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Putting the “Unlimited” into Hydroplanes
Kirsten N. Johnson
Gar Wood's great niece
When the calendar recently turned from 2019 to 2020, it marked the centurial of a truly epic year in speedboat racing history. 1920 was a year of speedboat glory for America, and for two men in particular. Gar Wood and Chris Smith - working out of a small boat shop in Algonac, Michigan - had now built the fastest speedboat in the world. With this boat, they had won the world’s supreme, Unlimited-class speedboat racing championship - the Harmsworth Trophy. The boat was the Miss America – a sleek hydroplane made of Philippine mahogany and driven by two converted 12-cylinder, 500 hp Liberty airplane powerplants.1
The powerplants that characterized “Unlimited” – the term used to describe a class of racing boats that have no restrictions on the displacement size of their piston engines – began a radical reformulation in 1918. Gar Wood, an auto mechanic turned newly-minted millionaire from his invention of the hydraulic hoist, was now indulging the boat-racing passion that he had developed in childhood. Outwardly personable and unassuming, Wood’s underlying fiercely competitive nature compelled his involvement in virtually every aspect of the design and building of his raceboats.
Applying the innovative thinking that had inspired his hoist invention, Wood saw a new potential solution to the problem of weight vs horsepower and speed. Marine engines were much heavier than the airplane engines of the time period. “If we want speed,“ Wood reasoned, “we’ve got to cut weight.”2 Additionally, Gar reasoned that “airplane motors had to be more dependable than boat motors, since there was little margin for engine failure in the air.”3
Wood’s visionary plan had many naysayers. Skeptics believed airplane motors would fail in speedboats smashing through choppy water because they were too fragile, with too many delicate parts. Regardless of the warnings of the engineers, Wood – wielding the power one derives from being the primary financier of a project - held firm.
The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, an American aircraft manufacturer founded in 1916, had contracted with the British government to build powerful, lightweight, 12-cylinder V-type engines. Wood acquired one for his prospective 1918 raceboat. As the aircraft powerplant was being adapted into a marine engine over the 1917-1918 winter, Chris Smith was building a 20-foot hull for the new speedboat. The result was the Miss Detroit III, the lightest craft for her power ever built. She was 400 lbs. lighter than her predecessor, with an increase of propeller revolutions to 2,000 per minute.4 Driven by the converted Curtiss 1650 cubic inch, 400-horsepower aviation engine, the revolutionary hydroplane handily won the 1918 Gold Cup. Her fastest 5-mile lap was recorded as 59.3 mph, an increase of 6 mph over the 1917 record.5 A MoToR BoatinG race account reported “it was apparent that she was a 70-mile boat.” When running full-throttle, “she had no difficulty in passing everything in sight.”6
The Miss Detroit III demonstrated the potentially unlimited speeds that raceboats could attain with aircraft engines, which silenced some initial critics. However, new protests arose against the use of converted airplane motors in established races – from marine engine companies as well as raceboat owners. When calls for disqualification were lodged against Wood’s boat during the next racing season, on the grounds that the rules required “marine” engines, Gar contended, “If an airplane engine runs a boat all right that makes it a marine engine, doesn’t it? Please tell me what a marine engine is. I’m looking for someone who can define it.”7
Wood’s speedboating interests went beyond simply collecting trophies at annual regattas. Gar was genuinely dedicated to discovering what limits there were on greater over-the-water speeds, and then striving to overcome them. He was frustrated by the new American Power Boat Association (APBA) racing rules meant to handicap his engine-adaptation ingenuity. With the European war at an end, he turned his focus to a new possibility overseas. England sponsored a race that promoted visionary thinking - the Unlimited speedboat championship of the world.
From its inception in 1903, the British International Trophy race (aka the Harmsworth) was intended as a test of engineering and design, and to encourage the development of hulls and engines in watercraft. The 1903 Deed of Gift expressly stated that: "The race should serve a most effective means of bringing marine motors and the design of launch hulls to a state of perfection.” There was no limit placed on the horsepower or form of motive power employed, but boats could not exceed 40 feet in length.8
During the 1919-1920 winter in Algonac, Wood and Smith built two hydroplanes to take to England for the 1920 Harmsworth race; packing two powerful, converted Liberty airplane engines in each. Miss Detroit V was 38 feet, heavier, and designed for rough water. Miss America was smaller at 26 feet, faster, and designed for calm water.9
For several years, the residents of tiny, riverside Algonac had delighted in the thrill of many of the fastest boats in America being built in their village. During speed tests, locals lined the waterfront to watch the mahogany missiles thunder over the river. Now, two hydroplanes from Algonac were going to the world championship in England! The town talk was of raceboats, hulls, engines, propellers, speed. How fast would the new creations of Gar Wood’s and Chris Smith’s exceptionalism go?
The builders of the two raceboats were no less unmoved by the magnitude of their endeavor. An accounting of events describes an evening when Miss America lay in her cradle, awaiting shipment to England. Chris Smith – who would soon launch a company called Chris-Craft - was spotted on down on his knees at her stern. He was stroking her bow, and quietly saying, “You’ll do, my girl, you’ll do.”10
Kirsten N. Johnson is a life-long travel and boating enthusiast and the great-niece of Gar Wood, the legendary speedboat racer. Growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina, she developed an enduring passion for outdoor activities and sporting events. After receiving degrees in registered nursing and health information technology, for many years Kirsten worked as a travel nurse contractor at multiple healthcare sites throughout the U.S and Alaska. Kirsten has spent several years researching the Wood family, interviewing family members, and collecting family letters and documents. She currently lives in Virginia, where she is writing a biography about Gar Wood and the Wood family.
1. Barrett, J. Lee, Speedboat Kings, Hardscrabble Books and the Historical Society of Michigan, 1986, p. 44. 2. Ibid., p. 36.
3. “Rearview Mirror Look at Speedboat King,” Detroit News, May 10, 1997
4. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 37.
5. “Miss Detroit III Wins the Gold Cup,” MoToR BoatinG, October 1918, p. 42.
6. Ibid., p. 9.
7. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 41.
8. “Harmsworth Deed of Gift,” The Rudder, May 1903, p. 304.
9. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 44.
10. “Old Algonac Awaits Dawn and Bets Are All on Gar,”
Detroit Free Press, September 17, 1932