As the name implies, The Henry Ford museum’s “Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors” exhibit focuses on American racing, which means that stock cars, hot rods and American open-wheel cars are a given. There’s one other category that strictly speaking isn’t American-centric, yet feels as if it is: the pursuit of land speed records.
“American racing fans in general are kind of obsessed with speed over strategy,” says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford. “And, that’s what land speed records are all about.
“There’s also the geography aspect,” he adds. “A few other places around the world exist to pursue these records, but I think Bonneville is the first that comes to mind, no matter where you’re from.”
The centerpiece of the land speed record display is the 32ft long, four-engine, 2,400hp, Goldenrod streamliner. Entered at Bonneville in November 1965 by the Summers brothers, Bill and Bob, Goldenrod established the high mark of 409.277mph average speed that would hold the piston-driven land speed record for nearly 45 years.
In the decades that followed, Goldenrod toured the world, and for a time, the Summers brothers toyed with the idea of taking a crack at their own record, believing Goldenrod was capable of exceeding 450mph. As fate would have it, a second attempt never materialized and Goldenrod sat idle, decaying in the southern California sun until 2002, when Bill Summers sought a new home for it. The Henry Ford acquired the car and, with the help of a U.S. government Save America’s Treasures grant, began the work of conserving Goldenrod, for which they turned to John Baechtel and Mike Cook, both among the leading experts in land speed racing.
“John had connections to some of the folks who were on the original build team, which was a big deal,” says Anderson. “And he understood our desire to preserve as much of the original material as possible.”
Without blueprints or manuals to follow, Baechtel and Cook began painstakingly disassembling Goldenrod piece by piece to refurbish every part of the car, a process that took a full four years to complete.
“Just about everything down to the fasteners on the car are original,” explains Anderson. “They even worked around original decals like the Champion Spark Plugs one on the side of the car, presumably added afterward for its promotional tour. The biggest replacement had to do with the eight aluminum bulkheads that were too far gone, unfortunately. We did keep them, though at this point they are not on display.”
Part of the The Henry Ford’s mission is to collect cars that are record breakers and paradigm changers. Goldenrod is certainly the former, but of the many American land speed cars, what makes it the latter?
“One, there’s something cool about the Summers brothers’ story; a couple of kids with a high school education who knew their way around Bonneville, but weren’t as well funded as some of the other cars, yet built this really incredibly-sophisticated car and broke a record,” says Anderson. “We also liked the idea of Goldenrod being a wheel-driven car from a time when jet-powered cars got all the headlines. And finally, to look at it, even somebody who doesn’t know about land speed cars, or cars in general for that matter, can see intuitively that it was made to go as fast as possible.”
The Henry Ford, in Dearborn, Mich., just west of Detroit, occupies a 250-acre campus with three separate attractions, including the Ford Rouge Factory where the Ford F-150 truck is made.
The new “Driven to Win: Racing In America presented by General Motors” exhibit occupies 24,000sq.ft of The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. It includes 22 racecars, 225 racing artifacts, a theater, and so much more, all helping to trace more than 125 years of American racing.
The exhibit is subdivided into eight zones covering topics that range from The Dawn of Racing to modern-day Motorsports Performance Training.
Plan your visit and get more details at thehenryford.org.