By on September 21, 2014

Based on a market research study commissioned by Ford Motor Company rumors are circulating that FoMoCo will change the branding for its high performance vehicles from SVT (for Special Vehicle Team) to 999, the name of Henry Ford’s second race car, popularized by barnstorming driver Barney Oldfield. Marketers have seized on “authenticity” as a lever by which they can move consumers and I suspect that reaching back over a century for a brand name may have something to do with that. As someone who likes history I can’t complain about Ford looking into reusing a historic name, but  while its true that the name 999 has been associated with Ford racing since before the establishment of the Ford Motor Company, the name SVT means something to today’s car enthusiasts and for most of them 999 is just the number before 1,000. Today’s performance consumers are more likely to recognize the name Ken Block than Barney Oldfield.


Henry Ford (standing) with Barney Oldfield and Old 999, 1902

There was a time, though, when 999 was the name of the most famous racing car(s) of the early motoring age, holder of a land speed record and winner of numerous races and exhibition matches with Oldfield at the wheel, er, rather tiller. Unlike Henry Ford’s first racer, the Sweepstakes car, which was a nifty little runabout, 999 was a relatively primitive machine that was all about “brute force” in the words of the transportation curator of the Henry Ford Museum, Matt Anderson. Both the Sweepstakes car and 999 are in the Racing in America exhibit in the Museum’s Driving America display.

It’s not known exactly who first coined the phrase, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, but Henry Ford understood the publicity value in winning races with his automobiles. It was his 1901 win with the Sweepstakes car against established automaker Alexander Winton that gave him credibility with investors and allowed the formation fo the Henry Ford Company. Ford almost immediately ran into difficulties with his backers. Part of it was his dream of building an inexpensive car for the masses but also part of it was that Henry wanted to race cars and his partners wanted him to focus on building and selling them.

In early 1902, he told his brother in law, Milton Bryant that his interest in racing was all about dollars and cents: “… there is a barrel of money to be made in this business.… My company will kick about me following racing but they will get the Advertising and I expect to make $ where I can’t make ¢s at Manufacturing.”

By March of that year Henry had left the company that bore his name, taking with him $900 severance and the plans for a new race cars. With financial backing from bicycle racer Tom Cooper and the technical assistance of Ed “Spider Huff and C.H. Willis (who would later persuade Ford to use vanadium steel in the Model T to great success), in May 1902 Ford began construction of two race cars with huge engines and wooden frames. One was painted red and the other yellow, named respectively, Red Devil and Arrow. The had four cylinder inline engines with 7.25 inch bores and a stroke of 7 inches for a total displacement of a massive 1,155.3 cubic inches. It put out between 70 and 100 horsepower. There was no transmission. Power was transferred to the rear wheels via a wooden block clutch on the 230 lb exposed flywheel. There were also no universal joints nor was there a differential. A solid drive shaft connected to what was literally an open rear axle, just a ring and pinion gear setup. There was no rear suspension and steering was by a primitive tiller with two upright handles and a center pivot. Not only was the flywheel exposed, so was the valve gear and the crankshaft. With a bumpy ride and oil spraying everywhere, it wasn’t a pleasant drive.

Barney Oldfield and the car that made him and Henry Ford famous.

Barney Oldfield and the car that made him and Henry Ford famous.

As primitive as 999 looks, it did have at least a couple of features that were advanced for its day like that simple drive shaft and rear axle. Most early automobiles had a chain drive for each of the driving wheels. 999’s pneumatic “balloon” tires were also novel at the time.

Though he would later *drive Arrow to a land speed recordof 91.37 mph in the flying mile, Henry was said to be a bit intimidated by the machine. Instead he hired bicycle racer Barney Oldfield to pilot 999 in the five-mile Manufacturers’ Challenge Cup race on Oct. 25, 1902, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. In a way it was a rematch between Ford and Winton, but while the 999 became firmly associated with Henry Ford in the public mind, by the time of the actual race Ford had backed out of the venture, selling his interest to Cooper because of a poor test session a couple of weeks before the race.


According to legend, Oldfield had never driven an automobile before the race, which he won going away, covering the five miles in 5 minutes and 28 seconds, a record for the distance on a closed course. Though he sold his interest in 999, Ford, though, retained publicity rights, which proved to be invaluable. Oldfield renamed Red Devil “999” after a famous locomotive of the day. Oldfield and Cooper took the two cars around the country, setting speed records, winning races and establishing Oldfield as the first celebrity race driver in America. Having made a name for himself driving a Ford, though, Oldfield switched to the competition, Winton, in the summer of 1903. By then Henry Ford was focusing on getting the Ford Motor Company off of the ground.

It's tempting to call that an "open differential" but there's no differential at all, just a ring & pinion gear set. Full gallery here.

It’s tempting to call that an “open differential” but there’s no differential at all, just a ring & pinion gear set. Full gallery here.

In September of that year, both the 999 and the Arrow were entered into the inaugural car race at the Wisconsin state fair. Huff was driving 999 and Frank Day piloted the Arrow. Day, though, was killed when he crashed the car. The destroyed Arrow was returned to Detroit where Ford rebuilt it, planning on a land speed record attempt that winter on frozen Lake St. Clair. On Jan. 12, 1904, Ford set a new flying mile record. Though that record would stand for less than a month, the young Ford Motor Company benefited mightily from the publicity surrounding Ford’s LSR effort.

The Detroit Tribune described the record attempt: “As Ford flashed by it was noticed he wore no goggles or other face protection. Humped over his steering tiller, the tremendous speed throwing the machine in zig-zag fashion. Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.”

Henry Ford driving the "999" in an Exhibition Run against Harry Harkness in a Mercedes Simplex, at the Detroit Driving Club's 1 Mile Track in Grosse Pointe.

Henry Ford driving the “999” in an Exhibition Run against Harry Harkness in a Mercedes Simplex, at the Detroit Driving Club’s 1 Mile Track in Grosse Pointe.

Cooper sold the cars in 1904 and some years later Henry Ford would acquire it for the museum that bears his name. Shortly before his death, Henry Ford is said to have remarked to Barney Oldfield: “You made me and I made you.” Oldfield shook his head and replied “Old 999 made both of us.”

I’ll have to check with Matt Anderson to find out the current running status of “Old 999”. It was still in operating condition in 1963 when racer Dan Gurney visited the Henry Ford Museum while he was racing for Ford. Gurney would go on to win at LeMans with co-driver A.J. Foyt and as one of the leading American racers who happened to be driving for the blue oval, he was an honored guest. When the curator asked him if he’d like to drive it, Gurney jumped at the opportunity and soon afterwards the then over 60 year old race car was transported to Ford’s nearby test track where the all-American racer took it for a spin.

Dan Gurney drives Old 999 on Ford's Dearborn test track, 1963

Dan Gurney drives Old 999 on Ford’s Dearborn test track, 1963

Richard Barrett described the scene for Ford Times magazine:

It was a bone-chilling, blustery day nearly sixty years ago when Henry Ford drove his famous “999” racer over the ice at Lake St. Clair, Michigan, to set a new world’s speed mark of ninety-two miles per hour. The Detroit Tribune of January 13, 1904, headlined the event as a “wild drive against time.” The article went on to say, “As Ford flashed by it was noticed he wore no goggles or other face protection. Humped over his steering tiller, the tremendous speed throwing the machine in zig-zag fashion. Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.” As fate would surely be delighted to have it, the day last March when Dan Gurney, one of today’s racing greats, drove the same old “999” at Ford Motor Company’s high-speed test track, the cold wind cut like a knife and a driving snow all but blinded the eyes. As the car was started up, and Gurney got his first close look, he whistled in wonder and said, “It’s a fire-breathing monster!” Henry Ford said exactly the same thing the first time he drove it.

Gurney, like Ford before him, proved his championship mettle that cold March day. With only a short briefing on the mechanics of the monster, a few questions asked and answered, he took the “999” out on the infield track to get the “feel” of the car. A short time later, after the high-speed test track was cleared, Gurney got his flying start and roared into the “soup bowl” (a high-speed, steeply banked turn). Here’s how Gurney later described the sensation: “It’s quite a thrill. I was looking for the exhaust pipes and then I realized there are hardly any. They’re about two inches long and I could see flame coming out. The car is vibrating and everything is twisting every time it fires; you can feel everything from one end of the car to the other.

“The car is a little bit deceiving because it’s so high geared, but you’re really covering the ground. It’s sort of like comparing a running elephant to a deer. The low revs of the engine are what do it, and those four big cylinders. You can feel them working. Until it’s going forty to fifty miles an hour it doesn’t really settle down, and then it hardly seems to be turning over at all. It’s just chug, chug, chug with a lot of popping, smoke and roar. All the while you’re sitting there, straddling that big engine high on the single seat and remembering to keep your feet out of the way of that exposed flywheel. It’s as big as a man-hole cover.”

Asked if he was concerned about controlling the flying “999” Gurney smiled and answered, “I just prayed nobody would get in front of me. There were patches of ice and snow on the track, and at the speed I was going it would take at least two hundred yards to stop. I can imagine Henry Ford driving that thing ninety-two miles an hour on ice. Very, very tricky. You’d have to be extremely delicate with the tiller and braking or you’d really be in trouble. Having good eyesight would be a help in a panic stop, although with all the engine racket they could probably hear you coming far enough so they could get out of the way.”

Gurney later recounted the experience for the Car Crazy television show.

*My recent post on the Sweepstakes car said that the 1901 race was the first and last time Henry Ford raced a car. While that’s technically true, Ford indeed never again raced in wheel to wheel competition, he did race against the clock on the ice in 999 and participated in at least one exhibition at speed in the car.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS


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46 Comments on “Does 999 Mean “Ford Performance” More Than SVT?...”

  • avatar

    Great read!

    The same marketing consultants must have come up with the current Lincoln naming scheme.

  • avatar

    Well SVT use to be SVO, maybe it’s time for a name change again. Maybe they will fire up 999 again when they announce the name change so I’m all for it.

    • 0 avatar

      No… SVO was pretty cool, Special Vehicle Operations had a kind of Skunk Works ring to it and its to bad they changed it to SVT but the SVT brand has built a good amount of equity over the years from the Cobra Mustangs and their R model derivatives to the Shelby Mustangs and the Lightning and Raptor trucks.

      Why toss all that in the trash for a name that means exactly zero to most of the car people out there.

      Its a shame Ford feels they’ve mismanaged the SVT name so badly that it has to be changed.

    • 0 avatar

      When I hear SVT, the (Mondeo) Contour SVT comes to mind immediately.

  • avatar

    In a word – NO. 999 means nothing to anyone as far as Ford heritage goes. I don’t see why Ford would want to put the effort into educating its customers as to why 999 is a performance label. As it is Ford has let the SVT label languish for years, but like SHO, still has cache and recognition. 999 has neither.

    • 0 avatar

      999, It didn’t mean anything to me before reading Ronnie’s great article. Thought it might have the upside down implications of the religious 666. Turned out not to be so.

      Really enjoyed the read yet SVT has an understood meaning to it — a Team that develops Special Vehicles, hence Special Vehicles Team.

      999? Huh?

  • avatar

    While the 999 may have originally ‘made’ Ford, almost nobody alive today would remember it. Referencing a modern performance model to one of the first ever racing cars is *hardly* awe inspiring. But I do agree that SVT/SVO aren’t much better, especially when other brands have names like Mopar (Chrysler), Nismo (Nissan) and others that have been synonymous with speed for generations. Better that they use a performance name that fits the brand, like Granetelli did for Studebaker with its ‘Studebaker Products’ (STP).

    But even Andy Granetelli used Fords, often with a big Caddy engine stuffed under the hood before he signed onto Studebaker. If you want to know more about him, look up the book ‘They Call Me Mister 500’, where he tells about his entire career starting just before The Great Depression over 80 years ago.

    My point is that labeling your performance cars on something nobody remembers isn’t going to help your image, even if that hundred-plus-year-old car did effectively launch Henry Ford’s business. Rather, going back to a tradition more people will actually remember–like the Galaxy 500 which was Ford’s Nascar runner in the early ’60s–would be more effective. True, Ford hurt the number by placing the name ‘500’ on the predecessor of the most recent Taurus, but by calling a factory performance car a “Mustang 500” or “Focus 500” or even “Fiesta 500” (as compared to ‘Fiesta ST’) you would reference back to the 500-mile races where Ford is far better recognized as a winning brand. The name needs to be relevant to the brand as it is known, not some ancient history that is now more legend than remembered.

    • 0 avatar

      Though Studebaker did promote STP as “Studebaker Tested Products” after the South Bend company bought STP in 1961 (at least in part to get Andy Granatelli on their payroll), the STP company had been in business selling “Scientifically Treated Petroleum” since 1953.

      That’s an interesting topic, how company acronyms and slogans have changed over the years. Ace Hardware is now the helpful place because apparently “the helpful hardware man” was gender biased. Somehow, though, I don’t think Aunt Jemima’s going to be replaced by Uncle Ben. Now that would be a rich stew of irony.

  • avatar

    Another great article. Thank you.

  • avatar

    Who is Ken Block?

  • avatar

    Enthusiasts are fully aware of all the performance brand acronyms. Leave it alone, Ford. Put your young, Ivy league MBAs on something more important, like making an impact with hipsters.

  • avatar

    When Americans hear 999 they think of Herman Cain, not Ford.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Ford knows exactly what it is doing. Ford enjoys product loyalty which is rare and which they almost lost. Henry Ford happens to be an American hero. In fact, when I type “Henry” on my smartphone the word “Ford” next appears as a suggestion. Visit a Ford dealer and the place is replete with Ford memorabilia.

    They have changed the name of their hot-rod cars a couple of times. The people who know about cars like that know about the change before it is even made. See the thread above. Changing the name offers them a chance to make that historical reference for nothing.

    The only complaint I have is that 999 looks like ‘666’ for dyslexic car buyers.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup! Ford is the only American car maker left, and it did not die like GM or Chrysler did. Ford certainly is worthy of my consideration if I ever need a 3/4-ton pickup truck.

  • avatar

    I’m sure this stuff still matters on some level, but every time I see companies treat such “fluff” as a genuinely important matter, I get concerned that a bunch of New Yorkers too stupid at math to get into Engineering school, are having way to much sway at a company that really ought to focus on simply building great cars….

    But I guess, people other than enthusiasts, still make quick value determinations simply based on a badge name, rather than digging a bit deeper.

    • 0 avatar

      ” I guess, people other than enthusiasts, still make quick value determinations simply based on a badge name”

      Thus the success of the Porsche Mecaw, Prsche Ceyennanaro, BMW X-series, Mercedes CLA, cheaper Vw-based Audis, and a fair deal of Japanese cars.

      And the long, long detrimental failure of the Cadillac Cimmaron.

  • avatar

    Learned something today, thanks. No to me, stupid performance and huge engines cars from that era are mainly European and some from insuspected sources like Fiat and Renault. Ford of the time to me is just the T and then the A, which were simple.

    As to badges one wishes Ford would use, I guess we each have our own. SHO, SVT and even RS and Titanium do nothing for me. Use the XR and Ghia and you get instant recognition from me.

  • avatar

    I can’t knock the move. Ford demonstrating a willingness to change names is a plus, especially after seeing them get into the MK-something rut with Lincoln. Maybe we’ll see Continentals, Town Cars, Cosmopolitans, Premieres and Capri’s again, plus Falcons, Fairlanes, and Torinos!

  • avatar

    When no one gets my Marx Brothers references I’m quite sure that they won’t understand what “999” means either.

    Then again maybe I’m biased because they had to pay $999 to run a focus group for this.

    Good article though, ford should pay you $9 a copy and slip it in with their 999 cars, all 999 of them.

  • avatar

    I say, keep the SVT badge, and Shelby badges, and just make one special heritage car called the ‘999’. And offcourse, let the thing have 999 horsepower.

  • avatar

    “999” in my world was the old designation for a “cardiac arrest”.

    It is a stupid choice because most do not know what it stands for.

    SVO/SVT are known but as others have pointed out do not receive much marketing attention from Ford.

    A known name from Ford’s more recent past makes more sense. Since baby boomers are more likely to be the ones with disposable income, a name from the 50’s – 60’s era would make more sense.

    Vulpine is on the right track with “500”. Other possibilities could be resurrecting the Cobra name. CobraJet “CJ” or SuperCobraJet “SCJ” could be used for engine mods or engines. AC Cobra could be for road racing packages. Thunderbolt would make sense for drag racing packages.

  • avatar

    Now that the new Mustang isn’t sharing the 999’s rear suspension, it’s time to bring out the name.

  • avatar

    Perhaps Buick should consider a Regal GS Stage 1 performance upgrade package.

  • avatar

    How about you just slap “GT” all over everything like GM does with Chevy and “SS”.

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    Thanks for an interesting article.

  • avatar

    If I can remember correctly at all a few years ago the 999 was stripped apart to fabricate a duplicate to be raced at the 100 year anniversary of either its creation or the company’s foundation. There was a fairly large write up on the car at the time and it’s the sole reason I know of its existence. So I believe the original 999 can still run since they stripped it and put it back together but I believe the article stated the question of metal fatigue has made actually doing so to the original a multi-million dollar gamble they chose not to take.

    But the duplicate was fast by turn of the last century standards and the driver who handled it noted it was probably faster than cars up to the 1950s.

    That being said just stick with SVT. The problem with the performance moniker has been that it hasn’t been used enough. ST seems to be the general ‘performance’ moniker now used even if it just amounts to flashier looks and a minimum of actual go-fast parts. Changing the name of your performance branding is just bad marketing. If you want to make a name for it actually offer it on more than 1-2 models every 5-10 years. I don’t even know if they have an actual SHO/SVT car in production right now.

    To a person who referenced NISMO earlier, I wouldn’t exactly equate it with the SRT & SS labeling that Dodge and Chevy have. NISMO means more than SRT & SS for sure since they’re an actual department and not a trim/class level. But I think you would be hard pressed outside of a fairly narrow group of folks to get much understanding on NISMO compared to SRT.

  • avatar

    Isn’t “999” the emergency phone number in the UK? Sorta like calling it the “911” over here, which would be a bad idea on many levels.

  • avatar

    Frankly nobody outside of enthusiasts care. Heritage names are over-rated.

    Put in a 700 hp engine in a Mustang, charge 60K, call it the Stinking Turd and it will get press and lots of comparos against the Hellcat.

    The only reason to go with a new name is (1) you have pissed away the goodwill of the current one and (2) you are signaling to the market you are ready to invest into the new name. Unfortunately most companies screw up item #2. Damn, I now sound like PDL.

    So, have they pissed away the goodwill of SVT? Not really, but then again, it also has no cache and no presence since the vehicles they do are known by other names (302, etc). If they want to go the M-route, then get rid of the historical names and just make everything an “SVT” edition or “999” edition. So “Mustang SVT” would be the top end do everything version. The Fusion SVT would be something ridiculous, and so on. Otherwise who cares what a division is called?

  • avatar

    It’s crudely built, handles poorly at speed, takes two hundred yards to stop, sprays oil all over the place, has a non-existent exhaust system, and is likely to kill the driver if it ever crashes. Hmmm… considering that no one alive today was around when it was in its heyday, are these the characteristics that Ford wants to associate with their performance cars?

  • avatar

    I know that SHO and SVT means a fast Ford.

    But, I could see people mistaking SVT for CVT. No bueno.

    But, I think 999 is stupid! It’s just a number to most people! Who will go to a “999 Dealer”? Who wants to say “I drive a 999 Epsilon GT?”

    Stick with SHO. It’s still in use for the Taurus (I think), and has name recognition.

    Either that, or Interceptor. Even without the CVPI, it still sounds cool! It’s better than a number, at least…

  • avatar

    Ford had not had good luck with branding changes: look at the Lincoln division where nobody knows what the models are or what they stand for. MK what?

    SVT means something to the people who care, and branding awareness could be increased with very little effort. Throwing that away for no compelling reason is a huge waste of time, resources, and brand equity.

    The person who thought of the 999 idea needs to be reassigned, removed, or replaced.

  • avatar

    “Today’s performance consumers are more likely to recognize the name Ken Block than Barney Oldfield.”

    So true. Seeing the word “barnstorming” in the text gets me to thinking you might as well associate the number 999 with modern racing to a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” to modern aviation.

    Personally, I associate the number 999 with New York Central and Hudson River Railroad 4-4-0 no. 999 steam locomotive that was claimed to hit the 100 mph “barrier” speed record, but that’s just me!

  • avatar

    Since the 80s Ford’s performance operation has been some variation of SVE/SVO/SVT so this makes as much sense as renaming the Taurus “500”.
    Plus in the UK 999 = 911, and a punk band so we have a confusion issue.
    I think this nostalgia naming is the same stupid thinking as Chrysler’s “imported from Detroit”.

  • avatar

    I forgot the question. Reading the specs on those old racers has my jaw hanging open..

    Steering – barely
    Brakes – sort of
    Suspension – huh?
    Transmission – why?
    Differential – what?
    Tires – yes
    Matched pair of 50lb brass balls on driver – mandatory
    Safety gear – what’s that, then?

    Absolutely amazing.

    Thanks for a fascinating bit of history!

  • avatar

    I think that ford should just put the SVT name on things instead of the ST name, i remeber the SVT focus when i was younger and curently drive an SVT Raptor, which i think equates to their best seeling SVT vehicle. i think they should drop the st, give the SHO SVT wheel caps, Call the new mustang performance packages SVT performance pkgs with some svt trim pices and call it good, make it known that SVT is the best that ford offers. Most people have heard of SVT and are famialr with the models this is the first time ive heard of the 999 , are they going to make the next raptor the 999 Raptor? As far as the name sounding like CVT thats just silly toyota keeps TRD for the american market and we all know what that sounds like.

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