Barney Oldfield: King of Speed – Part 1

The Early Years

The Speed King of Swag

Barney Oldfield was a true American original. Barney Oldfield was a racer; he was also equal parts showman. Oldfield was there at the beginning of organized racing. At heart, he was a dirt-track man through and through. But, if you asked him, he was the “King of Speed.” He wasn’t just fast, he was cool.

The Bernd Eli (Oldfield) Years

Bernd Eli Oldfield was born on June 3, 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. He had one older sister, Bertha Oldfield. Bernd Eli was born in a rural farming community in Ohio. Around his twelfth birthday, his family made a difficult decision to move to Toledo for a more city-oriented, industrialized existence. Growing tired of farm life, the Oldfield’s wanted to benefit from the conveniences of industry. And so, they moved Bernd and his older sister Bertha to Toledo, a thriving rail center.

Bernd dropped out of school between 12 and 15 years of age. Around 1893, Bernd Eli Oldfield took a job at a Toledo Hotel, the Monticello. In his later years, he would quip that his first job as a racer was operating the Monticello Hotel elevator. At Monticello, Bernd’s boss called him a sissy for his name; an insult which could not stand. To avoid coming to fisticuffs with his offending supervisor, Bernd Eli asserted “just call me Barney.” The name stuck. Even his parents began calling him Barney.

The Bicycle Years

Between 1893 and 1894, Barney became obsessed with bicycle racing, dropping out of school and working, in part, to save for his own bike. Unfortunately, what he purchased was too heavy to be raced. Like all speed fiends, he needed a better, faster, lighter machine. He eventually obtained a race-worthy bicycle. He entered his first race on May 30, 1894. He came in second. By the end of 1894, he had won some silver medals and a gold watch.

A young Barney Oldfield poses on a racing tandem bicycle.

In 1895, he attended the Ohio State Championship Races for cycling. This turned out to be a life changing event. There, he caught the eye of the Stearns Bicycle company. He also met a girl from nearby Canton and immediately proposed. She deferred; however, they did marry one year later. Barney later said this was but a teenage infatuation. The marriage ended quickly.

The Stearns Bicycle job involved some racing, but also it involved a lot of selling. Barney quickly learned how difficult it can be to survive on retail commission. Around this time, young Oldfield experimented in other endeavors. He went through a boxing phase, but was quickly known only for his glass jaw. He was soon headed toward motorsport partly by chance and partly by destiny.

The Motoring Connect

In 1899, his friend Tom Cooper won the Bicycle Championship of America. As a direct result of his success, Cooper then headed to Europe, where he encountered the motorized bicycle (an early form of the motorcycle). Meanwhile, the automobile quickly gained acceptance in America. Around this time, the great city to city automobile races of Europe were maturing; however, increasing speeds also caused significant and increasing dangers. Racing in the United States remained nomadic and primitive.

By 1900, Barney Oldfield’s own reputation was well-cemented; his bicycle racing exploits appeared in newspapers. According to tone article: “He is at present in Omaha, and is counted to be one of the fast men of this country.” In fact, both newspapers and bicycle advertisers touted his name at appearances throughout the summer of 1900.

Sometime in October 1900, Tom Cooper, his cycle racing buddy, brought a tandem motorized bicycle back from Europe with him. Then, serendipity stepped in. Tom Cooper decided to take the racer to a Detroit Track, Grosse Pointe. As it happened, the track was also Henry Ford’s local raceway. Cooper and Oldfield raced hard on the tandem single-cylinder that day; however, something much more important happened. A then-unknown Henry Ford, and a car of his own design, beat automotive giant Alex Winton’s race car on the track. It was on this day that Oldfield met Henry Ford.

Transition to a Driver

Barney Oldfield continued racing bicycles, notwithstanding a brief stint as a gold mine operator. By 1902, Barney had already headed back east. Newspaper articles establish that Barney Oldfield continued to race bicycles, powered or otherwise, through September 10, 1902. In the interim, Cooper wrote Oldfield and told him that they thought he should drive one of Henry Ford’s new prototypes.

Again, historian William F. Nolan’s account is crucial. Nolan wrote, “When Cooper joined Ford it was agreed that Tom would shoulder most of the financial burden, and that the plans, primary design and materials would be Ford’s responsibility.” A draftsman, C. Harold Wills, and a chief mechanic, Ed “Spider” Huff, also worked at the shop at 81 Park Place. Oldfield joined them in late September.

Now, as the story goes, they showed up with Ford’s new racers at Grosse Pointe, but they would not run. Henry Ford became upset and quit the venture. He sold the 999 and Red Devil cars to Tom Cooper on October 13, 1902. Ford’s basic premise was that he could not have his name associated with a failure at the race track.

The Celery King of Kalamazoo.

Oldfield figured out pretty quickly that (at least to him) racing was as much about self-promotion as outright speed. Sure, he had speed, but he needed a hype man. He went straight to Glenn Stuart, the Kalamazoo celery king. Glenn Stuart had a small farm, from which he grew it to such magnitude that it put Kalamazoo on the map.

Meanwhile, the 1903 Paris to Madrid fiasco and the relatively successful 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup, in Ireland, were taking place. Barney Oldfield, would eventually drive a car that he called the “Green Dragon.” As of the summer of 1903, the yet-to-be-named Green Dragon was being raced at the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup; the Peerless racer would eventually be rebuilt for Oldfield.

Oldfield Off to the Races

On May 30, 1903, Oldfield was scheduled in a match race against a man named Charles Ridgeway in a Peerless. Oldfield won the first two, of three, heats. The payoff from the match was substantial. It was enough for Barney to pay off his parents’ entire mortgage. This was really his first truly significant automobile win.

Just a few days later, on June 20, 1903, in Indianapolis, Oldfield broke a world record when he drove an automobile one mile in 59 and three-fifths seconds. This feat was covered in newspapers all over the nation. Barney netted $1,200.00, a huge sum in those days, for breaking the record. Barney Oldfield was off to the races, as it were.

Within days, he back on the track trying to break the record that he had just set. Throughout his lengthy racing career, Barney Oldfield was more focused on breaking the next record than being a true racer. That should not denigrate his skill; however, it does speak to his motivations as a man.

At this point, Barney was still racing the “Red Devil” while Tom Cooper was rocking the “999” variant. Newspapers echo frequent allegations of 80 horsepower in each of these beasts. By the summer of 1903, Barney Oldfield was a household name. He would fight to keep it that way, for the rest of his life. Oldfield, if nothing else, was dedicated to his own fame.

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