Who's Faster Than an English Ace, and
Able to Take Just One Cigarette Puff? 
The Gray Fox of Algonac
By Mark Beltaire
Gar Wood sat on the porch of his new Florida home overlooking Indian Creek where he zoomed Miss America IX to world speed records in the '30s.
Inventor, engineer, airplane pilot, Wood is to powerboat racing what Bobby Jones was to golf and Babe Ruth to baseball. He went to England in 1920 to win the Holy Grail of speedboating, the Harmsworth Trophy, and he defended it nine times against an array of gallant challengers who never won it back.
Garfield Arthur Wood, a native of Iowa, who made his fortune -- and history -- in Detroit, reached 90 last December. The thatch of silver hair that gave him the nickname of the Gray Fox of Algonac is still plentiful. He smokes lot in his special way, putting a cigarette in a long holder, taking one puff and setting it in an ashtray until it dies. He kids himself about the habit and his way of handling it.
"There comes a time in life when you just want to live, and I'm doing a good job of it." Indeed he is.
For 21 years, Wood lived on Fisher Island, a nugget of land in the Atlantic, just off Miami next to the main channel. His fiefdom included a 20-room mansion plus guest houses and a machine shop where the inveterate inventor could tinker as much as he wanted.
But some years back he negotiated the sale of his tropical island to one Bebe Rebozo, who cherished the idea of privacy for a friend who finds it hard to come by in the White House, one Richard Nixon. And so, very recently, Woods moved to a new home with the aid of sprightly Mrs. Violet Bellous, who runs the Wood menage with a quietly efficient hand.
She turned away with soft answers the wrath of Rebozo who phoned while I was there to complain about certain furnishings that were supposed to be left in the caretaker's cottage. Said Gar, "When I left the island, I took only what belonged to me."
Of the 10 Miss Americas fashioned for Wood, only is still very much in evidence. Harold Mistee, the millionaire coal and oil man, located it in nearby Algonac and he and his son, Chuck, have brought it back to Detroit in prime condition, substituting Chevrolet engines for the original Packards.
The 40-year-old Miss America IX will be very much a part of the expanded weekend of nostalgia that will begin with Commodore Wood's return to Detroit Thursday. A motorcade will escort him to the Detroit Yacht Club where he will occupy the Commodore's Suite, attend a banquet in his honor the following evening, preside over a fleet review the next day, and be the special guest during the Spirit of Detroit race next Sunday.
Would the Commodore take a ride in Miss America IX? He thought it over for a moment.
"No," he said, "I don't want to ride in a boat I can't drive."
You get a feeling talking with Gar Wood that he still has control of the movie projector in his mind. The memories of enough derring-do to fill a dozen lives are available to be savored almost at will. Exact dates and times may have slipped a bit, but the big screen is never far out of focus.
Gar made his first million by inventing the hydraulic hoist for dump trucks. "I used a printing press cylinder for my first model. And then I had a bunch of money men stand in the back of a truck while I demonstrated it. They were dumped out on the ground when the truck bed up, but they bought the idea anyway."
Wood moved to Detroit in 1910 from a small town near Duluth, Minn. One of the first people he met here was Henry Ford, and the two became close friends. Wood remembers square dancing at Greenfield Village, and even more clearly a phone call from New York to Ford's office.
"It was the Wall Street bunch wanting to buy him out. Ford told them to go to hell."
Wood's passion for racing began early. His father operated a clumsy, wood-burning steamboat on Lake Osakis in Minnesota. There was another ferry on the lake, and considerably rivalry existed between the two boats. As Gar told W.W. Edgar who chronicled much of his career for the Free Press: "Our speeds were low but the excitement was terrific."
Gar really broke into racing in 1915 when he bailed out a group of Detroiters who banded together to build Miss Detroit I. The group, headed by J. Lee Barrett, still owed $1,800 on the boat which was pretty well chewed up in winning the race for the Gold Cup on Manhasset Bay, Long Island.
At a meeting of the Detroit Exchange Club, Barrett pleaded for a loyal citizen to buy the craft.
As Barrett recalls, Wood called out from the back of the room: "How much do you want for the boat?"
"Silence swept the room. The man didn't look like he could buy an $1,800 boat. I leaned over to Judge Sherman Callender sitting by my side and said: 'Shall I tell him the price?'
"Sure," the judge said. "Take a chance." I straightened up and told the stranger the price. "I've got $1,000 and I'll give you a six-month note for the balance."
"I whispered to the judge: 'Is his note good for $800?' The judge replied: 'His word is good for a million.'
"The boat was sold to Wood who went immediately to Algonac to see it and while he was there bought Chris Smith's boat plant. For six years after that Chris Smith and his sons built speedboats under Gar Wood's direction. It was the beginning of Wood's famous line of Miss Detroits and Miss Americas." In 1920, when Wood decided to go after the Harmsworth trophy, he took Miss America I and Miss Detroit V. Both were made completely of American materials as the rules specified. They were powered by Liberty engines developed by Packard Motor.
In the first heat, Miss Detroit V, driven by Wood's brother, George, developed carburetor trouble. Gar, in Miss America I, was having his own problems because tin shields had been placed over the spark plugs to protect them from salt water.
His bow rudder, scorned by the English, kept him in the race though the boat was smoking like a locomotive. He won the heat and told a detractor who complained about the smoke: "We're using soft coal today but look out tomorrow. We'll be burning gasoline."
Off came the tin hoods and Miss America I breezed to victory, bringing the trophy to the United States for what appears to be a permanent stay.
It was shortly thereafter that Gar teamed up with Orlin Johnson, his riding mechanic, to form the most successful boat racing combination of all time. Johnson (now in his 80s) and Wood shared an almost mystical empathy that brought out the best in themselves and the boats.
Gar handled the steering and Orlin the power plant. There was no way they could talk to each other above the noise and smoke, so they used hand signals. Gar told me, illustrating with a hand thrusting forward, palm down: "This was the one used most often. It simply mean give it all you've got."
And both of them credit two toy bears, Teddy and Bruin, with the luck that kept them alive through every accident. Mrs. Gar Wood found the bears with shoe-button eyes in a novelty shop, and sewed life jackets for them.
"I knew they had to be lucky," Wood says, "because the shop burned down the day after Murian bought them."
The bears were doused, singed and almost lost overboard, but they were the good luck totems that both Wood and Johnson felt they couldn't do without.
Wood has always been controversial and flamboyant and fiercely competitive. He introduced aircraft engines to boat racing in the early '20s, and the marine engine fraternity was outraged. They ruled Wood's winning boats out of two Fisher- Allison Trophy races, telling him: "You've got an airplane engine and the rules call for a marine engine."
Wood's logical answer: "If an airplane engine runs a boat, that makes it a marine engine, doesn't it? Please tell me what a marine engine is. I'm looking for somebody who can define it."
Finally the opposition backed down a bit, changed the rules for the Allison-Fisher Trophy and required that Wood cut his engines for this particular race to 1,060 cubic inches. Wood went back to Algonac and built five boats before he had one that qualified, Baby Gar IV. And yet the opposition whispered: "No gentleman would ever ride in one of those boats."
So when Wood and Johnson showed up at Buffalo in 1924 for the Fisher-Allison race, both were resplendent in white tie and tails, their top hats secured by strings under their chins. Even the teddy bears were in evening dress.
They won going away, driving up to the judges' stand as immaculate as they had started. As Wood accepted the trophy, he said: "You see, this really is a gentleman's boat."
The first serious challenge from the British to regain the Harmsworth Cup came in 1928 from Barbara Marion Carstairs, a British heiress.
Gar's shrug indicates he did not consider her a serious challenger. But the St. Clair River was.
Gar had a new boat, Miss America VI, powered by two Packard engines. "It could have been one of the very best," Gar remembers.
On the first trial she zoomed along the river at a speed Wood and Johnson had never dreamed of. This was it!
And wham -- the boat was gone. Wood came to, hurting from cracked ribs, saw Johnson floating unconscious, blood pouring from his neck. "My God, he's dead," Wood told himself. He wasn't, and they went to work immediately on a new hull.
First they had to fine the engines on the bottom of the river.
A woman who'd seen the crackup gave them a fix on the position. Divers recovered the engines, plus the bears that were wired to them, and they were rushed to the Packard plant for overhaul. Wood had his new boat ready in 15 days, after a marathon effort by his devoted Algonac crew.
Miss America VII went into the race without even a trial run. Johnson had to be lifted into the mechanic's seat. But the race was an anti-climax when Miss Carstairs' boat took a nose dive rounding the second turn. And the trophy stayed.
Certainly the most dramatic and controversial of the Harmsworth confrontations was in 1931 when Kaye Don, the World War I flying ace, brought Miss England II for the challenge. And a good one it was.
For the first heat, with some 600,000 spectators occupying every inch of land, plus trees and utility poles, Don got a one-second jump on Wood in Miss America IX at the starting line and held it all the way. It was Wood's first and only loss in Harmsworth competition.
That night the boatwell at Grayhaven throbbed with activity as Gar's men worked to spring the boat, forcing the bow down to make it plane better. They worked all night and all day until 15 minutes before the second heat.
Just as they were about to pull away from shore, Johnson noticed the gas tank was leaking. A quick call was placed to Don, well remembered by Perry Deakin, athletic director at Southeastern High, who was the intermediary: "Don said no. If he waited, he'd have to take his boat back to the well to have the oil warmed up. He said Gar had two boats. Let one of them come on." The second boat was Miss America VIII driven by Wood's brother, George.
"All right," Wood said. "I won't quit now. Tell him we'll be there." John Brewer, one of Wood's men, went to work to loosen the saddles that held the tank in place. In a few minutes he was hauled out unconscious from the fumes. Frank Kalvelage, a Packard man, crawled in and the tank was pulled into position for soldering. SOLDERING? It was the only way, and Wood did it himself while everyone waited for the boat to blow up.
"I was never more scared in my life," Gar told me. "But there wasn't any other way."
With only minutes left, Wood and Johnson roared to the starting line where Don, knowing he had to beat Wood across to get position on the inside, was already charging. They zoomed across almost together, and both beat the starting gun -- Wood by 9.36 seconds, Don by 7.26. Both were disqualified, but neither driver knew it.
Wood was ahead when Don rounded the second buoy. Miss England's bow shot up and she turned turtle. George Wood won the heat and made a solo cruise the next day to keep the Harmsworth amidst a hurricane of protest that threatened to start World War II a little earlier.
Gar was first quoted saying he'd tricked Don over the starting line. Then that statement was denied while the world press thundered about bad sportsmanship.
Now, after almost 40 years, Wood neither confirms nor denies that he planned it that way. "They accuse me of tipping over the Englishman," he says. "The truth is his boat was no damn good."
The following year, Don was back to try a different course on Lake St. Clair. The change was made to give the boats wider turns around the buoys, and I heard the first heat. Can't say "saw" because at 7 a.m. that day it was raining and fog covered the course. The roar of the engines was the only compensation for the spectators. Some 1,000 boats were anchored around the course to the horror of Barrett and other officials who could see a real disaster if either boat roared off course.
This time, Wood was ready with his masterpiece, Miss America X, now a relic in Harrah's Museum in Reno, Nev. She carried four Packard engines, two on each side, connecting with a single gear box Wood had designed.
Don had brought Miss England III that had already set a world speed record of 119.81 miles an hour on Loch Lomond.
And for the first four laps of the heat I heard, Don held the lead. Miss America X wasn't planing properly. Worse than that, a broken overflow pipe was spraying Wood with benzol. Johnson was afraid that if he advanced the throttles a backfire would turn Wood into a torch. Wood looked at him and gave the palm down gesture. Johnson gave Miss America full throttle, and she pulled up rapidly on Don who jammed on his foot throttle. It broke loose, and he lost power in one engine. And lost the heat. The next day a broken piston rod destroyed his chances on the second lap.
The British government declined to risk its Rolls Royce engines in more races, but a last attempt to regain the Harmsworth was made in 1933 by Hubert Scott-Paine with a 25-foot single-engine craft built entirely of metal. It was no match for Miss America X, and the trophy remained on this side of the Atlantic.
Scott-Paine took much of the heat off Wood for the Kaye Don fiasco when he wrote a magazine article saying that any driver who knows his business should not be decoyed over a starting line.
Powerboat racing was not Wood's only interest in motion and speed. He logged 7,600 hours as pilot. Wood sold his last plane, a Mallard, to "a rather secretive chap named Howard Hughes. On the first flight he crash-landed in the Everglades and had to be picked up by helicopter."
Wood almost died under the wing of that Mallard in the '50s when it was struck by lightning at Detroit's 36th Street Airport. "Somebody said: 'That man's dead.' But a Pan-Am stewardess who'd had nurse's training came by and revived me."
Wood used his experience with the Miss America powerboats to aid the Allied war cause during World War II. He worked with the government to develop the designs for the U.S. Navy P-T boats. One of the fast little boats evacuated General Douglas MacArthur from the Philippines in the early, dark days of the war.
This remarkable combination of daring and genius is again in Our Town. Wood, Johnson, the teddy bears -- and the memories -- will be together again.
(Reprinted from the Detroit Free Press, June 20, 1971)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ironically, this story appeared in the Free Press Magazine the day AFTER Wood died, age 90, in Miami.
Hydroplane History Home
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010.
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Leslie Field, 1999