Powerboat King Gar Wood Dies at 90 in
By George E. Van
Gar Wood, speedboating's greatest figure, who lived long enough to become a legend in his time, died in Victoria Hospital, in Miami Saturday at 90.
The tough-fibred little man, who never weighed more than 130 pounds, had been in poor health for more than a year.
Wood's death came just one week short of a planned civic celebration to honor the "Gray Fox's" 50th anniversary of his first defense of the Harmsworth Trophy and his commodoreship of the Detroit Yacht Club.
He was to be honored with a motorcade, a testimonial banquet and a fleet review next weekend with the running of the Horace Dodge Cup race on the Detroit River for the Gold Cup Class boats.
His name may be strange to this generation. But few men in sports ever fired the fancy and the imagination as Wood did during his era in racing from 1916 to 1933.
Fans thought Wood's boat were unbeatable and the record says they were. He won five Gold Cup races, a record drivers are still shooting at.
His thorough planning and mechanical preparation brought the British International Trophy, known as the Harmsworth, to this country in 1920. He successfully defending it eight times with his ever fast and more powerful Miss Americas.
The white-haired Wood came to epitomize mechanical genius and his boats, particularly the last, Miss America X, represented the emodiment of perfection in performance.
His boats started and finished. This is what made Wood great. That's why the stature of Wood's legend grew years after he quit.
In his eight defenses of the Harmsworth, Wood trailed only once, in 1931, when England's Kaye Don beat him over the line in Miss England II.
Wood came back with his famous "Yankee Trick" of forcing Don over the starting line early in the next heat and he and his brother, George, kept the Harmsworth in the United States.
In his defenses, Wood beat the British challengers of Sir Mackay Edgar, Barbara Carstairs, Don and Scott-Paine and the French entry of T.A. Clark.
The three-pointers, which came later and which he decried as airborne planes, not boats, were notoriously delicate -- "Perishable as soap bubbles," someone once said. Sometimes, in those years following World War II, two, maybe three, out of a dozen starters would be around for the final race.
Wood, "The gray Fox of Algonac," stood on the dock and laughed at their plight.
Garfield Arthur Wood was born in Mapleton, Iowa, Dec. 4, 1880, one of a family of 12, nine boys and three girls. His father was a ferry boat operator and later a lake freighter captain.
Gar's first raced pitted the ferry boat against a rival craft on Lake Osakis in Minnesota. His own first boat was Leading Lady in 1911, and Wood was never beaten in three years in Mississippi regattas.
He invented the hydraulic hoist, which brought him an immense fortune after he moved to Detroit from Duluth. He owned homes in Detroit (Grayhaven), Algonac, Georgian Bay, Biscayne Bay (Miami) and in Honolulu.
Wood was unknown in Detroit racing when he bought the Miss Detroit I from J. Lee Barrett, of the Detroit Convention and Tourist Bureau, for $8,000. Detroit had won the Gold Cup in 1915 with a boat financed by popular subscription. In 1916 Detroit lost the cup to Minneapolis. That's when Wood came into the picture. He won it the next five years.
Wood has been acclaimed as the father of the Navy PT boat. He was the first to put an airplane motor in a boat . . . and make it run.
And he was the first to go 100 miles an hour in a boat and the first to do two miles a minute on water.
One of Wood's greatest thrills came in 1925 when he beat the famed Twentieth Century Limited in a match race between Albany and New York by 12 minutes.
Engineers scoffed when Wood told them he would use an aircraft engine in Miss Detroit III in 1917. A plane motor is too fragile and delicate and will pound to pieces, they said. Wood put a Curtis 12 in Miss Detroit and, after much work, had it working like a charm.
Miss Detroit III won the Gold Cup.
After World War I he bought hundreds of Liberty 12's and converted them into marine motors. He used them on Miss Detroit V and Miss America I when he won the Harmsworth in England in 1920.
More than 25 years ago Wood predicted that 200 miles an hour in water was practicable. In 1962 George Simon's Miss U.S. I, driven by Roy Duby, became the first prop-driven boat to do it with a 200.49 mph record.
Wood never came to racing after his final successful defense with Miss America X against Scott Paine in 1933.
Wood had a full thatch of white hair since he was in his 50s. His manner matched his size as a man of slight stature. He was friendly with a reserve that comes out of a serious nature. If he was abrupt at times it came from a shyness. With those he knew well he'd converse for hours.
Gar hardly was the hail-fellow but he was popular among those who understood him. He loved the Detroit Yacht Club, helped organize the present clubhouse in the early 1920s, became its commodore in 1921. He also was commodore of the Interlake Yachting Association in 1935.
Wood is survived by his son, Garfield Jr., four brothers and three sisters.
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Lithgrow Funeral Home's 54th Street Chapel, Miami. Burial will be in Algonac.
(reprinted from the Detroit News, June 20, 1971)
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