Barney Oldfield: Kind of Speed – Part 3

This is the third installment of a multi-part series on Barney Oldfield, an original king of speed.  Here is Part 1.  This is Part 2.

Barney Oldfield: The Man

Barney was headed for a race at the local Topeka, Kansas track, when he gave a classic interview. In Barney fashion, he started off the interview by announcing that, “I don’t like driving”

“It is too dangerous. I don’t think that I shall be in it longer than this year. Had a man told me in 1904 that I would still be behind goggles at this time this year, I should have pronounced him crazy.”

When asked what he meant, he propounded the following:

“We have to take chances. It always seems that an accident is impending. We never know what will happen. If a man is just right, the element of danger is to a big extent eliminated. But with nerves a little off, with weather conditions so that the dust absolutely precludes vision, you can never tell when the call will come.”

Barney Oldfield liked to dress flashy. The newspaper article notes sparkling precious stones on the lapel of his coat, “the same kind of ornamentation” on his fingers. He also rolled with a crew. Only one was a mechanic, while the others were there purely to “look after the business end” of things. This article reveals an early predisposition to showmanship, a trait that Barney embodied to a fault, throughout his career. In time, his dedication to *the show* would undercut the legitimacy of his talent.

Barney went on racing throughout the 1905 season. He had another close call in August. He escaped a mid-field jaunt with “a badly lacerated scalp and a severely bruised right arm.”

1906 was a quieter racing year. However, he earned $36,000.00 from racing just after the mid-point of the season. Before and in-between his racing obligations, Barney Oldfield even appeared in a play with his former bicycle buddy Tom Cooper. The production was a play about the Vanderbilt Cup—an important road race big enough to draw considerable international talent.

Under Arrest

At the beginning of 1907, Barney was still racing a modified version of his “Green Dragon.” However, his races were increasingly becoming “an act” as you might see upon a stage. Allegations started to fly that his races were pre-arranged.

Peerless Green Dragon, Barney Oldfield.

The Spokane Press, on July 5, 1907, announced, “Auto Racing Fakers Pinched…Barney Oldfield, the automobile racer, was arrested in Portland, Ore., and a warrant got out for his manger, yesterday by the Portland Telegram in the interest of clean sport.”

Barney Oldfield was accused of promoting fake automobile races by a Portland Newspaper. Of course, the newspapers accounts were a bit sensationalized, as was a matter of course in those days. Upon deeper drilling into the actual events, it turns out that Barney Oldfield’s manager had advertised a card of drivers when he knew many of the drivers had no intention to participate in the regional race. In this regard, Oldfield and his manager were charged with “obtaining money by false pretenses.”

He was quickly released on $500 bond. The charges would be dismissed a few days later. However, that is not the whole story. The night following his release on bail, fueled by alcohol, Barney threatened suicide. According to a newspaper report:

“Barney Oldfield, the automobile speed marvel, attempted to commit suicide early this morning. Oldfield attempted to leap from a window of the Portland Hotel. He was restrained only the united efforts of his wife and a detective.”

Enter Ralph De Palma

Of Italian decent, via Brooklyn, Ralph De Palma was born on December 18, 1882. Around four years younger than Oldfield, De Palma, like most of this era, got his start with bicycles. From there, he graduated to cars. Ralph De Palma shows up in the automobile racing record in later 1907 and early 1908. In fact, one of his first big races was against Barney Oldfield in 1908. De Palma managed to beat the legendary Barney on the track in June 1908. According to motorsport historian, William Nolan:

“Furious with himself over his poor showing, Barney stormed off the track without bothering to congratulate the sensitive De Palma. Thus, without any direct violence, a feud was precipitated between the two drivers which persisted, in varying degrees, throughout their careers.”

The Blitzen Benz

The Blitzen Benz, with an enclosed body and a boatish tail, was a very early exercise in auto racing aerodynamics. With some refinement, it eventually boasted 200 chain-driven horsepower. Its 21.5 liter engine sounded like canons, lots of them.

Gripping the grain in his chain-driven monster.

The full story of the cars development is beyond the scope of the present inquiry. In short, Benz developed the car to compete at the 1908 French Grand Prix. The French Grand Prix driver, Victor Hémèry, then took the car to Brooklands (a high-speed banked track, which had recently been built in England).

Living Hard and Setting Records

Meanwhile, alcohol was getting the best of Barney. William Nolan’s account of Barney Oldfield fills in some critical details of how the Blitzen Benz came to be.  He notes:

“Oldfield was living up to his reputation as a prime hell raiser. Scheduled to drive to a meet in Missouri, he disappeared for three full days. Will Pickens (his manager and hype-man) and Bess (his current wife) made the rounds of every saloon and gambling emporium in Kansas City, finally locating Barney at a dive on Main Street. He was out cold—and they put him on a stretcher and carried him to a taxi.”

The next day, Bess and Barney had a heart-to-heart. He confessed he made a fool of himself. According to Barney, his recent antics were precipitated by boredom. His wife asked him what he planned to do. In classic Barney fashion, he declared that he become the world’s fastest man, by breaking the land speed record of 127.5 miles per hour, set by a Stanley Steamer in 1906.

To do this, Oldfield needed a new car. He already had a 120-hp Benz. It just was not fast enough at top speeds. But, Barney had heard of the beastly 200-hp Benz that Hémèry used to set some kilometer (as opposed to mile-based) records at Brooklands.

He contacted the Benz representative in America and arranged a deal to trade in his 120-hp Benz and a fat stack of cash ($6,000.00) for the white 21.5 liter Benz.  There was no mistaking his intentions; he arranged for the 200 horsepower racer to be shipped directly to Daytona Beach.  In those days, before folks ran at the Bonneville salt flats, Daytona Beach was flat, smooth, and most importantly it was long.

Soon enough, the Benz arrived in Daytona Beach and the record attempt was scheduled for the local speed carnival (what we might, today, refer to a “speed week”).

The headline was quite literally true, “Barney Oldfield, Speed Kind of the World: Traveled Faster Yesterday Than Human Being Ever Travelled Before.” After a few warmup runs, including one with his wife Bess, Barney was ready to go. He headed down to the starting point, revved his engine, dropped it into gear, and was off. When all was said and done, Oldfield set the *flying mile* record at 131.7 miles per hour.

Following the race, Barney Oldfield:

“I let the great machine have its head, and for fully a third of the distance the wheels were off the ground while I fought for control. The front wheels were shooting up and down in a weird dance, and I knew that if a tire burst, I would be beyond mortal help. I shot through space until all before me became enshrouded in a dark haze and I approached the verge of unconsciousness. Then I shut her down, knowing I had traveled faster than any other human on the face of the earth.”

When news reached Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm personally telegrammed Barney. He wrote, “I congratulate a daring yankee on so remarkable a performance in a German car.” The excitement was short lived. The A.I.A.C.R., the forerunner to the F.I.A., announced that Barney Oldfield’s only ran the car in one direction. To set a speed record, the governing body determined that the record needed to be an average of two runs in opposite directions, to account for wind and gradients. As a result, you cannot find this attempt listed in official land-speed record annals.

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.