We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
Motorized boats first appeared around 1887 in Europe. The phenomenon quickly spread to America where, by the turn of the century, quite a fleet existed of these speedy so-called "auto boats." These included VINGT-ET-UN and her Gold Cup-winning successor, VINGT-ET-UN II.
Designed by Clinton Crane, the VINGT-ET-UN boats popularized the splinter-proportioned style of craft that typified the era. The original boat measured 30 feet by 3 feet 10 inches, and carried a Smith & Mabley Simplex engine.
Because of the 21-horsepower motor, the boat was christened VINGT-ET-UN, which is "twenty-one" in French. "Twenty-one" was also a speed in miles per hour, often attempted but seldom attained in those early days.
The 30-footer's impact upon the public can best be shown by quoting from the November 6, 1903, New York AMERICAN, as follows:
"She starts like a bullet from a gun, and even at top speed only a ribbon of brownish green spray at her quarter and a yeasty bit of foam at her wake mark her passage through the water."
The COMMERCIAL ADVERTISER of the same date carried the following:
"Auto boats will be popular. The season of 1904 promises great activity in the new field. Yesterday afternoon, a demonstration was given at Yonkers of the speed and utility of an auto boat. The VINGT-ET-UN…was sent through the water mile in 2:26, a speed considered most remarkable."
Two minutes and 26 seconds translated to 25.068 miles per hour.
Even prior to the development of the automobile, engine-driven boats were being built. VINGT-ET-UN and VINGT-ET-UB II were the first step away from the heavy hull and heavy engine types that preceded them. They pointed the way for the light planing types of hulls that followed.
The "II" was built in 1904, measured 38 feet 9 inches in length with a 4-foot 7-inch beam, and used the new and larger engine then available in Simplex automobiles.
VINGT-ET-UN II, like its contemporaries, was an avowed experiment, powered by an internal combustion engine that was little understood and driven by men unversed in racing technique, but who instituted principles now followed by experts. And, like her contemporaries, the "II" subscribed to the only known theory of water speed: cutting through instead of planing over the surface.
Then, as now, the top power boat racing prize in the United States was the American Power Boat Association's Gold Challenge Cup. The first race in this prestigious series took place on the Hudson River in June, 1904. The 59-foot STANDARD, powered by a 110-horsepower Standard engine, won all three 32-nautical-mile heats, which were run on consecutive days. Each heat consisted of 16 miles up and down the Hudson. STANDARD set a Gold Cup record for the 32-mile distance at 23.613 in the second round.
The rules for the first Gold Cup Regatta excluded lightweight hulls of the VINGT-ET-UN type. The rule makers decided to allow both varieties into the next race in September, 1904, conducted at the same location as the June running. This marked the first and only time that the Gold Cup has been contested twice in the same calendar year.
The two burning questions of the day: could the lightweight hulls hold their own against the heavyweights? and was STANDARD's highly touted 23 mile an hour record within shooting distance of the opposition? The answer proved to be affirmative on both counts.
With owner Willis Kilmer at the helm, VINGT-ET-UN II bested a fleet of nine other contenders and sprinted to a new all-time high of 25.367 in Heat One. THE RUDDER magazine commented: "that she won on merit will hardly be disputed by those who saw her in the rough water of the second and third days."
Of course, no one remains alive who saw VINGT-ET-UN II in her prime as history's second Gold Cup winner. And, granted, her 25-mile-an-hour record, set in 1904, pales in comparison to the speeds of today.
But the trend from heavier to lighter and faster boats had to start somewhere. And that "somewhere" was the Hudson River, the original test laboratory, where power boat racing started on its long evolution to its present level of high competitive performance.