The image of a mechanical engineer playing with a car from the 1920s will conjure up images of a comical burst of teenage enthusiasm. By the start of WW2, though, Ford’s Brenham brothers had grown up. Over the following two decades, the pair trained tirelessly, cracking patterns, figuring out stability controls and developing systems from scratch.
Their output exceeded even that of competitor companies, with Team Brenham Racing, or The Brenhams, creating entirely novel technologies that, in turn, transformed the company.
Ford Credit / Getty Images
“All of the Brenham guys had to play in order to win,” explains Hector Bender, whose 1947 addition to the team won him the championship in 1948 and 1949. “If you were weak, you were out.”
The driver, Richard “Dickie” Hodges, and coach were used for the “hobbyist” races to raise money. But for the bigger races, teams like Team Brenham would build elaborate cars out of parts available to the average motorist.
Start them off with a 6-cylinder engine, add a 350-lb transmission, add a 3.5-liter-low-speed transmission, and add in some additions: a sport suspension, manual shifting, a 4-cylinder undercarriage, and, of course, a Ford motor. The result was an affordable performance car – a Hot Rod Before Its Time.
“If you look back at the old Ford commercials, they used pictures of a pickup truck which was capable of doing all the things a car could do,” Bender explains. “But the pickup was so broad it might have never been considered for a performance purpose.” By comparison, the Model A racer was highly configurable. It was also covered in sheet metal and could also be dismantled to form a heavyweight pickup. With 400 hp, the Brenham was powerful, lightweight, and had a low center of gravity. “Ford only made the Model A on one size,” Bender says. “They never made bigger models.”
The Bensham became a massive hit. In 1948, hundreds of thousands of customers snapped them up. “In those days, Ford cars just couldn’t sell themselves,” Bender says. “[The Bensham] is probably the most important Ford car of all time.”
Team Brenham Racing. For auction on eBay, Sept. 5, 2018
The Brenham made Hot Rods like never before. From an overseas dealer, you could lease one, drive it and have it ready at your destination, rather than wait for it to arrive in the mail. Fun was perfunctory. “The popularity of the Model A just snowballed,” Bender says. “There was no waiting period at all for the owners.”
The Brenham and its successor, the Ford Ranger R, were among the best-selling vehicles in North America. But the Ford field changed drastically. New cars were mass-produced with fully covered underbodies, and the Model A sold less quickly as a result. By 1957, the Model A had fallen out of favour completely.
But Bender and his Brenham counterparts kept trying. They entered into talks with Robert Francis, founder of Chrysler. By 1959, Francois “Tommy” Bolt Lees from Speed magazine, publisher of the famed Hot Rods issue, came to find them. He was looking for work, and he would introduce Bender and his teammates to wealthy customers. In 1959, all four Brenham cars entered in the Hot Rod Rally had sold out.
Ford Credit / Getty Images
One man took particular notice. There was an interesting connection to the VWs. During the Berlin Wall era, Beetles had found use as “secretary cars” for high-ranking Nazi officials to stay on the right side of the Wall. Seyfert Arndt was a very rich and influential German businessman, and he and his family were itching to buy a way to get around the situation. Arndt suggested using a Model A and managed to get one of Bender and the rest of Team Brenham’s cars, along with his wife’s 1938 Chaplin, for sale. The family bought the Brenhams and sold the Chaplin in January, 1959, for $110,000.