Monday, January 30, 2017


William Clay Ford's midget race car
 
2016 photo courtesy of Hyman Ltd.
by enlarging you can see that this car
had a rear nerf bar - very unusual for the period
 
William Clay ‘Bill’ Ford, the youngest son of Edsel Ford, received this hand-built midget race car from his father and grandfather on the occasion of his 11th birthday on March 25 1936. The little car was powered not by a Ford flathead V8-60 engine as used in many racing midget cars of the era but by a 71-½ cubic inch side-valve inline four-cylinder engine fitted with a single downdraft carburetor from an English Ford Model C Ten. The little car was apparently driven periodically by Bill Ford on the roads around Edsel’s estate in Grosse Pointe Shores on the shore of Lake St. Clair and never was actually entered in racing competition.  

William Clay Ford served in the United States Navy Air Corps during World War II and when he returned home he married Martha Firestone. Ford attended Yale University and after graduation he was appointed to the Ford Motor Company Board of Directors in 1949. Bill Ford served as the chairman of the design committee for 32 years and briefly ran the Lincoln division where was responsible for shepherding the spectacular 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II into production.  
Bill Ford served as the Chairman of the Board of The Henry Ford Museum (now known as the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) founded by his grandfather in 1929 and held that position for 38 years, from 1951 to 1989 and was the largest individual donor in the history of that institution.  The author did not uncover any evidence that William Clay Ford ever owned any other race cars besides his childhood midget, but he drove the Pace Car for the start of the Indianapolis 500-mile race on two occasions.

The pace lap of the 1953 Indianapolis 500
with William Clay Ford driving the 1953 Ford Crestline Pace Car
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection

Hollywood actress Jane Greer posed with the 1953 Ford Crestline Pace Car
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection

Bill drove the flathead-powered sungate ivory 1953 Ford Crestline Pace Car equipped with a “Continental” rear spare tire for the start of the 1953 race with Hollywood actress Jane Greer and Speedway President Wilbur Shaw as his passengers.

William Clay Ford with Wilbur Shaw and "999" in 1953
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection

William Clay Ford prepares to pull away from the pit area
 for a lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in "999" in 1953
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection

 


In 1953, Ford Motor Company was celebrating its 50th anniversary and the company arranged to have Henry Ford’s original race car “the 999” at the track and Bill took a few laps around the Speedway in the 1155 cubic inch four-cylinder  wooden-frame “999.”  It is believed that Bill drove the original “999” since Ford Motor Company did not commission a replica until 1966.

The 1968 Ford Fairlane Torino Pace Car
driven by William Clay Ford leads the starting field on the pace lap
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection


In 1968 Bill Ford returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and drove the Wimbledon white with blue trim Ford Fairlane Torino GT Pace Car, accompanied by Tony Hulman and Dennis “Duke” Nalon. At the time Torino was not a separate Ford nameplate, rather it was the highest trim level available for the Fairlane model which took its name from Henry Ford’s mansion. For the 1970 model year, that situation was reversed as the Fairlane became a sub-series model of the Ford Torino nameplate.   

Most sports fans not fans of auto racing history are more familiar with Bill Ford through his ownership of the Detroit Lions National Football League (NFL) franchise. Ford purchased the franchise in November 1963 and he remained an active NFL owner until March 9, 2014 when he passed away at age 88. Bill's widow Martha Firestone Ford is now the chairman of the team.

The first time the author saw the William Clay Ford midget was in 2008 when it was then owned by Ronald 'Bud' Melby and on display in his Museum of Mechanical Arts in Washington State.  ‘Bud’ Melby who founded and ran Metal Form Incorporated in Kent Washington for more than forty years, collected classic cars and his collection included 20 or more cars, most built before World War Two.

‘Bud’ also owned another midget race car, an un-assembled Solar kit, and was a member of Golden Wheels a Seattle-based vintage auto racing club. Bud also collected motorcycles, slot machines, gold pocket watches, antique firearms and silver dollars. All of his priceless collections were displayed at Melby’s seven-acre estate in Riversdale Washington which was also the site of the Museum of Mechanical Art.


Bud Melby with the WC Ford midget on the left- his Solar midget is on the right
2008 photo by George Hespe of Lake Stevens, WA
 
 The English Ford 4-cylinder engine in the WC Ford midget
2008 photo by George Hespe of Lake Stevens, WA
 
In 2008, the William Clay Ford midget race car was painted dark red and carried #11, but a recent photograph of the midget part of a 2016 holiday e-mail from Hyman Ltd. collector cars shows the car in black with no numbers. After purchasing the car from Melby’s family, the Hyman’s restoration department staff reported uncovered the car’s original livery and restored it to that appearance.

What remains untold is the story of the car’s history between the time William Clay Ford last drove it until ‘Bud’ Melby purchased the car; if our readers have any information about the ownership history of this  unique car, please contact the author.

Please visit the website of the current owners of the William Clay Ford midget race car at http://hymanltd.com/

Many thanks to the members of the Yahoo! Racing History Group for their assistance in researching this article. You too can join the group by visiting  https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/RacingHistory/info

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