Speedboat Kings :
The Teddy Bears in Full Dress
Miss Detroit III and the 1918 Gold Cup
When Wood said to me at his Grayhaven home that night [in 1939], "We've been up against this thing before--these 'superior' boats," I asked him what he meant.
Then he told me. Martin and Jack Beebe, of Detroit, built the Whipp-O-Will, Jr., for A. L. Judson, of New York, president of the American Powerboat Association. Judson said, "I'm going to bring the Gold Cup Trophy back East. That's where it belongs-in the East."
And he meant it. Until 1915 the Gold Cup Trophy had always been held in the East. It was regarded as an eastern trophy. And then suddenly, as swift as a modern air raid, the Miss Detroit I thundered East and won the Trophy. For the first time in its history it was taken West. And Detroit still held the coveted prize in 1917. That fact irritated Eastern sportsmen. That's why Judson stepped into the arena.
His Whipp-O-Will, Jr., (built in Detroit), was a twenty-eight footer powered with a twelve-cylinder Van Blerck engine that developed 600horsepower. Judson and Jack Beebe took it to Lake George, N. Y., and on November 6, 1917, put it across the measured mile at 69.39 miles an hour. They boasted that it was the fastest boat afloat. Judson challenged Wood for the Gold Cup.
There were serious doubts in Wood's mind that the Whipp-OWill, Jr., ever hit 69 miles an hour, or even 60 miles an hour. But there was the unofficial record and he had to make his plans to defend the Cup. The only defending boat Wood had was his Miss Detroit II. Wood wanted a better, faster boat.
He talked to several engineers about putting an aeroplane engine in a boat. Marine engines were heavy. Wood wanted a light fast engine on the old theory of light weight per horsepower. The engineers were skeptical, advised against it. They thought it was the creation of a mad brain.
But Wood was stubborn. "If we want speed," he said, "we've got to cut weight."
Wood knew that Glen Curtiss, of the Curtiss Engine Company, had been using an aeroplane engine in his Miss Miami, a boat that had traveled fifty-five miles an hour with an air propeller. Curtiss had been given an order by the British government during the War to build a twelve-cylinder V-type engine of light weight and high power. He built several of these engines. They were all rejected by the British and Curtiss had sustained a tremendous loss.
Commodore C. D. Cutting, a friend of Glen Curtiss, told Wood he thought he could get one of those engines.
Wood said, "Fine. I'll buy it if you can."
Cutting got the engine for Wood. It was shipped to Wood's plant in Detroit.
Through the entire winter Wood worked on it. Before he finished he had increased the propeller revolutions from 1,650 per minute to 2,000. He also decreased the engine weight from 1,320 pounds to 1,250 pounds. That was four hundred pounds less than the weight of the Sterling engines in his Miss Detroit II. Wood, satisfied, told the Smith boys to start work on a new hull.
They climbed into their overalls, rolled tip their sleeves and went to work. They'd done that before, many times. The thing they created was a masterpiece. The Miss Detroit III was made out of seven different kinds of wood, the finest speedboat ever shaped by human hands up to that time. It was built to ride entirely out of water from the bow back to the step.
Wood and Jay Smith took it out on the St. Clair River for its first trial. The single manganese bronze propeller twenty inches across and weighing twenty-five pounds sent the boat over the water at fiftysix miles an hour.
That was not a record. The Miss Minneapolis had already traveled over sixty miles an hour. Also the Miss Detroit II. But nevertheless Wood knew he had something. An aeroplane engine in a boat! It was a long step toward one hundred miles an hour. And Wood knew it.
The news of Wood's experiment in aircraft engines swept over the entire country. The United States government sent a group of officials to the race at Detroit headed by Frank E. Kirby to study Wood's boat for government use during the War. Kirby was a boat expert. He had designed the entire fleet of steamships for the McMillans of the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company.
Now, the three heats of the Gold Cup races are run on the same afternoon. But in 1918 they were run on three consecutive days. That plan gave the engineers an opportunity to tear down the engines, make repairs, and build them up again for each of the following heats.
Wood had two boats entered in the race, his new Miss Detroit III powered with an aeroplane engine, and his Miss Detroit II powered with the swiftly fading marine engine. Gar Wood and Jay Smith piloted the THIRD (meaning the Miss Detroit III), while George Wood, Gar's brother, and Bernard Smith piloted the SECOND. It was the first time that George Wood had ever driven a fast boat in a race.
I asked George Wood one day how it was that, with no experience, he could step into the hydroplane and drive it at open throttle around the treacherous turns of the Detroit River course.
He leaned over to me confidentially and said with sheer modesty, "It's the mechanic. He does the real work. You don't need to know much about driving."
Winfield Wood and Louis Wood, brothers of Gar, were in the cockpit of the Miss Minneapolis.
George Reis, chief petty officer of the United States Naval Reserve Force, was given a furlough by the Navy Department to drive Judson's Whipp-O-Will. Orlin Johnson, an employee of the Van Blerck Engine Company, and James Kneeshaw were his mechanics.
The night before the third and final heat of the race there was a meeting beneath the dim lights of C. Harold Wills' boathouse near Owen Park, Detroit, where the Whipp-O-Will was being torn down to get ready for the final heat. It was a private meeting-Commodore A. L. Judson, president of the American .Powerboat Association; Charles F. Chapman, chairman of the race committee, George Reis, pilot, Jack Beebe, co-builder of the boat with his brother Martin, and Orlin Johnson and James Kneeshaw, mechanics. These men wanted desperately to bring the Gold Cup Trophy back home to New York. But Gar Wood stood in their way. Wood had taken the first two heats of the race with his new Curtiss-engined Miss Detroit III. All Wood needed to do now was to take third place in the third and last heat to win on points and keep the Trophy. But he had to finish third.
Johnson and Kneeshaw were grinding valves; Reis was looking into the cylinder block beside them; Judson was talking. "We have one more heat, fellows," he was saying. "And a chance to get the Trophy if Wood cripples his boat (meaning Miss Detroit III). The way to cripple it is to make him open up his throttles and keep them open. It'll smash his skinny boat to pieces. Our boat is heavier, stronger. It can stand it. Wood's can't. Keep crowding him all the time."
The men kept working swiftly against time. Judson and Chapman walked out.
But Gar Wood had other ideas. Up the river a little farther ten men were tearing down Wood's two engines, grinding valves, checking water and oil lines, and going over every detail of the ignition system. George Wood and Bernard Smith racing the Miss Detroit II at open throttle in both heats had already wrecked two engines in two days. After the second engine was wrecked Wood sent a fast truck to Algonac, forty miles up the river, to bring down another engine. It had just arrived and the men were overhauling it.
Mrs. Wood was there, too, working. Gar Wood and Jay Smith had been burned badly that day when the flames of the Curtiss engine shot out of the exhaust stacks in front of them as they were roaring down the backstretch of the course. She nursed their burns, bandaged Smith's fingers, kept black coffee boiling in the pot to keep the men awake.
Gar Wood turned to George, his brother, driver of the SECOND. "Tomorrow, George," he said, "take your boat across the line first and keep it there till it smashes up. We'll be back of you to pick you up. All Jay and I need to do to win is to take third place. We'll take it easy and save our boat."
That may sound strange for Wood to tell his brother to do that. But to those who know these men it isn't strange. George Wood and Bernard Smith would keep their boat up there anyway. They had a secret plan between them to beat Gar Wood and his new boat if they could. But in the first heat, in the lead, with their engine burning at white heat under the strain of open throttle, the crankshaft broke. The boat was crippled. In the second heat a connecting rod drove through the crankcase. The boat caught fire. George Wood was just getting ready to leap into the river when Bernard Smith held him down, calmly picked up the fire extinguisher and put out the flames.
That's the way these men are, Wood's men. They're speed crazy. They wouldn't let Gar Wood himself take a buoy ahead of them if they could help it.
The third heat was run just as Wood had planned. The SECOND went across the line first; the Whipp-O-Will following. On the second lap the SECOND and the Whipp-O-Will came into the west turn bow to bow, with only two feet of water between them. George Wood was frightened, desperate. His hands tight on the wheel of the SECOND, he didn't know what to do. How could two boats get into that sharp turn at full throttle without an accident?
He didn't have time to think it all out. Bernard Smith, with one hand holding out the throttle and the other steadying the wheel for George, put the boat around on her heels and guided it to the inside track. It was a swift piece of snap judgment and uncanny mastery. The SECOND went into the straightaway in the lead. But in a moment a connecting rod snapped and tore through the cylinder head. The boat gave a tremendous shudder, died. It was towed off the course.
Meanwhile, the Whipp-O-Will had taken fire near the Belle Isle Bridge. Johnson and Kneeshaw worked furiously putting out the flames. The boat shot ahead again and went on to finish the heat in first place.
Miss Minneapolis finished second; Gar Wood finished third. The Gold Cup Trophy was safe for another year.
Gar Wood's friends asked him after the race how fast the THIRD was traveling down that backstretch of the course. They saw that it had shown tremendous bursts of speed in spots.
"At times," Wood said, "we were hitting seventy miles an hour."
The success of Wood's experiment with aircraft engines had tremendous results all over the country.
Sportsmen began to buy aircraft engines for marine use. Among those who became interested was Carl Fisher. He had money, sporting blood, the engineering mind. When he left the bicycle business he had made a fortune in Prest-O-Lite. He built the Indianapolis Speedway, experimented with engines at his Indianapolis plant, the Allison Engineering Company.
Fisher knew that the United States government had purchased a number of aeroplane engines in Europe and had them shipped here to study engine development. He called Wood on the phone from Indianapolis suggesting that they form a company to buy some of those engines from the government.
Wood agreed. We formed the Detroit Marine-Aero Engine Company. The writer [J. Lee Barrett] was appointed manager. Jay Smith was given charge of technical development. We purchased from the government: 600Fiats (Italian), 100 Benz, (German), 200 Mercedes (German), 100 Libertys (American) and 50 Beardman (English.).
Within a very few years almost every high-powered raceboat in the country was powered with aircraft engines. Gar Wood had made history.
And also Gar Wood had made enemies. The enemies were obviously the marine engine manufacturers. Aircraft engines for boats was a very warm subject with them. It became so warm that they ruled Wood's winning boats out of two races for the Fisher-Allison Trophy. They said, "You've got an aeroplane engine in that boat and the rules call for a marine engine."
Wood said with some heat, "If an aeroplane engine runs a boat all right that makes it a marine engine, doesn't it? Please tell me what a marine engine is. I'm looking for someone who can define it."
Wood's point was this: if an engine is constructed to develop 300 horsepower-and the power can be properly developed-it becomes a marine, automobile, aeroplane or stationary engine, depending upon where you apply the power.
The stormy battle went on for a year. But finally those who ran the Fisher-Allison Trophy event saw Wood's point. They said, "All right, Gar. We'll change the deed of gift and let you enter your aeroplane engines. But you've got to cut them down to 1,060 cubic inch piston displacement."
And Wood did. But someone told Wood that his boats were not gentleman runabouts. "No gentleman would ever ride in one of those boats," was the remark.
Wood went back to Algonac and built five boats before he had one that qualified. Finally in 1924 he took his Baby Gar IV, powered with the restricted Liberty engine, to Buffalo for the Fisher-Allison Trophy Race. Dinning in his ears was that fatal remark about "gentleman's runabouts." He and Orlin Johnson, his mechanic, appeared at the judges' stand in full, formal evening dress, sitting in the cockpit of their boat-silk hats, swallow tails, white gloves, patent leather shoes, everything for formal wear. Even the two Teddy Bears were in evening dress. They won the race. Wood and Johnson climbed out of their boat as dry, as clean, as completely ready for a formal affair as they had been at the starting gun. "Why, this is a gentleman's boat," Wood said. "Milady may ride in it clad in a snow white outfit without danger of a spot of oil or grease."
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.4)
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