Speedboat Kings :
Sir Malcolm Campbell [1939]

Ch.1 The World's Classic - The Harmsworth Trophy
Ch.2 The First Hydroplane - Smith, Ryan & Blackton 1911-12
Ch.3 The Dream Boat-Miss Detroit I - Miss Detroit I & II and the Gold Cups 1915-17
Ch.4 The Teddy Bears in Full Dress - Miss Detroit III and the 1918 Gold Cup
Ch.5 Gar Wood Wins The Harmsworth [1920]
Ch.6 Sheldon Clark, Gar Wood and the 1921 Harmsworth Race
Ch.7 150-Mile Race - Gar Wood and the International Sweepstakes Races 1923-26
Ch.8 The French Challenge - 1926 Harmsworth Trophy
Ch.9 Miss America VI Cracks Up - Barbara Carstairs and the 1928 Harmsworth Trophy Race
Ch.10 Marion Barbara Carstairs - The 1929 and 1930 Harmsworth Races
Ch.11 Segrave Is Killed [1930]
Ch.12 Over 100 Miles an Hour [1931]
Ch.13 Kaye Don - [1931 Harmsworth Trophy Race, Pt.1]
Ch.14 Sinking of Miss England II [1931] - [1931 Harmsworth Trophy Pt.2 & 1932 Water Speed Record Attempt]
Ch.15 Miss America X - 8 Tons of Dynamite [1932]
Ch.16 Johnson Saves The Teddy Bears [1932 Harmsworth Trophy]
Ch.17 Hubert Scott-Paine
Ch.18 Sir Malcolm Campbell [1939]

SINCE 1933 all the world speed honors on water have gone to England.

The reason for that is, first: the light weight and high power of the English engines; second: because the English have cut down the weight of their hulls almost to the suicide border.

That's why Wood told me that night at his Grayhaven home that this Bluebird, owned by Sir Malcolm Campbell, is a "paper" boat; that it could never get around one lap of a Harmsworth course; that it would jump out of water at a fast turn. These boats are built for straightaway runs over the measured mile. England wanted the land and water speed records. She has them now-in spite of Wood. But to get the water record they had to ignore safety; they had to cut down the weight of their boats.

When Campbell first took his Bluebird to Loch Lomond in June, 1937, to attack Wood's world record of 124.86 miles per hour the boat skidded dangerously at seventy miles an hour. On a straightaway run. The second time he went out the boat suddenly cut over to starboard. Campbell was alarmed but helpless. The boat almost tipped. Campbell thought that his steering gear was too low, or that his rudder was too small, or that the water was too rough.

But the real reason was probably his extremely light weight4,500 pounds. It's almost impossible to guide a light metallic boat over the water at high speeds unless you've got a glass-flat path and a course as straight as a die. Even then, it's dangerous. If your engine dies suddenly, the bow will drop and hit the water. Your light stick of metal will be pitched skyward. From there on, your brain or your instinct can't help you. Fate holds your aces and plays your hand.

That very thing happened to Campbell at Lake Maggiore, Italy, in September, 1937, a few days before he set a new world record. According to his readings he was traveling close to 130 miles an hour when suddenly he smelled something burning. In a split moment the Rolls-Royce engine at his back overheated. Bluebird's nose dipped; the boat shot into the air. But here Fate played the cards right. Campbell came down right side up.

The water circulation had failed. The scoop aft of the transom which picked up Campbell's water worked perfectly at one hundred miles an hour. But over that speed Bluebird was up higher on her step. That raised the scoop higher and it didn't pick up the water. The engine spouted fierce jets of steam.

If Campbell's boat had capsized-? Well, that's something else.

Campbell made the next water scoop too long. The terrific pressure of the water bent it out of shape and ripped a piece clear out of the strong, rigid metal transom.

He made several mile runs before he set the record-129.5 miles per hour on September 2, 1937.

One year later, September 17, 1938, he boosted his own mark to 130.91 miles per hour at Lake Hailwil, Switzerland.

Then Campbell built another boat of an entirely new revolutionary design, Bluebird II. It is twenty-seven feet long, built with a concave bottom. The designer departed from the theory of the singlestep hydroplane in designing Campbell's new boat. Instead of the usual step he built stabilizers into each side of the hull.

The boat is powered with a Rolls-Royce i,76o horsepower engine. On August 19, 1939, Campbell took the boat across the measured mile at Lake Coniston, England, at 141.74 miles an hour. After his new world record he said, "I'll go 150. 1 will."

Campbell has his heart set on beating Gar Wood and bringing back to England the British International Trophy.

There are other men who seriously share Campbell's ambitions. One of these is Count Theo Rossi de Montelera, a tall, dark, handsome Italian sportsman, who captained Italy's bob-sled team in the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N. Y., and who won the military cross for distinguished service with the Italian army in Ethiopia.

Count Rossi is a seriously formidable aspirant to the powerboat throne of the world now held by Wood. He has the money to build boats and the influence to get the aircraft engines if they are at all available in Italy. The two engines in his Gold Cup boat, Alagi, powered one of Italo Balbo's planes in the spectacular mass flight from Italy to the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.

Count Rossi won the Gold Cup Trophy in 1938 on the Detroit River with his Alagi in a remarkable performance. Repeated engine disasters and breakdowns have been the chief features of these Gold Cup races ever since 1904 when the contests began. But no boat in Gold Cup history ever gave a finer performance than Count Rossi's Alagi in the three heats of the race in 1938, sailing under the colors of the Detroit Yacht Club. The Italian count was again ready to defend the Gold Cup in 1939 and had already shipped his Alagi to Detroit when the European War intervened and kept him in Italy.

And behind Rossi stands the genius of Guido Cattaneo, famous Italian engineer and speedboat designer. Cattaneo is another aspirant to the Harmsworth throne. He drove his 12-litre boat, Asso, at 85.46 miles per hour in 1934 to a new world class record.

Hubert Scott-Paine, of Southampton, England, is intensely interested in the Harmsworth Trophy and is making plans to build another challenger after the European War is over.

Maurice Vasseur, one of the leading speedboat authorities in France, is stacking his cards with a view to throwing an ace into the next Harmsworth race.

E. A. Wilson, of Ingersol, Ontario, owner of the Miss Canadas, is another Harmsworth aspirant. He won the President's Cup at Washington, D. C., in 1939.

And so it seems that four major countries are converging on Gar Wood in efforts to lift the Trophy. For almost twenty years Wood held all the world records on water. And then, suddenly and dramatically, the European governments began to subsidize the development of aircraft engines. Wood had to use what engines were available in America-engines that had been designed in 1923 by Packard, engines that are now seventeen years old.

With the nation's most skilled engineers and resources of the British Air Ministry behind them, the Rolls-Royce Company, Ltd., developed an engine of from 2,300 to 3,200 horsepower. It is the smallest racing engine for its power in the world. It weighs .71 pounds per horsepower, while the Packard engine weighs 1.28 pounds per horsepower. That is a vast difference in weight. But for every million dollars the English have spent on designing and development, Packard has spent a mere $50,000.

Packard engineers believe that they can yet step up the horsepower of Wood's engines to 2,500 without changing their structure. But the engines would be too heavy for Wood to use. He could never build a light boat for one of those heavy engines. Besides, his horsepower would probably still be below the English horsepower. The English would still have a decided advantage.

The Italians, too, have engines that develop close to 3,000 horsepower.

What is the next step for America, for Wood, for Packard? How are they going to compete with these English and Italian engine designers? How is Wood going to get back the world speed record? How is he going to keep the Harmsworth Trophy? Does Wood feel that the bronze plaque is finally slipping from his fists?

America is not without ideas. And neither is Packard. Engine designing is not the problem. It's money. Who is going to pay for the development of an entirely new American water-cooled engine that can be converted for marine use? Private aircraft engineers have developed light, powerful radial engines. Yes. But radial engines are air-cooled. Wood cannot use them. Colonel Vincent says it would cost several mighty fortunes to develop a new American water-cooled engine for Harmsworth boats. That amount of money necessitates government subsidy, as it has in Europe.

That's why I went to Wood. I wanted to know what his plans are. Certainly, he can't use his Miss America X. That boat is now eight years old. And Wood has never been able to hit 125 miles an hour with that boat since 1932. In the first place it's not the same boat. After the 1932 race, Nap Lisee ripped the sides out of her and put in new siding. Wood's men feared it would never be the same. Before Lisee took the boat apart they told him jokingly to put it into a Paris mould and preserve the mould, just in case.

But Lisee, confident, even cock-sure of his own deftness, broke it down and built it up again. It has never been the same since. Wood took it to Florida during the winter of 1934-35 for an attack upon his own world record. It was off balance and after repeated changes the men could not discover the correct planing angle of the forward step.

The mighty thing now sits in its cradle at Wood's Algonac plant, stripped of her engine power, her once terrible spirit dying like an impoverished ghost of other days, while a boat scarcely more than half her size - Campbell's Bluebird II - has won for England the world speed record.

So what is Wood going to do? It looks like the answer rests with the United States government. Upon the advice of Newton D. Baker, former United States Secretary of War, and Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, the Government has recommended the development of a new water-cooled engine of light weight and high power. It is not likely that many of these new engines have been built. In fact, the details of its construction have not even been divulged but it is believed that it compares favorably with the best engine developed by European engineers.

"And if you can get two of those engines," I asked Wood, "then what?"

Wood smiled and said, "You'd better wait till we get a Harmsworth challenge. Then I'll give you my answer."

I believe, however, that Gar Wood-at sixty years-is still ready to take the wheel of a fragile torpedo and pitch it across the starting line at two and one-half miles a minute. I asked Orlin Johnson what he thought about it. He said, "I hope Mr. Wood builds a boat like that. I sure hope he does. I'd like to handle those new engines."

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.18)

Hydroplane History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at wildturnip@gmail.com
Leslie Field, 2000