We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
The years following the end of World War II saw a tremendous revival of interest in Unlimited Class hydroplane racing the world over. The United States of America was--and still is--the obvious leader and has garnered most of the publicity.
But the Thunderboat bug has bitten elsewhere as well. The Italians and especially the Australasians (Australia and New Zealand) have made their own unique contributions to "Water Racing's Greatest Show."
Achille Castoldi's SANT' AMBROGIO from Milan, Italy, generated a lot of excitement when it showed up at the 1948 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit. The most recent challenger from another continent had been Count Theo Rossi's ALAGI, also from Italy, which competed on the U.S. tour and won both the Gold Cup and the President's Cup in 1938.
Powered by a 12-cylinder Alfa-Romeo aircraft engine, SANT' AMBROGIO wasn't quite in the same league as the illustrious ALAGI. In competition, Castoldi's craft was totally outclassed. In the first heat of the Gold Cup, SANT' AMBROGIO ran ahead of only one other boat (the 7-Litre Class WILL-O-THE-WISP) and sank after three laps with a hole in the bottom, which was constructed of one-quarter inch plywood.
Castoldi tested a new SANT' AMBROGIO II the following year and reportedly exceeded 120 miles per hour in trials. The II won the 1949 Coppa dell'Alleanza on Lake Garda but did so against mediocre opposition and was never entered in United States competition.
Another Italian Unlimited hydroplane, Mario Verga's LAURA-3, surfaced briefly and tragically in 1954. Measuring 29 feet 10 inches by 8 feet 6 inches and weighing just barely a ton, LAURA-3 was a Timossi-built three-pointer, powered by twin supercharged Alfa-Romeo 750 cc engines set in tandem, which together developed 800 horsepower.
Verga was trying to exceed SLO-MO-SHUN IV's world straightaway record average of 178.497 (for two runs over a one-mile course) with a one-way clocking of 186.600 on Lake Islo. LAURA-3 leaped clear of the water, crashed violently, and sank, leaving only an oil slick. Verga was fatally injured.
Largely unknown in the United States, Australia and neighboring New Zealand have hosted the big hydroplanes for many decades, albeit on a different scale than in North America.
The availability of World War II surplus fighter plane engines had its effect on Unlimited racing in Australasia as well as in the U.S. The immediate post-war years saw the construction in New Zealand of at least three step hydroplane hulls, all of which utilized Allison V-12 power: MISS WELLINGTON, REDHEAD, and SUSAN LEIGH. The Len Southward-owned REDHEAD proved the most successful of the group, competing from 1948 to 1959 and winning the Griffith Cup--the top "Down Under" motor sport award--several times.
In her original configuration, REDHEAD could only do about 85 on the straightaway. Then the owner fitted some miniature sponsons on the 26-foot by 9-foot single-stepper, which helped considerably. On February 22, 1953, Southward became the first New Zealander to clear 100 miles per hour with an average of 101.260 on a two-way run over the measured mile. In 1957, REDHEAD raised its own mark to 109.900 mph.
Across the Tasman Sea, the Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered FLEETWING, owned by Bill Jeanes and driven by his brother Bob Jeanes, became the first Australian hydroplane to officially clear the century mark with a 106.635 clocking in 1955. FLEETWING bore the name of another famous Australian Unlimited hydroplane that its owner had campaigned with considerable success during the 1920s and 1930s with a 220-horsepower Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") engine.
Both REDHEAD and FLEETWING obviously stood a generation or two behind their 1950s American and European counterparts. Both had started as step hulls with sponsons added as an afterthought.
Contrary to U.S. practice, quite a number of Australasians have tried their luck at matching a Rolls-Royce aircraft engine with a smaller than usual racing hull with varying degrees of success.
In the 1960s, Australian Tom Watts attempted to fit a Merlin into a 19-foot hydroplane called EXCITER but achieved unsatisfactory results and gave up on the idea.
Another Australian, Bruce Doust, had a 20-foot long clinker-built skiff called SPITFIRE, powered by an unsupercharged fuel-injected Merlin. Doust was fatally injured when the boat dove to the bottom at Taree in 1968.
FLAK TOO, owned by Dick Shuttleworth of Wakefield, New Zealand, underwent a configuration change that is curious to say the least.
Designed by the Champion Boat Company, an American firm, FLAK TOO was built in New Zealand by Jeff Kroening in 1951 and measured 19 feet 6 inches long with a 7-foot 8-inch beam. A three-point hydroplane, she was originally a 225 Cubic Inch Class hull, fitted with a hopped up 100-horsepower flathead V-8 Ford Special. FLAK TOO could do 61 miles per hour and finished second in the Masport Cup, the most prestigious of NZ motorboat racing awards, at Wellington.
The 1952 season saw the craft take the Unlimited Unrestricted Championship at New Brighton. In later years, she was re-powered with a V-12 Rolls-Royce Kestrel--a pre-war forerunner of the Merlin--with the middle six cylinders removed and the two ends welded together to form a V-6. Other New Zealand Unlimited hydroplanes of that era that used the Rolls-Royce Kestrel included John Younger's MAESTRO, G.S. Jonathon's MERCEDES, Pam Palmer's STINGAREE, and L.W. Moult's WHIRLWIN.
In 1967, FLAK TOO's cockpit was moved from behind to ahead of the engine well to accommodate a full Kestrel, which developed 800 horsepower at 3000 rpm running through a step-up of 2.095 to 1 and through a V-drive gearbox giving a further 36% step-up. The overpowered craft used a 1-1/8-inch Monel K shaft and turned an 11-1/2 by 20-inch steel propeller.
Shuttleworth achieved mixed results with the revamped FLAK TOO, which last competed in 1972. The origin of the boat's name dates back to the owner's World War II tour of duty in the New Zealand Air Force. He recalled that only in hydroplane action did he ever come close to experiencing any "flak."
Shuttleworth remembered a boat racing-related incident that occurred during the war when his squadron discovered a downed American fighter plane--with its Allison V-1710 still intact--on a jungle island in the Pacific.
Prohibited by military red tape from transporting the engine home, Shuttleworth and his friends completely dismantled it with each man carrying off a small piece. After the war, the group returned to New Zealand where the power plant was re-assembled. In later years, the engine was used in the Unlimited hydroplane TRU-JEN, the Masport Cup-winning cabover craft patterned after the hull lines of HAWAII KAI III, owned by Harry Rutledge and Bill Ruffell.
One of the first Australian boats to correspond approximately to the concept of what an American Unlimited hydroplane is generally thought of being was the "Jolly Green Giant" AGGRESSOR. Owned by Dave Tenny and Ron Simpson, AGGRESSOR was powered by an Australian-made Rolls-Royce Merlin and measured 26-1/2 feet in length with a 10-foot beam. She sported a green and yellow color scheme that was almost identical to that of the 1958 MISS BARDAHL.
A contemporary of the AGGRESSOR was the STAMPEDE, owned by Stan Jones and Dick Carnie, which measured 22 feet long with a 9-1/2-foot beam. STAMPEDE also used an Australian Merlin.
Of all the motor sport trophies in Australia, the E.C. Griffith Cup ranks as the oldest and the most prestigious. First contested in 1913, it compares favorably to America's Gold Cup and England's Harmsworth Trophy and is indicative of the Australasian Unlimited Motor Boat Championship.
AGGRESSOR and STAMPEDE were two of the more popular winners in Griffith Cup history and dominated the sport in the late 1960s and early 1970s. STAMPEDE won the Cup in 1970 and 1971, while AGGRESSOR took the honor in 1972.
As shown in movie film taken in the early 1970s, AGGRESSOR was by far the better riding boat and appeared to handle quite smoothly. She was a conventional hull with the traditional rear-cockpit/forward-engine/shovel-nosed bow configuration. STAMPEDE was a cabover hull with a lot of balance problems. At racing speeds, she seemed perpetually airborne and rode roughly in the turns.
AGGRESSOR and STAMPEDE both affiliated with the Victorian Speed Boat Club (VSBC) of Melbourne and carried the racing numbers VS-50 and VS-41 respectively. The VSBC was the prominent boat racing organization in Australia at that time and hosted a series of races at Lake Eppalock, which is about 75 miles from Melbourne near Bendigo.
Interestingly enough, the straightaway record-setting FLEETWING of 1955 played a role in the genesis of both the AGGRESSOR and the STAMPEDE racing teams. Dave Tenny had the opportunity to take a ride in her in about 1961. And when FLEETWING was scrapped a few years later, much of the mechanical equipment was installed in a new hull, which became the original STAMPEDE.
Construction began on AGGRESSOR in 1962 and was completed in January of 1965. She was designed and built by Tenny alone as a hobby and in his spare time. Tenny, a $70-a-week pipefitter, brought Simpson on board as a partner and financial sponsor in 1970.
For several years, Tenny and riding mechanic Les Scott experienced one setback after another trying to get AGGRESSOR to perform properly. The team entered the 1965 Castrol 100-Mile Marathon, but carburetion trouble prevented them from starting.
At the 1966 Castrol race, Tenny withdrew on account of rough course conditions. More trials and work saw AGGRESSOR performing reasonably well. After having run about 10 miles of the 1967 Castrol event, the boat's propeller struck something in the water and Tenny beached the boat on the rocks at Point Cook. She was swamped and remained there for three days before recovery operations could be effected.
Thirteen holes were punched in the underside of the hull, and the sponson bottoms were ruined. During repairs, changes were made to the sponsons and the whole underside was re-sheeted with aluminum. A decision was also made to never again run in salt water.
Returning to action in December of 1969 (the seasons "Down Under" being the opposite of those "Up Over"), AGGRESSOR was equipped with the first of several hi-tensile stainless steel racing propellers, specially manufactured for the boat by co-driver Scott.
Everything performed excellently in tests on Lake Eppalock and AGGRESSOR was entered in her first circuit race--the 1969 Boxing Day Meeting at Yarrawonga--where the boat scored an easy victory. At the 1970 New Year's Day event, also run at Yarrawonga, Tenny and Scott won the first heat and were leading in the second when the engine stopped cold. This was the start of twelve months of carburetor miseries. And during the Eppalock Gold Cup, the back of the boat sustained severe damage on account of a thrown propeller blade.
It was at the 1971 Griffith Cup on Lake Eppalock that AGGRESSOR first clashed with STAMPEDE, the only other Rolls-powered boat in the fleet. The race consisted of two 9-mile heats on a 1 1/2-mile oval course.
STAMPEDE won Heat 1-A and AGGRESSOR took 1-B. AGGRESSOR was moving up on STAMPEDE in the Final when a fractured exhaust stub caused the engine water delivery hose to burst, halting Tenny's valiant challenge for the lead on the fourth lap.
Then came the historic 1971-72 racing season, when AGGRESSOR entered all eleven races that an Unlimited hydroplane could run in Australia and won a record ten of them in a row.
Included on AGGRESSOR's trophy shelf at season's end were the Griffith Cup, the Kimbolton Cup, the Eppalock Gold Cup, and the Australian National Championship award, among others.
Then, in the Final Heat of the final race of the year, tragedy struck.
While dueling alongside the 6-Litre Class boat AIR NEW ZEALAND for the A.E. Baker Trophy in Sydney, AGGRESSOR hooked a sponson at 150 miles per hour and crashed, badly injuring her crew of two.
Tenny recovered from the accident, but Scott was almost completely paralyzed.
In later years, Tenny took over his injured friend's propeller business and remained semi-active in the sport as a crew member for the STAMPEDE organization.
Although crippled for life, Scott stayed interested in boats and continued to attend the Griffith Cup races at Lake Eppalock in a wheel chair.
Original owner Bruce Walker commissioned Colin Winton to build STAMPEDE in 1963. Prior to being purchased by Jones and Carnie in 1967, STAMPEDE experienced various mechanical problems but managed to win both heats of the 1964 Victorian Unlimited Open on Lake King.
Under the new ownership, a number of major modifications were incorporated into the hull. She was modified from a two-seater into a one-seater; a new gearbox setup was designed; the engine was moved forward to obtain a better planing action; and a new engine cowling was added to help clean up the boat aerodynamically.
With Jones driving, the rejuvenated craft set an Australasian kilometer straightaway record of 154.320 miles per hour on Lake Glenmaggie.
With Jones and Bob Saniga alternating in the cockpit, the original STAMPEDE won the 1970 and 1971 Griffith Cup contests, the 1970 Victorian Unlimited Open, the 1971 Yarrawonga New Year's Day Meeting, the 1971 Kimbolton Cup, and the 1971 Eppalock Gold Cup.
After being defeated by AGGRESSOR in the 1972 Griffith Cup, STAMPEDE was retired and replaced by a namesake that met the American 28-foot hull length requirement.
The second STAMPEDE was built over a ten-week period from November 1972 to January 1973. The Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered boat measured 28 feet 6 inches long with a beam of 11 feet 8 inches and bore somewhat of a resemblance to the Gale Enterprises' ATLAS VAN LINES built in 1971.
STAMPEDE the second scored "the triple" in 1973, winning the three major Unlimited events in Australia: the Griffith Cup, the Eppalock Gold Cup, and the Kimbolton Cup, all on Lake Eppalock.
After having proved herself in Australian competition, plans were formulated to ship the boat to North America in the spring of 1973 to do battle with the U.S. Unlimiteds. To finalize a sponsorship agreement, STAMPEDE had to establish a new Australasian straightaway record.
On May 19, 1973, at Lake Eppalock, the record was set at 159.490 miles per hour. The crew wasn't satisfied, however, and sent driver Saniga out again, equipped with a special two-bladed prop manufactured by Tenny and Scott, designed for record breaking.
Saniga made a run of 156 and then, about a hundred yards past the end of the kilo, the rudder apparently failed, causing STAMPEDE to veer to the right and shatter in a cloud of spray.
Happily, the driver survived with nothing more than a dislocated shoulder. The hull was repaired and successfully defended its title in the Griffith Cup the following January.
Renamed SOLO, the boat attended the races at the Tri-Cities and Seattle, Washington, in 1974, to become the first Unlimited hydroplane from another continent to participate in America since SANT' AMBROGIO came over from Italy in 1948.
SOLO, unfortunately, experienced mechanical difficulties at the Tri-Cities and had to withdraw. Two weeks later, at the infamous Sand Point Gold Cup in Seattle, driver Saniga had her in second place for three laps in Heat 1-A and was gaining on the leader, when the engine overheated. SOLO limped back to the pits and was through for the day.
Four years later, members of the SOLO crew affiliated with another Australian Unlimited, the MISS BUD (a former American MISS BUDWEISER), owned by Ron Burton. With SOLO Crew Chief Clem Anderson (who had worked on Rolls engines in the Royal Australian Air Force) performing his mechanical wizardry, MISS BUD finished a respectable third at both the Tri-Cities and Seattle in 1978 with Saniga as driver. MISS BUD fared far better than AUSSIE ENDEAVOUR, a 1996 Burton craft, which participated at the Tri-Cities and Seattle but completed only a single heat, because of mechanical difficulties, with Dennis Parker as driver.
The STAMPEDE/SOLO team made one final appearance in North America at the 1983 World Championship Race in Houston, Texas, with MISS BAYSWATER BULK, a Merlin-powered cabover craft that used the same VS-41 designation as had her predecessors.
MISS BAYSWATER BULK, with Bill Baberton at the wheel, failed to make the finals at Houston, but took first place in the consolation race.
Sponsored by Outback Steakhouse, AUSSIE ENDEAVOR attended the 1996 Tri-Cities and Seattle races with Ron Burton as owner and Dennis Parker as driver.
After failing to make the show at the Tri-Cities, the boat qualified at 130.255 at Seattle. It finished sixth in Heat 1-A at 110.275 and DNF in Heat 2-A. Her best lap in competition was 113.447.
It was subsequently acquired by Bob Fendler but hasn't been brought to a race since.
AUSSIE ENDEAVOR had a pretty significant career in Australia. Between 1993 and 1995, the turbine-powered craft won the A.E. Baker Trophy, the Beaurepair Trophy, the Warringal Trophy, and the E.C. Griffith Cup. It also set an Australasian straightaway record of 305.8 KPH (which translates to 191.13 MPH).