Frank Kulick may have started having second thoughts the next month. While practicing for the Vanderbilt Cup road race in Milwaukee, he grew concerned about the narrow roadway. There wasn’t enough room to pass another car without dipping into a ditch, so Kulick protested and dropped out of the contest. His concerns proved well founded when driver David Bruce-Brown was killed in the next round of practice.
It was the 1913 Indianapolis 500 that finally changed Kulick’s career path. Then in its third running, the Indy 500 was well on its way to becoming the most important race in the American motorsport calendar. Henry Ford was determined to enter Kulick in a modified Model T. But Indy’s rules specified a minimum weight for all entries. The Ford racer weighed in at less than 1,000 pounds—too light to meet the minimum. Indy officials rejected the modified T, and a frustrated Henry Ford reportedly replied, “We’re building race cars, not trucks.” With that, there would be no Ford car in the Indianapolis 500—in fact, there would be no major factory-backed Ford racing efforts for 22 years.
Kulick’s later career involved more genteel assignments, like driving the ten millionth Ford on a coast-to-coast publicity tour in 1924. Here, he takes a back seat to movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. / THF134645
Frank Kulick’s racing days were over, but he remained with Ford Motor Company for another 15 years. His assignments varied from research and development to publicity. In 1924, Kulick was charged with driving the ten millionth Ford Model T on a transcontinental tour from New York to San Francisco. Three years later, Kulick was called on to help celebrate the 15 millionth Model T. This time, rather than driving it across the country, Kulick—as one of Ford Motor Company’s eight senior-most employees—had the honor of helping stamp digits into the engine’s serial number plate. It was perfectly fitting that, as someone who’d done so much to promote the Model T through racing, Kulick was there to make his mark on the ceremonial last T. Kulick left Ford not long after that. He had done well investing in real estate, which afforded him a comfortable retirement.
Frank Kulick passed away in 1968. He survived to see Ford Motor Company achieve its great racing triumphs at Indianapolis and Le Mans during the “Total Performance” era. He also lived long enough to sit for an interview with author Leo Levine, whose 1968 book, Ford: The Dust and the Glory, remains the definitive history of Ford racing in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Levine wrote a whole chapter on Frank Kulick—but then, Frank Kulick wrote a whole chapter in Ford’s racing history.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
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