It was a spectacle of speed on the sand in August 1905 in front of an estimated 20,000 spectators.
Automotive pioneer Henry Ford relished competition, be it on a personal or professional level. Even in his 70s, he enjoyed challenging friends to footraces, often coming out on top against younger rivals.
He was an avid proponent of the benefits of daily exercise. “Personally, I believe in movement. I don’t stay in one place very long,” Ford told Psychology magazine in a 1923 interview.
The same philosophy applied to his motor vehicles, which led Ford to the Jersey Shore on a slightly rainy day in late August 1905.
A few weeks past his 42nd birthday, the Michigan native had traveled to the beachfront in Cape May for a visit that was strictly business. Ford and three fellow car enthusiasts, including future automaker Louis Chevrolet, would compete for bragging rights by racing their cars along a stretch of sand.
The novelty of the automobile, the horseless carriage, had captured the public’s attention around the world in the first decade of the 20th century. The Cape May Automobile Club sponsored races on the beach between Madison Avenue and Sewell’s Point, an area that was also known as “Poverty Beach.” The firmness of the sand made it a selling point for racing and the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean lent a visual appeal that could not be found inland.
On Aug. 25, Ford and Chevrolet would be joined by fellow racer A.L. Campbell and Walter Christie, a New Jersey native from New Milford, Bergen County. Ford had shipped his Beach Skimmer, a higher-powered version of his Model K automobile, by rail to Cape May and brought a crew to work on his car. The automaker made the Stockton Hotel his headquarters for his stay.
Chevrolet, a native of Switzerland, drove a Fiat, while Campbell got behind the wheel of a Red Flyer. Christie drove a Blue Flyer.
People flocked to the beach to witness the spectacle of speed on the sand. One estimate placed the crowd at 20,000. By comparison, the city’s population was listed as 2,257 in the 1900 Census. The race itself was short and dramatic, with the beach and the ocean each playing a role in the outcome.
Ford jumped into the early lead, according to newspaper accounts of the race, but suffered a setback when a wave from the Atlantic struck the Beach Skimmer. Chevrolet was quick to take advantage of his rival’s misfortune and passed Ford. When Chevrolet looked back to check on the rest of the field, however, he ran into a soft spot on the sand, spoiling his chances for victory.
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