We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
The United States has long been dominant in Gold Cup and Unlimited hydroplane racing. Only a very few teams from "North of the Border" have been competitive with their U.S. counterparts.
There were the RAINBOW boats of Harry Greening in the 1920s and J. Gordon Thompson's MISS SUPERTEST team in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In between the Greening and Thompson efforts were the MISS CANADA boats of Ernie and Harold Wilson. The father-and-son team from Ingersoll, Ontario, challenged the U.S. hydroplane establishment between 1936 and 1950 and scored some significant victories.
Father Ernie was President of Greavette Boats, Ltd., which built the family's race boats, and the Ingersoll Machine and Tool Company, which constructed the gear boxes for the various boats.
Son Harold was the driver for the MISS CANADA team throughout its entire history.
The Wilsons were active in the pre-World War II Gold Cup Class with MISS CANADA II and MISS CANADA III, both of which used a V-12 Miller engine.
After the war, the Gold Cup Class dropped the 732 cubic inch piston displacement limitation and changed over to the Unlimited Class. In 1947, Ernie and Harold installed a Rolls-Royce Merlin in MISS CANADA III and used a Rolls-Royce Griffon in MISS CANADA IV, starting in 1949. This was at a time when the V-12 Allison was the engine of choice in the Unlimiteds.
MISS CANADA II was designed by John Hacker and measured 26 feet in length with a 7-1/2-foot beam. Registered G-6, the boat attended two races during its debut season of 1936 but didn't make much of an impression. The "II" never made it into the water at the Lake George (New York) Gold Cup and ran back in the pack at the President's Cup in Washington, D.C.
The team improved in 1937. At the Gold Cup in Detroit, blonde chunky Harold Wilson set a 3-mile Gold Cup lap record of 66.087 miles per hour in Heat One, before being forced out of the race with rudder trouble.
This was the last race for MISS CANADA II. Ernie and Harold had a new boat in mind for 1938, the beautiful MISS CANADA III, which would prove to be the Wilsons' most successful craft.
Both MISS CANADA II and MISS CANADA III were low-profile step hydroplanes.
MISS CANADA III was designed by Douglas Van Patten. The design was unusual in a number of ways. The hull measured 24 feet 11 inches by 7 feet 1 inch and was composed of three steps, together with beveled chines. The hull structure was patterned along longitudinal lines and was among the lightest ever devised under the then-existing rules. The Miller V-12 from out of MISS CANADA II had a direct propeller drive due to the high revolution rate, and the cockpit was situated near the stern.
The balance and longitudinal stability of MISS CANADA III were remarkable. Many step hydros rode like bucking broncos but the "III" was an extremely smooth-riding craft--even in rough water--using principles that Mr. Van Patten had developed over the previous decade as a designer of boats and seaplane floats.
MOTOR BOATING MAGAZINE described MISS CANADA III as being "beautifully handled and the most perfect running boat" in the 1938 Detroit Gold Cup race.
Sharing the cockpit of the "III" with pilot Harold Wilson was Mrs. Harold Wilson, the former Lorna Reid of Toronto, Ontario. Miss Reid had ridden as mechanician on board MISS CANADA II at the 1937 Gold Cup. The new Mrs. Wilson had also served as riding mechanic for six years in various craft piloted by her husband. She was mentioned as a possible back-up driver for MISS CANADA III at the 1938 Gold Cup.
The new MISS CANADA III, registered G-8, immediately took the lead in Heat One of the 1938 Gold Cup with ALAGI, driven by the Italian Count Theo Rossi, right behind her. The Wilson craft was faster through the turns, but Count Rossi would close the gap on the straightaways.
MISS CANADA III posted a lap speed of 72.144 and appeared to be in command of the race, which MOTOR BOATING MAGAZINE described as being "as beautiful a contest as anyone would want to see" up to this point. But as Harold and Lorna Wilson neared the end of lap-three, their engine started smoking badly. The Canadian team then had to withdraw due to a failure of the oil scavenging pump.
Attempted repairs were without much success as the oil pump trouble prevailed in Heat Two. The "III" managed to take a distant third but was about 15 miles per hour off her previous pace.
In Heat Three, MISS CANADA III was running last when she broke a connecting rod on lap-ten.
The Wilsons then skipped the President's Cup and called it quits for the season. But even in defeat, MISS CANADA III had established itself as a fast boat and a definite threat for top honors in 1939. And it was.
The 1939 campaign shaped up as Ernie and Harold Wilson's most serious attempt to date. The craft sported a rebuilt Miller engine, re-designed by William J. Muller. And unlike many of his contemporaries, Harold put his boat through a long and exhaustive series of tests on the water. The boat was reported to be doing 105 miles per hour consistently on the straightaway.
Clearly, MISS CANADA III had to be regarded as the most serious Gold Cup Class threat from "North of the Border" since RAINBOW IV in 1924.
Harold Wilson had a new riding mechanic in 1939 in the person of Charlie Volker, a replacement for Mrs. Wilson who had retired from competition on account of pregnancy. Charlie was later to develop the Volker gear box, used in many race boats.
At the 1939 Gold Cup in Detroit, Wilson and Volker took over the lead on lap-two of Heat One and maintained it until lap-nine when they were passed by MY SIN, a three-point design of hydroplane, driven by Guy Simmons. MY SIN took the checkered flag at 67.050 for the 30 miles, followed by MISS CANADA III at 63.336.
The Wilson team experienced supercharger woes in Heats Two and Three but still managed an overall third-place.
The supercharger continued to be a problem as the MISS CANADA III crew worked around the clock to prepare for the 1939 President's Cup, three weeks later. They finished work less than 48 hours before the start of the First Heat at Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, there was no time to give the new set-up a water test. They could only load the mahogany-and-black G-8 on its trailer and rush it to the U.S. capitol, where she arrived late the night before the race.
Five boats, fresh from running at Detroit, appeared at Washington: MISS CANADA III, MY SIN, NOTRE DAME, SO-LONG, and WHY WORRY.
MISS CANADA III and NOTRE DAME were step hydroplanes; the other three were Ventnor three-pointers, consisting of two sponsons and a fully submerged propeller.
MOTOR BOATING MAGAZINE described Heat One as follows:
"At the beginning of the last lap, NOTRE DAME led by five seconds. As MISS CANADA III was gaining at the rate of 4 or 5 seconds a lap, it was apparent that the finish was to be close.
"As the two leaders dashed across the finish line, there was no open water between. The official time recorded them as being only one-fifth of a second apart."
NOTRE DAME had won the 400 first-place heat points, but the race was far from over. As had often been predicted, when the Canadian challenger finally ironed out her engine difficulties, there would be no stopping her. As MOTOR BOATING MAGAZINE commented:
"This time, MISS CANADA III came into her own and proved all the nice things that everyone had been saying about her for the last couple of years."
The next time out, pilot Wilson and mechanic Volker had the situation well in hand, keeping well ahead of NOTRE DAME, which was the only other boat running at the checkered flag.
Wilson and Volker kept their competitive momentum going in Heat Three as well, beating NOTRE DAME decisively and turning in a President's Cup record for the 45-mile distance at 64.720 miles per hour.
MISS CANADA III concluded with 1500 accumulated points, including 400 bonus markers for the fastest race. NOTRE DAME ended up with 1400 points, including an additional 400 for doing 67.064 in Heat One--the fastest 15-mile speed of the event. Lou Fageol's SO-LONG was officially third overall with 225 points.
The fine performances by both MISS CANADA III and NOTRE DAME at Washington in 1939 served notice that the step hydroplane design as a competitive concept was far from dead.
In winning the 13th annual President's Cup, MISS CANADA III became the first Canadian craft to ever win a major U.S. trophy in the Gold Cup Class. The "III" was also the National High Point Champion in the "G" class for 1939. Her victory on the Potomac established the Van Patten-designed hull as one of the most popular race boats of all time. And her riding characteristics were legendary.
In a 1984 interview with CLASSIC BOAT MAGAZINE, Harold Wilson recalled that "MISS CANADA III handled like a canoe; it had perfect balance."
In accordance with President's Cup tradition, the $15,000 first-place trophy was personally presented to the 28-year-old Wilson by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.
During the presentation ceremony, the President was advised that, although the President's Cup could be won by a representative of a foreign country, the trophy could not--according to the Corinthian Yacht Club's deed of gift--be taken to a foreign country.
President Roosevelt, in a grand gesture, declared, "My dear friend, Canada is not a foreign country. It is a brother country of the United States. Take the trophy home, Mr. Wilson."
With the advent of World War II, competition for the Gold Cup and the President's Cup and most other trophies was suspended. Following her triumph at Washington, D.C., in 1939, MISS CANADA III did not return to racing until 1946.
After seven years in drydock, MISS CANADA III picked up where she had left off and led for five laps in Heat 1-A of the 1946 Gold Cup at Detroit but was sidelined with supercharger trouble. At the 1946 President's Cup, the team was prevented from starting due to a problem with the oil pump.
In their only 1947 appearance, the Wilsons took second-place to Dan Arena in NOTRE DAME in the Silver Cup at Detroit but recorded the fastest competition lap of any boat for the entire season with a clocking of 77.169 miles per hour.
This marked the first time for a North American boat to start in a heat of competition with a Packard Rolls-Royce Merlin. (The Canadian MISS WINDSOR, owned by Lorne Armstrong, had showed up in 1946 with a Merlin but never answered the starter's gun.) The only other Unlimited hydroplane in the world to utilize Merlin power so soon after the war is believed to be Australia's SUNRAY II.
The Merlin has more horsepower than the Allison but is considered to be more temperamental.
In the late 1940s, considerable attention focused on straightaway record performance. In early 1948, Guy Lombardo's TEMPO VI (the former MY SIN, re-powered with an Allison) did 114 miles per hour at Miami and then 118 at Salton Sea, California.
In June of that year, Harold Wilson and MISS CANADA III beat Lombardo's mark with a clocking of 119.009 at Picton, Ontario. This was still short of the North American record of 124.915, set by Gar Wood and MISS AMERICA X in 1932 and also the world Unlimited record of 141.740, set by Sir Malcolm Campbell and BLUEBIRD K-4 in 1939.
The 1948 APBA Gold Cup at Detroit is remembered as being one of the most destructive contests in boat racing history. Only one entry (MISS GREAT LAKES) out of 22 was able to go the 90-mile distance within the allotted time in the ocean-like chop.
MISS CANADA III had to withdraw after Heat One on account of a hull badly split along the sides as well as a damaged linkage in her steering gear.
The remains of the Gold Cup fleet regrouped the following week for the third annual Silver Cup, contested on the same 3-mile course as the Gold Cup. Two heats of fifteen laps each, run on separate days, constituted the race format.
When the roostertails subsided at the end of the event, MISS CANADA III occupied the winner's circle. It was a richly sentimental triumph for the Ingersoll, Ontario-based team, which had been bringing boats to Detroit since 1937 but without success.
Harold Wilson and Charlie Volker annexed both 45-mile Silver Cup heats at speeds of 73.881 and 68.471, although the fastest lap of the race was a course record, set by Stan Dollar and the one-of-a-kind SKIP-A-LONG, at 78.182. Dollar led Wilson for eight laps in Heat Two until forced out with hull damage.
In the final race of her long career, MISS CANADA III finished all three heats of the 1948 President's Cup and took a respectable third-place behind a couple of fast-running Ventnor three-pointers, SUCH CRUST I with Dan Arena and LAHALA with Harry Lynn.
The years 1948 through 1950 witnessed a boat building boom unprecedented in modern times. During those years, more than thirty Unlimiteds were constructed.
Ernie and Harold Wilson climbed on the boat building band wagon with a new entry of their own. This was the MISS CANADA IV, which was specifically designed (by Douglas Van Patten) to challenge for the Harmsworth Trophy, the bronze plaque traditionally emblematic of the speedboat championship of the world, last contested in 1933 and won by MISS AMERICA X.
At 33 feet, MISS CANADA IV (CA-9) was considerably longer than her two predecessors in order to accommodate the huge Rolls-Royce Griffon, a V-12 two-stage two-speed supercharged aircraft engine of 2239 cubic inch piston displacement, which weighed over 2000 pounds.
The Griffon was one of the most powerful engines ever used in a race boat and MISS CANADA IV was the first to try it. (In later years, the MISS SUPERTEST, the HARRAH'S CLUB, and the MISS BUDWEISER teams likewise used the Rolls-Royce Griffon.)
Despite the advances in recent years by designers of three-point hydroplanes, Ernie and Harold chose to build another "fast-stepper." Designer Van Patten utilized the keel-knuckle form, which employs three major lifting surfaces with differential spacing of the steps.
The Harmsworth was a best-two-out-of-three-heat contest and was technically a race between nations rather than individual boats. Each country was allowed up to three entries. Competing against MISS CANADA IV at Detroit in 1949 were SKIP-A-LONG, SUCH CRUST I, and MY SWEETIE.
MISS CANADA IV ran considerably off the pace of the U.S. Defense Team in the Harmsworth race and was easily defeated by SKIP-A-LONG, the eventual winner.
The 1949 Silver Cup was another disappointment for the Wilsons. MISS CANADA IV was running in third-place on lap-one when she was knocked out of the race by a bent propeller.
The Wilsons at least had the satisfaction of setting a North American mile straightaway record in 1949 with their new boat. On October 2 of that year, Harold Wilson and MISS CANADA IV posted an average of 138.865, which eclipsed MISS AMERICA X's record
The following day, MISS CANADA IV went after the world record of BLUEBIRD K-4 and matched the English entry with a best run of 142. However fuel problems kept the "IV" from making the necessary return run. (A straightaway record is defined as an average speed of two runs over the same race course in opposite directions.)
MISS CANADA IV was clearly one of the fastest boats in the world in 1949...when running in a straight line. But she was non-competitive on a closed course.
A second Harmsworth challenge followed in 1950 with the same result as the first. MISS CANADA IV finished last in Heat One, porpoising badly, behind Lou Fageol in SLO-MO-SHUN IV, Dan Arena in SUCH CRUST II, and Bill Cantrell in MY SWEETIE.
MISS CANADA IV experienced steering problems and some significant hull damage which could not be repaired in time for Heat Two. The trophy went to Fageol and SLO-MO-SHUN IV.
Ernie and Harold had announced previously that the 1950 Harmsworth Regatta would be their last race--win, lose, or draw--after fourteen years in the sport. And they stuck to that pledge.
Although retired from competition, Harold Wilson remained interested in boat racing for many years and even wrote a book about his racing experiences. The title was BOATS UNLIMITED, published in 1990.
The Wilsons sold their equipment inventory to J. Gordon Thompson of Sarnia, Ontario. MISS CANADA IV raced as Thompson's original MISS SUPERTEST in 1952 and 1953 with Bill Braden as driver. The boat was still an "also-ran" no matter who was driving her, but she served as the SUPERTEST team's introduction to the sport.
In 1956, Braden and MISS SUPERTEST II challenged for the Harmsworth Trophy at Detroit but were defeated by the U.S. Defender SHANTY I and driver Russ Schleeh.
Finally, in 1959, a Canadian boat ended 39 years of United States domination in the Harmsworth series. MISS SUPERTEST III and pilot Bob Hayward defeated Bill Stead and MAVERICK in two heats out of three on the Detroit River. And Harold Wilson, together with old friend Volker, cheered Hayward on to victory.
Both MISS CANADA III and MISS CANADA IV were restored to running condition in later years and made frequent appearances at antique boat exhibitions.
At the 1984 Antique Gold Cup Regatta in Toronto, sponsored by the Antique and Classic Boat Society, Harold and Lorna Wilson were the guests of honor, where they reminisced with friends old and new about hydroplane racing's classic past.
A replica of MISS CANADA III, authentic in every detail except power, was built in 1987 by Duke Marine Services in Port Carling, Ontario, for owner Murray Walker. It used a 500 horsepower Chrysler hemi instead of a 2000 horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin.
Harold Wilson was asked to drive the replica for the filming of a TV documentary. According to Harold, even with her relatively low power, the boat could do a very creditable 75 miles per hour.