Hundred Miles an Hour? [1925]

Having beaten the Twentieth Century limited from Albany to New York and raced and defeated an express train running between Miami, Fla., and Gotham, Gar Wood, famous motorboat racer, has started work on a craft in which he hopes to cross the Atlantic ocean in two days next spring. Six big twelve-cylindered Liberty airplane motors will furnish the motive power, the boat will be steered by gyro-compass, and is expected to develop better than 100 miles an hour, faster than any man has yet ridden the water. The craft will be a flat-bottomed, multiple-step hydroplane 100 feet long, built along the general lines of the Baby Gar I, which beat the crack train from Florida to New York. It will have accommodations for seven people and will carry 3,500 gallons of gasoline while provisions will be made for refueling from a boat stationed in mid-ocean.

If Wood succeeds, he will not only have set a new world's record for boat speed, but will have clipped more than three days from the transatlantic record for the fastest passenger liner. Behind the proposed sprint to Europe is the same motive which prompted the motorboat designer and racer to outrace two fast trains — a desire to popularize motorboating and show that high-speed water craft cannot only get one to his destination quicker, but furnish one of the most thrilling sports in the world for the passenger.

"Why should the railroads be carrying all the passengers ?" he asked following his race down the Hudson in which he beat the crack railroad train of the east by forty-one minutes. "Why shouldn't this great river be utilized? Why not a line of boats capable of a speed of forty to sixty miles :in hour with a nominal fare and a ride such as the kings of the world might envy? It may he done.

"My proposed dash to Europe is to demonstrate conclusively the advance made in power-boat construction in recent years. A boat capable of making 150 miles an hour is not an idle dream."

Gar Wood, one time boy mechanic and a self-made millionaire in his early thirties, has been the world's king of water speed for several years. With Miss America II he successfully defended the Harmsworth trophy, donated by the late Lord Northcliffe, and set a record of 80.567 miles an hour. The boat has been rebuilt for this year's international races, and a new multi-step hydroplane added to his flotilla. Several of his boats have made as high as ninety miles an hour in private trials.

How does it feel to travel ninety miles an hour on the water? The wind resistance seems strong enough to blow off the eyelashes or peel off a layer of skin from the face. Even the old-style single-step hydroplanes, such as the Miss America and the Baby Gar line, lift their bows high in the air, squat down on their sterns and fairly fly over the tops of the waves. With twelve-cylinder Liberty engines roaring and exhaust stacks belching straight up into the air there is no attempt made to muffle the racing boats. They make fully as much noise as a high-speed airplane with open engine.

Wood has been interested in boats since his earliest .childhood — his father was a ferry pilot on a Minnesota lake many years ago — and at the age of thirteen, young Gar broke into the ranks of marine mechanics when he became chauffeur of a government launch at Detroit. The harbor-construction engineers who had been supplied with the outfit could not master the crude new-fangled internal-combustion motor, but the thirteen-year-old boy, who had been building model boats driven by clockwork for several years, took the engine apart, reassembled it, and it ran.

The government engineers let him run their motorboat that summer, and started his interest in gasoline engines. They were just coming in for boats, but were growing common in automobiles, so Wood became an automobile mechanic. As recently as 1912, he was operating a small machine shop in St. Paul and specializing in the repair of small automobiles.

One day he watched a coal truck pull up next door and was all interested spectator while the driver heaved away at a land windlass and slowly elevated the dump body.

"Why don't you get a machine to raise the load for you?" he asked.

The driver explained there wasn't any such thing, and Wood offered to make one. He drew up his plans that night for a hydraulic hoist, to be driven by the truck engine, and submitted the drawing to an expert engineer. "How much lifting pressure to the square inch do you expect to get out of that gear pump?" the expert inquired.

"Enough to lift a load of coal."

"Well, you won't get it. That idea may look all right on paper, but it isn't practical."

Other engineers confirmed this judgment, and a patent attorney declined to handle the papers. The attorney's assistant had more faith in Wood and obtained his patent for him. The first hoist was built, and despite its crudities, developed 350 pounds pressure to the square inch. The owner of the coal truck that had suggested the idea to Wood bought the hoist. A second one was made and showed 500 pounds pressure. Now none leaves the factory until it has been tested at 1,800 pounds.

Word quickly spread through motortruckdom that a young mechanic at St. Paul had a good invention. A truck manufacturer ordered all the hoists that could be made in the St. Paul plant, and in 1914 suggested that the plant be moved to Detroit. That was the start of the Gar Wood fortune, and his present race-boat business. He was only thirty-three years old at the time he established the Detroit factory.

In his St. Paul days he had become interested in fast motorboats, and in 1911 cruised down the Mississippi to Dubuque, Iowa, to attend the regatta of the Mississippi Power Boat association. He met a man who owned a fourteen-foot craft powered with a six-cylinder, two-cycle engine. The boat had lots of speed, when and if it ran at all. Wood volunteered to overhaul the engine and then drove it in a race, winning at thirty miles an hour, quite a record in those days. In 1913, he raced the first boat of his own make at Keokuk, Iowa, and won all events in its class. His racing achievements since that time have become classic.

Gar Wood is not superstitious — he says so himself — but he never goes out in a racing boat without carrying two toy teddy bears as passengers. They have been his mascots for fifteen years. Back in 1910, as Mrs. Wood tells the story, she bought the first teddy as a gift to a friend's child. It cost fifteen cents, at a special sale. When Wood saw the bear he asked for it, so Mrs. Wood went back to buy another. The sale was over and the second bear cost twenty-five cents. Wood claimed it, too, and .the friend's child finally received a drum for a present.

The Wood mascots have become famous in racing circles, and a friendly rival once offered $5,000 for just one of the good-luck bears. Garbed for racing, the two toys appear in suits made for them by Mrs. Wood. In their fifteen years on the water, they have worn out several suits, she says. Each bear wears a tiny cork life preserver of regulation style.

"I'm not superstitious," Wood explains, "but I wouldn't think of racing without those bears for anything in the world. Nearly every time we go out without them something happens. Once we broke a gear box and another time cracked a cylinder."

Wood treats his racing boats with the same care that a Derby winner gets in a racing stable. "You know you have to be just as careful with a racing boat as you are with a race horse," be says. "Before we start a race we go over every inch of our boats to see that they are in the right condition. We measure them to make sure the bull shape hasn't changed. Just a fraction of an inch change in the angularity of the different planes would decrease the boat's speed perhaps as much as ten miles an hour.

"A racer is always removed front the water after a race, carefully sponged out, and placed in the cradle. The engine is covered with a blanket. If we left the boat in the water, the wood would swell and might warp the shape. We don't take chances on anything."

One of the features of the attempt to cross the Atlantic in record-breaking time will be the use of a Sperry gyroscope — known as "Metal Mike" — for steering.

This device automatically holds a boat to the course that has been laid out with less deviation than would be possible with a human helmsman.

(Reprinted from Popular Mechanics, September 1925, pp.361-364)


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, 2001