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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Playing Detective: Solving a “Once-in-100-Years” Mobility Mystery

March 20, 2023 Archive Insight

At The Henry Ford, we often undertake detective work within our own collections as we seek to deepen our knowledge of objects, their contexts, and reevaluate their histories. Sometimes our investigations leave us with more questions than when we started. But with object-based research, there are very rare and special “eureka” moments that can simultaneously reveal an answer and unsettle everything we thought was true.

A perfect example came with the reevaluation of Henry Ford’s first race car, the Sweepstakes, which is celebrated for its win at a Grosse Pointe, Michigan, racing event held on Oct. 10, 1901. This victory in turn revived Henry Ford’s credibility as a businessman and helped secure the funding that eventually led to the founding of Ford Motor Company in 1903.

In the interview below, Matt Anderson, curator of transportation, speaks with Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of communications and information technology, about how the discovery of a "replica-turned-real" was made.

MobilityMystery_blog Ford Motor Company’s plans to celebrate the centennial of its racing program in 2001 with a reenactment of Henry Ford’s 1901 Sweepstakes race prompted a reverse engineering of what The Henry Ford curators and conservation staff thought was their replica of Henry’s race car. The project uncovered that what they knew to be a replica was actually the real deal. Sweepstakes (shown here with Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson) is now a centerpiece of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibition.

Matt- This story is about the kind of discovery we could jokingly call a “once-in-100-years” discovery, because that’s what prompted this realization. The Sweepstakes had been on and off display in the museum since we acquired it in the 1930s. There’s virtually no paperwork on it. We always assumed that it was a replica that Henry Ford had built at the Rouge in the mid-’30s, because he was known to make replicas of things that he wished he had and didn’t. It came off display in 1987 and into storage, largely because we thought it was a replica.

Kristen- What I’m hearing is that the Sweepstakes was still considered an important collection item, but it wasn’t top of mind for people for many years. What changed that?

Matt- In fall 2000, Ford Motor Company was getting ready for the centennial of its racing program, which was essentially founded on Oct. 10, 1901 — the date of Henry Ford winning the race in Grosse Pointe. The company planned a commemorative event in Greenfield Village, with the centerpiece being a reenactment of the Sweepstakes race on the Activity Field. In order to do it, Ford needed an operating replica of the Sweepstakes, and so they contacted former Curator of Transportation Bob Casey and our conservation department. They began the project by saying, “We’ve got to start by reverse engineering this replica that you have, so we want to look at it, measure it, take photos of parts, etcetera.” This work proceeded under careful supervision to avoid damage to the artifact. We benefited from this process too, because we felt we could learn more about the replica.

Everyone expected to find the kinds of shortcuts that are common in reconstructed objects — using parts that aren’t era-appropriate (like Model T wheel bearings, for example), “cheating” on parts that are hidden from view. But as they started disassembling the car and pulling it apart, they were finding things that were absolutely correct for 1901. It became clear that what we had, in fact, was the real car.

Kristen- Was there anything else that helped confirm this?

Matt- This realization prompted our staff to go back to oral histories that were undertaken in the 1950s, and we consulted an interview with Oliver Barthel — one of the original fabricators who worked on the Sweepstakes in 1901. Barthel mentioned in his interview that Henry sold the original car for $2,000 soon after the 1901 race, and like any good innovator, he put those funds into his second race car. Toward the end of his interview, Barthel mentioned how he was asked to examine the Sweepstakes in 1936. In the 1920s, it had been heavily damaged in a fire; the body was basically destroyed, but the running gear, engine and chassis all survived. Barthel then described how he provided information to help put the car back together into the condition that we see it in today.

Kristen- That story speaks to how seemingly insignificant asides and details in oral histories might provide essential clues. Without the decision to revisit the Sweepstakes, and that very slight aside by Oliver Barthel, we might have continued to miss the answer that was there all along.

Matt- Yes, it’s sort of a lesson in making assumptions. At the time, given the documentation we had, it was a reasonable thing to assume the car was a replica. Sometimes that’s all we’ve got — just the artifact itself to work with. And until we start taking it apart and looking closer, we don’t always know what we have. Today, that vehicle is a centerpiece in the Driven to Win exhibit.

This post was adapted from an article in the Winter-Spring 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.