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man next to ford

Automobile manufacturers have been testing, proving and promoting their products since the very first car turned a wheel. Racing and endurance events were favored methods. In fact, in the early days, racing and endurance often went hand-in-hand. Races were sometimes city-to-city, at a time when roads were nearly non-existent. Those races taxed the durability and reliability of both man and machine. The wins or records gave manufacturers bragging rights to help generate sales. This is the story of one of Ford’s most remarkable endurance runs.

Bertha Benz was the first to “prove” a motor car -- her husband’s Patent-Motorwagen. In 1888, she and her two sons puttered 67 miles to visit her mother. The feat opened the public’s eyes to self-propelled vehicles and launched the brand now known as Mercedes-Benz.

Bertha Benz

(Caption: Frau Benz’s trip was documented in the media.  It was not a planned promotion.  Karl Benz was unaware of his wife’s caper and there was not yet a factory as such. Still, the trip could be considered a forerunner of promotions to come.)

The E.R. Thomas Motor Company won a mind-boggling 1908 globe-circling race with one of their Flyer models. Sales of Thomas automobiles soared after the race.


(Caption: E.R. Thomas did exploit his car’s globe-circling accomplishment but failed to expand his product line. He insisted on selling only high-line expensive cars when inexpensive Model Ts were sweeping the market. Thomas sold his failing company in 1911.)

Henry Ford entered two 1909 Model Ts in a New York City-to-Seattle race. Henry extensively advertised the win, and sales of the inexpensive Model T took off.

1909 Ford

(Caption: Ford’s win demonstrated that an inexpensive car could be as rugged and reliable as a big, expensive car. The race winner still exists in private hands.)

Also in 1909, Alice Huyler Ramsey proved the durability of Maxwell cars by motoring from New York City to San Francisco. Maxwell also promoted the feat and enjoyed increased sales.

Alice and comapny

(Caption: Alice and her three companions decked out in the latest fashions for women motorists.)

Maxwell ad

(Caption: Maxwell’s ad touting Alice Ramsey’s cross-country adventure. Although only a brief mention, it is important in that the factory recognized the feat and the fact that it was accomplished by a woman.)

Cannonball Baker was the most prolific “tester” of motor vehicles. He set over 140 point-to-point driving records with motorcycles and cars, usually in the employ of the vehicle manufacturer. In 1918 Baker promoted a ReVere automobile on a four-month, 16,234-mile tour through 48 state capitals. His best-known feat was a 1933 coast-to-coast run of 53½ hours in a supercharged Graham.

In 1950, an Oldsmobile 88 won the grueling 2000-mile-plus Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico. A Cadillac finished second. Factory-backed Lincolns finished first through fourth in the 1952 race. They followed up with first and second places in 1953. Lincoln played the results to the hilt.

Lincoln ad

(Caption: Lincoln used the Mexican Road Race and the Mobilgas Economy Run to develop, prove and improve the performance of its cars. There was no shyness in announcing the success of its factory-entered teams.) 

Their advertising took advantage of the race-proven credentials: “Lincoln Wins Again” was one headline. Another boasted: “Lincoln – Designed for modern living – Powered for modern driving.”

Chrysler Corporation went to Bonneville with a Hemi-powered 1956 Dodge Custom Royal four-door sedan. The car was randomly selected off the assembly line by American Automobile Association officials. The objective was to run a speed and endurance event for records. During the 14 days of the project the Dodge averaged 109.48 miles per hour for 4,000 miles. By the end, over 30,000 miles had been covered at an average speed of 93.51. Other Dodges competed in the Medium Stock class at the punishing Mexican Carrera Pan Americana race and finished 1-2-3-4. 

Dodge Ad

(Caption: Dodge didn’t hesitate to tout its achievements at Bonneville.)

Buick went to the Daytona International Speedway in 1960 with a specially prepared Invicta and ran 10,000 miles at 120 mph for 3½ days. To keep the average speed high, the engineers developed a novel rig to refuel the car without it having to stop. It worked like a military air-to-air system: A “tanker” car would trail the test car, at speed, drive a probe into a receptacle and pressure-feed gas into the test car’s tank.

Buick refueling

(Caption: Buick’s version of the air force’s drogue and probe refueling system.)

Ironically, while the event was conducted by the Buick Division, to prove durability, GM management prohibited any advertising of it. It was feared that the run would insinuate speed, not endurance. This was at the time of an industry-wide ban on factory motorsports involvement. Buick cleverly got around that by “leaking” the news to the grapevine.

Andy Granatelli went to Bonneville with an Avanti in 1964 to set records for Studebaker. The Avanti, with Granatelli driving, established 29 records, including 168 mph in the flying mile and 10 miles at 163 mph. In addition, the car hit a top speed of 178 mph. Paula Murphy, the “World’s Fastest Woman,” drove the Avanti over 160 mph in the flying mile. Studebaker touted the Avanti as the “World’s Fastest Production Car.”

Studebaker Ad

(Caption: By now the AMA ban on advertising speed and performance was being widely ignored.)

Despite Studebaker broadcasting the Avanti’s accomplishments, it wasn’t enough to save the company from failure. These examples of factory sponsored record-setting all share a common thread: improving sales through publicity.

Ford Motor Company tried its hand at speed and distance product promotion in 1956. The idea was to take three prototype 1957 Fairlanes to Bonneville and run them 50,000 miles at over 100 miles per hour. This ordeal was conceived and completed prior to the infamous Automobile Manufacturers Association ban on speed and, especially, racing. Pete DePaolo, winner of the 1925 Indy 500, was contracted by Ford to prepare the cars and conduct the run. Fran Hernandez, a veteran of dry lakes racing and father of nitromethane race fuel, worked for DePaolo Engineering at the time.

Fran Hot Rod

(Capiton: Fran Hernandez and his hot rod. He pioneered the use of nitromethane with this car.)

He coordinated the event and participated as a driver.

Plans for the event were under way early in 1956. But just showing up at Bonneville and driving around was not an option. One had to petition the Bonneville Speedway Association for permission. By May, the petition had been submitted and the association returned an agreement document to Ford. The agreement was coordinated by Chase Morsey.Bonneville agreement doc

(Caption: Morsey’s name pops up a lot leading up to and after the 50,000-mile run.)

Morsey would oversee much of the event’s operation. He served in the air force with Robert McNamara and “Tex” Thornton, two of the “Whiz Kids” Henry Ford II brought in to reorganize Ford. His experience with them was certainly key to his hiring. Morsey possessed a brilliant mind for statistics, research and market evaluation. Ford’s intention to discontinue the V-8 in favor of a 6 was reversed due to Morsey’s market reporting and he became known as the “Man That Saved the V-8.” He pioneered the concept of market research and by 1956 was the Car Marketing Manager responsible for 1957 Ford product plans. Executing the 50,000-mile endurance plan was in his domain.

Pontiac performance doc

(Caption: Even while the endurance run plans were on the high burner, Morsey was fishing for other ideas to promote and market Ford cars. The “three-flag” comment may reference a real or proposed event from Canada to Mexico.)

The endurance test would be played out on a more-or-less permanent 10-mile circle used by many record seekers. Three preproduction cars, two sedans and a convertible were selected for the test. A pit area was set up with a drive-through “garage” to service the cars and protect the work area from the sun and wind.

pit stop

(Caption: The pit shelter layout showing the work typically performed at each stop. Mobil logos are strategically placed. Mobil’s representative, Ray McMann, in the white hat, was on duty with the fire extinguisher.)

A small shelter served as “ground zero,” housing the timing equipment, USAC and FIA officials.


(Caption: USAC’s Art Pilsburg and Joe McKay, along with Ford’s FIA representative, score the cars (individuals not pinpointed).)

Timing shack

(Caption: Lap times were recorded in a small apparently portable hut. Like the oval, the hut was probably used by other record seekers.)

The construction of the shelters suggests they were not one-time-only facilities set up just for Ford. Mobil signed on as a partner in the exercise and provided fuel, lubricants and technical services. Taking time during the run to take promotional photos would have been detrimental to lap times. Therefore, many of the photos were staged, for both Ford and Mobil before or after the run.

Mobil 1 stop

(Caption: Fran Hernandez and Mobil’s Ray McMann “read” a spark plug. Judging by the under-hood stains, this photo could have been taken following the run.)


(Caption: Hernandez adding oil to the convertible. Note the strategic placement of the oil cans and the Mobil Pegasus logo on the door. This could have been before, during or after the run, as the convertible did not participate in the run. Also, time would not have been taken, during the run, to stage the oil cans.)

Prior to the start, all three cars took part in acceleration tests, while only the two sedans participated in the 50,000-mile ordeal.

Jerry Unser kicked off the run in the yellow-and-black Number Two car at 1:50 p.m. on September 9. He was one of 14 drivers signed for the run. Among the others were Danny Eames, Chuck Daigh, Troy Ruttman, Johnny Mantz, Chuck Stevenson and Fran Hernandez. The operation settled into a routine: Drivers were behind the wheel for three hours, then got six hours of rest.

Cook in kitchen

(Caption: Keeping a herd of mechanics, technicians, drivers and officials going 24 hours a day for days on end required a near constant supply of food and refreshments. At least one full-time chef was employed to fuel the crew.)

Cars pitted every hour, averaging 17 seconds per stop. Drivers shut off the engine and coasted into the pit shelter.

pit stop

(Caption: Car Number One coasting in. Note the waiting new Firestone tires. They appear to be speedway tires, which would make sense for this event. Regular passenger car tires would not hold up to the speed, heat and loads imposed upon them.)

Immediately, a static grounding cable was attached to the car and gas would start to flow into the tank.

pit stop

(Caption: Fran Hernandez and another crewman splashing (literally) some gas into car Number Two. Note the catch pan under the bumper.)

Jacks lifted the car so the tires, suspension and driveline could be inspected.

pit stop

(Caption: A swarm of mechanics changing tires, checking the suspension, adding oil and getting the driver a cup of water.)

Oil and water were replenished, repairs made and the driver given a drink. Tires were replaced as necessary.

shredded tire

(Caption: Even race tires can succumb to heat, sustained high speed and hitting potholes.)

Temperatures ranged from a broiling 100 degrees during the day to the chilling 40s at night.

mantz and stevenson talking through car

(Caption: Johnny Mantz takes some driving tips from Chuck Stevenson, who is appropriately dressed for the intense Bonneville weather.)

By the time the run was over, at 8:10 p.m. on September 28, 458 USAC and FIA records had been set, including 130 mph for 100 miles, 24 hours at 120 mph and the overall record of 50,000 miles at 108 mph. A Ford engineer justified the run in saying: “This kind of test is designed to improve the breed of cars, to test their durability. We’re not after mere speed.” Ford promoted the event with a three-page “advertorial” that ran in newspapers and major magazines. As hoped, 1957 sales blossomed, outdoing Chevrolet for the first time in years.

Following the test, the three cars were inspected by Ford’s engineering labs to evaluate what 50,000 hard, high-speed miles had done to them. The cars were then unceremoniously dumped. No record has been found of the blue-and-white Number One car. The convertible went to Carroll Horton, who may have been a driver or one of the 15 pit crew members.

original statement doc

(Caption: Final disposition of the convertible. “Invoice” may infer that the car was sold to Horton, possibly for $1, a price sometimes charged for used race or test cars.)

Horton crewed for Indy 500 teams and owned Auto Service Company, which specialized in high performance engine swaps – notably 312 Ford engines.  Whether he got the car for transportation, racing or just for the car’s Thunderbird Super engine is unknown. At any rate, the car disappeared after his acquisition.

Andy Hotton, through his Dearborn Steel Tubing (DST) company and friendship with DePaolo, acquired the Number Two car when Ford was finished with it. An inveterate hot-rodder, Hotton compulsively couldn’t leave any car stock. He turned it loose to two of his associates, Dean McCann and Al Nichols. They swapped the dual four-barrel carburetors for Ford’s optional McCulloch/Paxton supercharger and took the car to the Tecumseh, Michigan, airport. There, Road & Track magazine tested the Ford and a fuel-injected Chevrolet “Black Widow” sedan. The Ford’s first run was 13.8 seconds at 100 mph. The factory Chevy ran 14.3 seconds and 93 mph. Following the magazine test, and with a little tuning by McCann and Nichols, the car turned 12.9 at 112 mph. The car was then returned to its original dual four-barrel set-up and turned over to Hotton’s oldest son, Randy.

He drag-raced the car in B/Stock at Detroit Dragway, Onondaga Dragway and International Raceway Park near New Baltimore, Michigan. The old endurance car trophied multiple times at 91 mph in 15.43 seconds.

hotton drag racer vehicle

(Caption: Randy Hotton with a few of his trophies in 1962.)

Randy’s younger brother, Donnie, was too young for a driver’s license, so he emulated Randy by practicing hole shots in the family’s driveway. When he ‘fessed-up to the black streaks on the pavement, Andy just laughed it off.

hotton drag racer vehicle

(Caption: Donnie Hotton’s handywork.)

The Hottons eventually donated the car to Bill Harrah for his museum. It now exists in restored condition and in private hands.