The Wilsons and the Miss Canadas
By David Greene
Current followers of Unlimited Racing may have the impression that the Budweiser Team was the first to use a Rolls Griffon engine in a race boat. However the first use of this engine took place over 30 years ago in a hydroplane specifically designed for the Harmsworth Trophy - then the international world series of motorboat racing. The boat was known as the Miss Canada IV and was owned by the Wilson family of Ingersoll, Ontario.
More dated fans of the Unlimiteds generally consider the Slo-mo-shun V as the first significant hydro to utilize the Rolls Merlin engine. This general impression is again wrong when the victory of the Rolls Merlin-powered Miss Canada III is noted in the 1948 Silver Cup at Detroit, Michigan. The Miss Canada III was the second Gold Cupper owned by the Wilsons and followed their initial challenger for the Gold Cup Miss Canada II, which was built in 1936.
Ernest A. Wilson was the patriarch of the family and was a well known Canadian sportsman of the middle thirties. Mr. Wilson, at the time, was the President of Greavette Boats Ltd. (which constructed his race boats) and the Ingersoll Machine and Tool Company (that was responsible for building the gear boxes of his various boats) as well as the John Morrow Screw and Nut Company. Mr. Wilson teamed with his son Harold who was the driver of the Miss Canadas from 1936 until their final race in the 1950 Harmsworth Regatta. In the early years of his driving career Harold took his fiancée Lorna Reid, who later become his wife, along as his riding mechanic.
The first race for the Wilsons was at picturesque Lake George for the 1936 Gold Cup. Unfortunately the Miss Canada II arrived at the upstate New York lake in an untried condition having been launched the morning of the race. Miss Canada II along with three of the other six boats that showed up for the race spent the entire content on the beach to provide race fans with probably the least competitive Gold Cup of all time.
The next competition for Miss Canada II took place two months after the Gold Cup in the September, 1936 President's Cup. The G-6 ran back in the pack in the initial two heats of the race and failed to start the final heat.
After getting their feet wet in 1936, the Wilsons prepared intently for the 1937 Labor Day Gold Cup at Detroit. Miss Canada II was impressive in the first heat, setting a Gold Cup lap record, but finished nearly a minute behind the Note Dame, which ultimately won the race. Rudder trouble forced the Canada to the sideline for the balance of the match. This was the final contest for the Miss Canada II as the Wilsons planned a new boat for 1938. The Miss Canada II was built by the Greavette Boat Company and was 26 feet long with a 7-1/2 foot beam. A V-12 Miller engine powered the hull. Harry Miller designed and built this engine for Ernest Wilson in 1936. The II's hull design was by John L. Hacker.
Miss Canada III was designed by Douglas Van Patten and was built by Tom Greavette. The hull was one foot shorter at 25 feet and half a foot narrower at seven feet than the Miss Canada II. A 723 cube Miller engine again provided the power. Both the III and the II were low profile step boats, a design first popularized by the 1935 Notre Dame of Herb Mendelson, the father of Shirley McDonald.
The 1938 Gold Cup was again scheduled for the Labor Day weekend in Detroit. The new Miss Canada III was an immediate success in leading the first heat in a close battle with Count Rossi's Alagi for over two laps. Unfortunately near the end of the third lap, the Miss Canada III began smoking badly and was compelled to withdrew from the heat due to the failure of an oil scavenger pump. In spite of intense efforts to perfect the engine, oil pump trouble continued to plague the Miss Canada, causing her to slog around behind the second place Miss Golden Gate of young Californians Dan Arena and Danny Foster during the second and third heats. Nevertheless the reputation of the Miss Canada III had been made and the boat was installed as the pre-race favorite for the 1939 Gold Cup.
Again the Cup was scheduled for Detroit on the Labor Day weekend. Also once more the Miss Canada III got out in front for several laps of the first heat, but at the finish another boat got the checkered flag for the heat and then for the race. In 1939 the problem was supercharger trouble, a difficulty that would characterize the balance of Miss Canada's career. The G-8 failed to start the second heat and experienced continuing problems in the final heat.
Unlike 1937 and 1938, the Canada team decided to go to Washington for the 1939 President's Cup. In order to make the race, the Miss Canada III crew had to work frantically at Detroit to rebuild the failed supercharger. They completed their task just 48 hours before the first heat of the President's Cup. There was only time to load the craft on the trailer and head for Washington. The Miss Canada III pulled into the pits just hours before the first heat.
In the first heat the Canadian entry started slowly, but after a few laps Harold Wilson started to pour the coal to the G-8. Miss Canada III reduced the Notre Dame's lead by five seconds a lap until on the final turn the two contenders were virtually even. At the finish Notre Dame had just a little more and took the heat. Nevertheless in the following heats the Miss Canada decisively defeated the Notre Dame to become the first Canadian boat to win a major American trophy.
Shortly before the 1939 Gold Cup, war clouds spread over Europe on the Germans invaded Poland. After a winter in which the feeling was current that this would be the extent of German ambitions, Hitler suddenly turned an France and Great Britain in the spring of 1940. In the wake of the preservation of the mother country's army by evacuation at Dunkerque, Harold and Ernest Wilson decided to abandon speedboat racing for the duration. War time shortages shut down the American boats in 1941 and it was not until September, 1946 that the Miss Canada III saw her next competition.
In the winter of 1939, the Miss Canada III was considered the premier boat in Gold Cup racing. She was a beautiful, smooth riding hull that was generally in first place when running. This was the main reservation about the Miss Canada team since they had only finished one of the six races that they attended in the pro war era. Nevertheless after the 1939 President's Cup it was felt that the Miss Canada had finally fulfilled the promise that had been predicted for her since her initial contest - the 1938 Gold Cup.
As the 1946 Gold Cup, which had again been scheduled for Labor Day at Detroit, approached the Miss Canada III became an odds on favorite to take the Cup. The Notre Dame had been withhold from competition by her owner Herb Mendelson and the other leading boat of the pro war era, My Sin, had been sold to Guy Lombardo, who had only raced limiteds prior to 1946.
For the first five laps of heat 1-A, the pre-race prognostications held and the smooth running Miss Canada III easily led the now-Allison-powered Miss Golden Gate III of Dan Arena. Then suddenly in the sixth lap the Canada come to a stop due to supercharger trouble. This put the Miss Canada out for the day and made the third consecutive Gold Cup in which the Wilsons showed well in the first heat only to come to grief an other steadier boats went on to take this most prestigious trophy.
In the President's Cup of 1946, the Miss Canada III failed to make a start succumbing to oil pump problems.
Probably the most significant boat of 1946 was the Miss Golden Gate III, which later became Miss Great Lakes. In spite of the fact that the Great Lakes bested Tempo VI by small margins in all three heats to win the 1946 President's Cup, the superiority of her Allison engine over Tempo's Miller was never in doubt. This victory in effect wrote the finishing chapter to the 650 to 723 cube "Gold Cupper" engines that had been current in the sport since the twenties. It also caused the Wilsons to replace their craft's Miller engine with a Rolls-Royce Merlin. Previously the also Canadian Miss Windsor had tried the Rolls, but had failed to start a heat.
The installation of the Rolls Merlin kept the Wilsons away from the New York Gold Cup and caused them to make their first start in the 1947 Silver Cup, which was hold in Detroit on the Labor Day weekend. The Miss Canada III spent the first heat chasing the Duesenberg powered Notre Dame after a slow start. The Notre Dame won the heat, but the "new" Miss Canada III steadily gained on the Herb Mendelson entry throughout the heat and at the finish was just barely off the winning pace. In the next heat the Canada experienced engine trouble and finished fourth. Nevertheless the Ernest Wilson entry had completed the entire 90 miles to and up in second place. This was only the second race that the Wilsons had finished since 1936 and the only time that the family's entry had survived the Gold Cup distance. This was the extent of the Canada III's racing activities for 1947.
In early 1948 Guy Lombardo with his newly Allison powered Tempo VI raised the Gold Cup class mile record first to 114 m.p.h. at Miami, Florida and then to 118 m.p.h. at Salton Sea, California. In June, 1948, the Miss Canada III tried to beat this mark and came up with 119.009 m.p.h. at Picton, Ontario. It is interesting to note that the huge multi-engined Miss America X of Gar Wood had set a North American record of 124.915 in 1932 that a Gold Cup class boat had yet to exceed in 1948.
The first competition of 1948 for the new record holder came in the rough water Gold Cup scheduled for August 26 at Detroit. The conditions seemed to favor the smooth-as-silk Miss Canada, but the G-8 came to grief in the eighth lap of heat one after running back in the pack. She was kept out of further competition that day due to a hull badly split along the sides as well as a damaged linkage in her steering gear.
Many of the leading contenders such as Such Crust, La-Ha-La, and Tempo VI had suffered such extensive damage in the Gold Cup that they were unable to run in the Silver Cup, which again was scheduled for the Labor Day weekend. The main competition for the Canada was expected to come from the My Sweetie, which had lad several laps of the Gold Cup before coming apart. Both boats had experienced finishing problems, but the Miss Canada had gone the 90 mile distance only the previous year.
Miss Canada III took the first heat of the Silver Cup after battling with the new Miss Pepsi for several laps. In so doing the Canada set a Detroit River heat record of 73 m.p.h. besting Tempo VI's 1946 mark of 70 m.p.h. In the second heat Miss Canada stayed astern of the leading Skip-A-Long of Stanley Dollar for eight of the 15 three-mile laps until hull damage forced the California entry to the pits. Miss Canada III finished the 90 miles with a perfect score of 800 points. It appeared that the Wilsons were on their way to solving their pro war durability problems having finished two consecutive 90-mile Silver Cup races. This impression was strengthened three weeks later in the President's Cup when the Canada III again went the distance to close out her ten year career.
In the President's Cup it was apparent that the old Miss Canada III did not have the speed of the new boats of the year such as Such Crust and La-Ha-La. Consequently a now boat was planned for 1949.
Miss Canada IV was considerably longer than her two predecessors at 33 feet. The additional length was necessitated by the selection of the Rolls Royce Griffon engine to power the new Canadian hydroplane. The particular Griffon utilized by the Wilsons was a V-12, two-stage two-speed supercharged engine of 2239 cubic inch piston displacement, which weighed 2,310 pounds fully converted to marine racing use.
The Miss Canada IV was designed by Douglas Van Patten, who was responsible for the Miss Canada III and who had worked for the Wilsons at the latter's Greavette Boats Ltd. Van Patten utilized the keel-knuckle form of stop boat design, which employs three major lifting surfaces with differential spacing of the steps. The Canada IV was started in January, 1949 and was completed shortly before the season opening July 2 Gold Cup at Detroit.
An interesting sidelight to the Miss Canada IV story was the fact that a special waiver was received from the trustees of the Harmsworth Trophy to allow the IV to compete for this oldest of motor boat racing prizes. The theory of competition for the Harmsworth, which represented the epitome of international speedboat racing, was that each entry was to be entirely indigenous to the challenging country. This would eliminate the Miss Canada since her designer was an American, Douglas Van Patten. Nevertheless the trustees allowed the new Wilson hull to compete giving Canada her first Harmsworth challenger. This was in marked contrast to the stance of the trustees 11 years later when the United States petitioned to use the Rolls Royce Merlin engine and was denied due to the fact of the Merlin's design in Great Britain.
The Wilsons held the Miss Canada out of the 1949 Gold Cup due to supercharger problems, which necessitated further testing for the Harmsworth scheduled for four weeks later. The IV was considered a formidable entry due to the fact that the Wilson boats had always been fast,and, based on their 1948 performance, were now reliable. These factors as well as the Canada IV's horsepower made the Americans wary of the Canadian challenger. Accordingly the United States selected a three-boat team made up of Skip-A-Long, Mt Sweetie, and Such Crust to oppose the Ernest Wilson entry.
In the initial heat of the Harmsworth, the Canada finished well off the pace being able to utilize only 1700 of her usual 2800 r.p.m. Feverish repairs produced only a slightly better result in the second heat with the Canada again well off the pace. The final analysis was that again supercharger problems had foiled the Miss Canada effort.
The Silver Cup was next for the Rolls Griffon contender. A month's further preparation improved the Canada IV's performance for she was running third on the initial lap when she was forced out due to a bent propeller. This was the extent of Miss Canada IV's 1949 racing activities. However the Wilson entry was in the water on one more occasion during 1949 for her greatest performance.
In 1949 after 17 years, an American boat had finally been able to beat the straightaway record of the Miss America X, which was a 38-foot hull featuring four Packard engines. Jack Schafer's Such Crust turned the trick by raising the America X's 124 m.p.h. record by two m.p.h. This also exceeded the Canada III's Gold Cup record of 119 m.p.h. set in 1948.
Consequently an Sunday, October 2, 1949 the Miss Canada IV set out to make history. The result was a North American record of 138.865 m.p.h., which exceeded the best American boat as noted above by 12 m.p.h. The following day the Canada made an assault on the world record of Bluebird II and matched the English entry with a best run of 142 m.p.h. However fuel problems kept the IV from making a return run and the world record stayed in the mother country. This run again resurrected the American concern about the Canada's potential on the race course and spurred intensive efforts to defend the Harmsworth Trophy in 1950.
Although the Wilsons' hopes were high for the 1950 Harmsworth, the Miss Canada IV again disappointed them. The IV gave a last place performance in the first heat of the Harmsworth while porpoising badly. Midway through the heat the Canadian entry had experienced steering problems and finished her last heat of competition under reduced power. This trouble and serious hull damages which could not be repaired in time for the second heat, caused the Wilsons to withdraw their craft from further competition. This concluded the Wilsons' 15 years in motorboating since prior to the Harmsworth they had announced that this would be their last race win, lose or draw.
During their career the father-son team of Ernest and Harold Wilson had compiled two race wins in 15 starts and a Gold Cup straightaway record as well as a North American straightaway record. Their participation in Gold Cup racing was epitomized by the beautiful, smooth riding Miss Canada III, which in her time had the reputation of being the fastest Gold Cup boat.
(Reprinted from the Unlimited NewsJournal, January 1983)
(Article by David Greene. Used by permission)
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