Vingt-et-Un II

Vingt-et-Un . . . . The First Auto Boat
By William K. Anderson

In the record of winners of the American Power Boat Association's famous Gold Cup, the second entry will be found to read as follows:




Columbia Y. C.



Winning Boat

Vingt-et-Un II


W. Sharpe Kilmer





Time Best Heat


Best Heat Speed M.P.H.


As is the case with so many of these cryptic lines in the record books of various sports, there is a story behind that condensed record, worthy of being perpetuated. Here is that story, as nearly as it can be recovered almost fifty years later, from records, press notices, souvenirs, and the memory of one of the main actors in the event.

About the turn of the century, two young men from New York decided to enter the infant automobile industry. Their names were A. D. Proctor Smith and Carlton R. Mabley, brothers-in-law; together they formed the Smith-Mabley Corporation.

While so many were scoffing at the idea of pulling a wagon with that noisy stinking, temperamental contraption known as a gasoline engine, they, with a few other pioneers, had unbounded faith in the future of the automobile industry.

In addition to faith in the future of the industry, they had a theory that was to control all of their initial steps in establishing themselves.

At that time scientists, engineers and mechanics in Europe were a rather long jump ahead of the men in this country, who were trying to develop and manufacture automobiles.

It was a Smith-Mabley theory that the ultimate goal of being able to manufacture and sell a thoroughly reliable automobile would be reached quicker if the European product and method of manufacture and service were studied in detail, as a first step toward this end.

To this end Carlton Mabley toured Europe and, after inspection, the various automobile plants, secured the exclusive American rights to sell and service several of the European cars. Within a short time Smith-Mabley, Inc., became the largest importers and dealers of European automobiles in America.

As a result of servicing these cars, they soon became familiar with all the strengths and weaknesses of the product. Perhaps of equal importance, they were building up an organization of salesmen and mechanics familiar with all angles of this new business. At that time their place of business was located at 7th Avenue and 38th Street in New York City.

The second step in their progress took place when they set up a shop to manufacture many of the replacement parts on which deliveries from Europe were slow. Not content merely to duplicate these items, they sought to correct or improve the design of parts that were failing in service. Work along these lines led to the production of better metals in America.

The third step in their progress occurred when they placed on the market their own design and manufacture of automobile, which they named the Simplex. Many old-timers will remember the Simplex as one of the highest quality, and most reliable, cars of its day.

Now, even prior to the development of the automobile for transportation on land, engine-driven boats were being built for transportation by water. The earliest were essentially the regular sailing hulls, or modifications thereof, powered with steam engines.

Gradually a distinctive hull form, and small, highly efficient (for the time), steam engines and boilers were developed, for individual and sporting use.

Naphtha launches had their brief and hazardous day toward the close of the steam-powered boat age. Internal combustion engines were applied to boats almost as soon as they were developed for industrial uses, and this event marks the birth of motor boats. The engines of early motor boats, being adaptations of industrial engines, were of excessive weight for the horsepower developed, and were installed in heavy, staunchly constructed hulls. Early automobile engines were not of sufficient power or reliability to push the heavily constructed hulls then being used.

For the first of the Simplex automobiles, Smith-Mabley, Inc., had developed a comparatively small, lightweight (400-pound), four-cylinder, high speed engine that developed 21 brake horsepower. Seeking to impress the reliability of the Simplex engine upon the mind of the public, as well as to open a new market for their product, SmithMabley decided to install one of their engines in a boat that could compete in races then becoming popular.

It was characteristic of their forward thinking that they conceived and built an entirely new type of boat. Their hull, which was 30 feet long by 3 feet 10 inches beam, drew only 7 inches of water and weighed only 390 pounds. It was built of 5/16-inch mahogany over ¼-inch ribs, by Tom Fearon, a builder of rowing shells. Although extremely light, the hull was amply strong to carry its 400 pound engine, 25 gallons of gasoline and eight passengers.

Because of the 21 horsepower engine, and probably influenced by Smith-Mabley's close commercial connection with automobile makers in France, the boat was named Vingt-et-Un, which is "twenty-one" in the French language.

The impact of this boat upon the public can best be shown by quoting from an article by Duncan Curry that appeared in the New York American for Friday, November 6, 1903, under a two-column heading, as follows:

30-foot Vingt-et-Un Flies Over a Measured Mile on the Hudson in 2:26"

"Like the flight of a canvasback duck homeward bound, a tiny 30-foot launch called Vingt-et-Un, fitted with a 21-horsepower automobile high speed engine, flew over a measured mile on the Hudson River near Glenwood yesterday in the astonishingly fast time of 2 minutes 26 seconds, or at the rate of 24½ miles per hour.

"Among the more modern high-powered launches, the Adios and Standard in America, and the Napier and Mercedes boats abroad, have developed a slightly higher speed, but they, too, are much larger boats and develop from two to five times as much horsepower.

"She starts like a bullet from a gun, and even at top speed only a little ribbon of brownish green spray at her quarter and a yeasty bit of foam at her wake mark her passage through the water."

The Commercial Advertiser of the same date carried the following:

"Auto boats will be popular. The season of 1904 promises great activity in the new field. Yesterday afternoon a demonstration was given at Yonkers of the speed and utility of an auto boat. The Vingt-et-Un, a trim little craft of 770 pounds weight, developing 21-horsepower, was sent through the water a mile in 2:26, a speed considered most remarkable. The best previous mile for the little craft was 3 minutes. The boat is the property of Smith & Mabley, the builders. It was handled by A. D. Proctor-Smith, who controlled the boat with levers just as an automobile is controlled. The boat is supplied with a four-cylinder motor, and carries sufficient gasoline for 300 miles of traveling Clinton H. Crane of Tams, Le moyne & Crane, designed the Vingt-et-Un for Smith-Mabley, Thomas Fearon of Yonkers doing the construction work for the firm."

With nearly 500,000 registered motorboats in the country today, we believe the first sentence of the above article might be considered a reasonably accurate prediction.

For the 1904 season Smith-Mabley, Inc. built a new, larger and faster boat—Vingt-et-Un II. The new boat was 38 feet 9 inches in length, 4 feet 7 inches beam, 11 inches mean draft, and weighed 3,850 pounds. It was powered with the new and larger engine then available in Simplex automobiles. This 4-cylinder engine of 6¼-inch bore by 6¾-inch stroke, developed 68 brake horsepower at 850 r.p.m.

Vingt-et-Un II was unbeatable during the 1904 season. On June 27-28 she won the Amateur Challenge Trophy at the Larchmont Yacht Club. On July 4 she took first honors at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. On August 18 she took first prize at the New York Yacht Club's Newport Series.

The rules of the first race for the APBA Gold Cup, held early in 1904, excluded light boats of the Vingt-et-Un type. This race was won by C. C. Riotte, with the Standard, at 23.6 m.p.h.

So much discussion of the merits of the old heavy type boats versus the new and lighter types followed, that it was decided to hold a second race during 1904 open to both types.

W. Sharpe Kilmer, of the Swamp-Root Tonic family, had purchased Vingt-et-Un II at the height of her racing successes, and entered her in the second Gold Cup Race of 1904, which she won without difficulty.

The Vingt-et-Un boats built by Smith-Mabley, Inc., were the first step away from the heavy hull and heavy engine types which preceded them, and pointed the way for the light planing types of hulls which followed some time later. Vingt-et-Un may well claim the title of being the first of the auto-boats.

An honor that Smith-Mabley just missed was that of being the first Americans to win the Harmsworth International Trophy. They had designed and built America's first automobile type straight eight engine. One of these engines of 150 horsepower was installed in a Vingt-et-Un type hull named Challenger, and shipped to England for the 1904 Harmsworth Races.

Only ineptness of the mechanic in failing to clear minor ignition trouble prevented Challenger from sweeping the series. England, with Napier II and Napier Minor, retained the trophy at a speed considerably less than that of which Challenger was capable.

(Reprinted from Motor Boating, August 1951)

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