Propriders : The First Generation
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
Three-point hydroplanes became popular in he late 1930s. They rode on two pontoon-like running surfaces called sponsons and a completely submerged propeller.
It was only a matter of time before someone developed a three-pointer that would "propride" with a propeller that was only partially submerged.
The taildraggers didn't kick up very much in the way of a roostertail. The non-propriders also had considerably more wetted surface area than the boats with surface propellers.
When a three-point proprider is up on plane and "flying", it is riding on an area that is roughly equivalent to the size of a man's handkerchief. The non-propriders basically plowed along, reacting to the water rather than finessing their way over it.
No one knew much about propriding before World War II. But that tendency was noticed in at least one craft, the Mercury, owned by Marion Cooper, a participant in the 1939 APBA Gold Cup at Detroit. The propeller wanted to jump free of the water. This was unheard of at the time. So the crew shifted the weight backward in order to keep the propeller under water. But this was the wrong thing to do.
After the war, the Gold Cup Class became the Unlimited Class. This was to take advantage of the huge supply of war surplus Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, intended for use in WW II fighter aircraft.
The first boat to be built with an Allison engine in mind was Miss Golden Gate III, a three-point hydroplane, designed and driven by Dan Arena. At the 1946 Gold Cup on the Detroit River, Miss Golden Gate III set a competition lap record of 77.911 miles per hour.
After experiencing mechanical difficulty in the first two heats, Arena was too far behind to have any chance at winning. Dan nevertheless decided to go all out in Heat Three, just to see what the boat could do.
The race in those days, consisted of three heats of 30 miles each. A heat was ten times around a 3-mile course.
Miss Golden Gate III thundered into the lead and left the overall winners, Guy Lombardo and Tempo VI, far astern. Before blowing an engine on lap ten, Arena ushered in a new era of speed in Gold Cup racing.
The boat was a handful to drive. The Allison was much too powerful for a 26½-foot hull. But Arena noticed something about his wild-riding juggernaut. It was trying to propride! The craft could only sustain this action for a few seconds at a time, but the tendency was definitely there.
Throughout the late 1940s, a number of teams experimented with propriding in the Unlimited ranks. But the concept didn't reach fruition until Slo-mo-shun IV arrived on the scene in 1950.
Designed by Ted Jones, Slo-mo raised the mile straightaway record by nearly 20 miles per hour. The IV caught the racing world by surprise when she posted an average speed of 160.323 on Seattle's Lake Washington.
Slo-mo-shun IV won all three heats of the 1950 Detroit Gold Cup with Jones driving and lapped the entire field in Heat One. Later, in the Harmsworth Trophy at Detroit with Lou Fageol driving, Slo-mo IV turned the first heat ever at over 100 MPH with an average of 100.680 in Heat Two. Slo-mo-shun IV was not the first three-point proprider in the Unlimited Class. But she was the first to achieve championship results in the application of the concept.
Following the success of Slo-mo, other teams embraced the propriding principle. No fewer than three propriders were built for 1951: the Stan Sayres-owned Slo-mo-shun V, Horace Dodge's Hornet, and Joe Schoenith's Gale II.
A number of teams tried to modify existing taildraggers into propriders, but they were largely unsuccessful. The closest that any of these ever came to winning a major race was Morlan Visel's Hurricane IV, which would have won the 1952 APBA Gold Cup at Seattle if she had been able to finish the 90 miles.
As the 1950s progressed, about the only non-propriders to run competitively with the propriders were the Dossin brothers' Miss Pepsi and Dodge's Dora My Sweetie. The latter, a two-step hydroplane, won the 1954 Detroit Silver Cup with Jack Bartlow driving. Miss Pepsi was a three-step hydro, 36 feet of mahogany, and the only boat to ever do justice to twin-Allison power. With Chuck Thompson driving, Miss Pepsi was National High Point Champion in 1951 and 1952.
Slo-mo-shun V was a winner right out of the box. Designed by Jones and driven by Fageol, she dominated the 1951 APBA Gold Cup at Seattle and became the first boat to run a lap of 108 miles per hour in competition on a 3-mile course. Slo-mo V repeated as Gold Cup champion in 1954 and also claimed the 1953 President's Cup in Washington, D.C. After starting her career with Allison power, Slo-mo-shun V switched to a Rolls-Royce Merlin and became the first Gold Cup winner to be so equipped.
Hornet appeared to have a lot going for her. With Bill Cantrell and Danny Foster taking turns at the wheel, she finished second to Slo-mo-shun V in the 1951 Gold Cup. Later in the season, Hornet took third at the President's Cup with Foster. The boat was handicapped by an ill-fitting gearbox, which had formerly been used in Delphine X, a failed twin-Allison-powered step hydroplane. But Hornet's main problem was owner Horace Dodge, Jr., who never liked the three-point design. He retired Hornet after the 1951 season and never campaigned her again.
Gale II was the first of a trio of successful propriders designed by Dan Arena in the early 1950s. (The other two were Miss Great Lake II and Miss U.S.) All three were rather unusual in that they featured a distinctly flatter profile than was usual at the time. This was a design feature that Arena carried over from his unsuccessful Such Crust II of 1949. The low-profile configuration did not gain wide acceptance in the Unlimited Class until the late 1960s. For approximately the first seventeen years of the propriding era, most hulls were built narrow and rather box-shaped.
Gale II owner Schoenith had debuted in the sport in 1950 with the obsolete Gale I, a step hydroplane that had seen its better days. With Gale II, Joe and his son Lee had a competitive rig. In 1951, they finished third in the Maple Leaf Trophy, second in the Detroit Memorial Regatta, and second in the President's Cup with Lee Schoenith driving.
Danny Foster occupied the Gale II cockpit during 1952 while Lee was away in the military service. Foster finished first in the Silver Cup and third in the President's Cup. Gale II thus became the first non-Slo-mo proprider to win a race.
Lee Schoenith was back in 1953. He and Gale II emerged as High Point Champions after finishing third in the Detroit Memorial, second in the APBA Gold Cup, first in the Silver Cup, and second in the Imperial Gold Cup.
Lee needed help from his friend Foster at the Silver Cup. Schoenith was having a bad day and relinquished the wheel of Gale II to Danny for Heat Two. Lee complained that the bucket seat wasn't snug enough. During Heat One, Schoenith had almost fallen out of the boat. Foster remedied the problem by borrowing the seat from out of the Miss Great Lakes II, Danny's regular ride, which was out of the race. He installed this seat in the Gale II and then went out and won Heat Two. Schoenith reclaimed the wheel for Heat Three and went on to win the race.
Three new propriders appeared in 1952: Albin Fallon's Miss Great Lakes II, and Jack Schafer's Such Crust III and Such Crust IV. Of these, only the Great Lakes returned in 1953.
Such Crust III, a twin-Allison craft, performed badly from the outset, although she managed a third at the Silver Cup with Walt Kade driving.
Such Crust IV resembled Slo-mo-shun IV. She finished third in her first race, the Detroit Memorial Regatta, with Bill Cantrell driving. Then she exploded and burned to the waterline at the Gold Cup. Cantrell was pulled unconscious from the flaming wreck and spent six weeks recuperating in a Seattle hospital.
For the balance of 1952, owner Schafer borrowed Dodge's Hornet, renamed it Hornet-Crust, and installed the burned-out Such Crust IV's equipment. Hornet-Crust finished second in the Silver Cup with Lou Fageol driving and fourth in the President's Cup with Jack Bartlow.
Miss Great Lakes II replaced the original Miss Great Lakes, which Bill Muncey had sunk to the bottom of the Detroit River during the 1950 Silver Cup. Miss Great Lakes II finished second at each of the Maple Leaf Trophy, Detroit Memorial, and President's Cup races during 1952 with Joe Taggart in the cockpit.
With Danny Foster at the wheel, Miss Great Lakes II scored a victory in the 1953 Detroit Memorial . Foster won all three heats over second-place Cantrell and Such Crust V.
By 1953, the proprider transition was largely complete. Propriders won all of the major races. And only one taildragger (Miss Wayne I) finished in the top five at any of the races that counted for National High Points.
No fewer than four new propriders were built in 1953: Gale III, Miss U.S., Such Crust V, and a second Such Crust III.
Gale III was designed by crew member Lyle Ritchie and resembled the Slo-mo-shun design. But Gale III differed from the Slo-mo boats in a number of significant ways. Although powered by a single Allison, it utilized twin propellers that turned through a gearbox reported to cost in the five digits.
The Schoenith team tinkered with Gale III off and on for several years. But it never performed to their satisfaction and was ultimately abandoned. In fact, they never entered it in even a single heat of competition!
Miss U.S. took a while to be "dialed in." But once that was accomplished, she performed extremely well. With owner George Simon driving, Miss U.S. took a surprising second in the 1954 APBA Gold Cup. Heat Two of that race on Lake Washington is remembered as one of the great three-boat duels in hydroplane history. For seven of eight laps on a 3.75-mile course, Slo-mo-shun V, Miss U.S., and Slo-mo-shun IV ran deck-to-deck. For better than 25 miles, the trio shared the same roostertail. It was boat racing at its best.
In later years, Miss U.S. won the 1955 Rogers Memorial Trophy at Washington, D.C., with Jack Bartlow driving and the 1956 Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison with Fred Alter.
The new Miss U.S. I of 1957 was a line-for-line hull duplicate of the 1953 Miss U.S.. The replacement boat went on to set the world straightaway record of 200.419 in 1962 with Roy Duby driving that still stands.
Jack Schafer, for the second year in a row, ordered two new hulls for his Such Crust team from builder Les Staudacher in 1953. These were Such Crust V, a single Allison craft, to replace the burned-out Such Crust IV, and a second twin Allison Such Crust III.
Schafer went all out for the National Championship. With Cantrell driving, Such Crust V finished runner-up to Gale II in National High Points after taking second in the Detroit Memorial, third in the President's Cup, and first in the Imperial Gold Cup. Such Crust III with Chuck Thompson at the wheel took third in National Points after finishing third in the APBA Gold Cup, second in the Silver Cup, and second in the President's Cup.
The Schafer team's accomplishment was one of the better examples of a two-boat operation in the history of the Unlimited Class. The Such Crust III/Such Crust V combination compared favorably to the Gale IV/Gale V record in 1954, the Shanty I/Maverick performance in 1957, and the Nitrogen/Nitrogen Too effort in 1960.
Schafer, unfortunately, was unable to capitalize on the momentum of his successful 1953 season. After buying four new boats in two years, the sponsoring Schafer Bakery went bankrupt and missed the 1954 campaign entirely.
Such Crust V was sold and ran under a succession of names, including Miss Detroit and Muvalong. Her best finish in the post-Schafer years was a third place in the 1962 Harrah's Tahoe Trophy as Morlan Visel's Hurricane VI.
Such Crust III returned to action in 1955 and won the International Trophy at St. Clair, Michigan, with Walt Kade driving. The III was also the fastest 1956 Gold Cup qualifier and won the 1957 Detroit Memorial with Fred Alter in the cockpit.
By the middle 1950s, the boats with surface propellers were irrevocably ensconced. Even the ever-formidable Miss Pepsi had trouble staying competitive with the smaller, lighter, single Allison-powered propriders. By 1957, the taildraggers were completely out of the ball game.
The advent of the propriders did have one negative impact on Unlimited racing. Following the success of Slo-mo-shun IV, the number of participating boats dropped sharply. Whereas 29 registrants appeared in 1948, only 16 showed up in 1952. This indicated a decline of 44 percent.
One of the biggest boat building booms in the history of the sport had occurred between 1948 and 1950. That's when more than thirty Thunderboats were constructed. But the vast majority faded quickly into obscurity following the record performances of Slo-mo.
Not to worry, it wasn't long before the propriders had sufficient numbers to more than offset the temporary decline. Indeed, the 1956 boat count was an unprecedented 31, followed by an all-time high of 33 in 1957.
That first generation of propriding three-pointers established an important precedent. Those trend-setting boats provided the basic set-up that, heavily modified, continues in competition to this day.
The Unlimited hydroplanes of today, at first glance, have little in common with their predecessors of the early 1950s. Contemporary hulls use turbine power, are much more streamlined, and run faster. Gone are the primitive two-bladed props that cost a few hundred dollars. In their place are the three-bladed technological marvels that cost many thousands of dollars.
But once out on the race course, when those impressive roostertails leap skyward, the Thunderboats of today become one with all of the great propriders of the past. The tradition lives on.
© Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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