My Greatest Thrill! – By Gar Wood

Science & Mechanics - Cover

Cover of the June 1937 Science and Mechanics Magazine

These days we all hear stories about how social media and the Internet can bring people together and help us to learn and share information about every subject under the sun. This is one of those stories. Here at Woody Boater, almost every day (if we remember) we try to post photos of classic boats on our Facebook page, to simply help spread the word to our ever-increasing group of Facebook friends (now over 6,500) – and it’s always fun (and often surprising) to see the responses. Many of those people then come over to the Woody Boater website to join the fun.

Back in mid-December we posted a photo of “Miss America IX” on our Facebook page, that we shot during the ACBS International in 2011. Within hours of posting the photo, we received a comment from our Facebook friend Austin Gunning in Bangor, Northern Ireland. He said – “Here is a photo you may like to use, it’s from the cover of an original June 1937 Science and Mechanics magazine that I found a few years ago in our family house, my dad had a few magazines from from that time.”

Miss America IX

Charles Mistele and co-pilot on board “Miss America IX” flat out, sporting their period race suites – 2011 ACBS International Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Then, via Facebook, I asked Austin if he could send us a copy of the original magazine interview with Gar Wood. I gave Austin my e-mail address and a few days later a scanned copy of the article arrived. Thinking this would be a fun story to share with our viewers, I enlarged the original photos and copied the text to make it easier to read. It’s cool to see what folks were reading about almost 77 years ago – courtesy of Austin Gunning & Science and Mechanics magazine. – Texx

Science and Mechanics - 1 - Copy

THUNDERING ALONG AT LIGHTNING SPEED over silvery waters, two giant American and English racing craft, the best in the world, cleave the brilliantly gleaming ripples on the picturesque Lake St. Clair, while Miss AMERICA X, piloted-by Gar Wood, the world’s speedboat champion, clinches the lead of victory in the International Harmsworth Trophy race from Hubert Scott-Paine. – Science and Mechanics magazine June 1937

Science and Mechanics - 2
My Greatest Thrill!

The ace of motor boat drivers tells of that moment in a long and exciting life out of which he got the biggest kick.

Gar Wood’s name has been synonymous with speed on the water ever since motorboat racing took its place among popular and dangerous sport. The Editors of SCIENCE AND MECHANICS felt that in his long career there must have been one moment that stands out in his memory above all others. They put the question directly to him. He answered it just as directly. Here is the answer! – Science and Mechanics magazine.

WHEN I was asked what was the greatest thrill I ever experienced during my racing career, it didn’t take me long to recall the time when, in 1920, I won my first Harmsworth trophy race in England. This race was the one which gave me the outstanding thrill of my racing career, for I won new honors for America and brought the famous trophy back to our shores.

Beating the English ace at that time was a sensational accomplishment and meant personal triumph for me and glory for the United States. This race, by the way, cost me about $150,000. Since that time I have spent more than $1,000,000 winning and defending the trophy. This Harmsworth trophy now reposes in the Yacht Club at Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan.

The Harmsworth trophy is a simple bit bronze on which two ancient motor boats are shown plunging in a heavy sea. Millions of dollars have been spent on it in competition. Its donor was the late Lord Northcliffe. The races staged in its name on the Detroit River have been known to cost $45,000 a minute.

But a champion can never rest on past laurels. England came back in1921 with a challenge for another race. This race however was run in America, and it is needless to say that I successfully defended the trophy. Orlin Johnson rode with me during this race. He has been my personal mechanic ever since and rides with me in all my races.

From a record standpoint, the most important historical event was on September 20, 1932, when I drove Miss America X on the St. Clair River, at Algonac, Michigan and attained a new world speed record of 124.915 miles per hour on a straightaway course – more than two miles a minute – beating Kaye Don’s record by 5.10 miles per hour. This record still stands. Don drove Miss England III 119.81 miles per hour on Loch Lomond, Scotland, July 18 of the same year.

The history of speedboat records is shown in the accompanying table. In establishing the worlds speed record with Miss America X in 1932, I used four motors. Each motor had 1,600 horse power, which together made a total of 6,400 horse power.

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My Mascots

While I am not superstitious, I always carry twin rag teddy bears, one christened “Teddy” and the other “Bruin.” Before I start any race I make certain that the mascots are fastened securely to the steering column. During one race, while they were attached to the transom, I noticed they were working loose from the boat. Instinctively I slowed down so the wind would not carry my “goodluck pieces” away. I lost some time, but the records show that I went on to win the race. You can call that luck if you care to.

Gar Wood & Orlin

Gar Wood, his mechanic Orlin Johnson, who rides with him in all his races, and the two mascots, “Teddy” and “Bruin”, without which Mr. Wood and his mechanic would not enter a contest.

I know that the public oftentimes has premonitions that some accident will occur in races of this kind. Most of the people enjoy a motor boat race simply as a sport. But it is safe to say many watch it in anticipation of an accident.

In 1928 Orlin Johnson, my mechanic, was severely injured while we were trying out Miss America VI and traveling at better than 100 miles per hour. The boat suddenly cracked to pieces. The hull was too light to take the strain. Orlin Johnson was carried to the hospital with a badly lacerated face, his jaws broken and body considerably bruised. His injuries resulted when he was thrown against the motors. The only thing that saved me from serious injury was the fact that I had grasped the steering wheel tightly. This gives some idea of what might happen when one is fond of high speed traveling on the water.

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A Costly Prize

While I take pride in being the nine-time winner of the internationally famous Harmsworth trophy, I must admit I cherish most the possession of the Carl G. Fisher trophy, of which I am now the proud owner. These races were fiercely contested. To obtain permanent possession of the trophy it was necessary to win three times in succession.

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The Harmsworth trophy champions are also shown in an accompanying table (above). A reporter once asked me why I called my racing boats “Miss” America. I thought the best way to answer the question was to say the boat is called a “Miss” because she is hard to handle, and that in brief sums up the task of piloting of racing craft when you are after new world speed records and the costliest prize in sports – the Harmsworth trophy, which I now possess.

Gar Wood – 1937

Austin Gunning’s father was a long time wooden boat enthusiast in Northern Ireland, building a few boats – including this small cruiser in the 1940’s.

Gunning Cruiser
He became a race boat enthusiast in the 1970’s, building this race boat in 1971, which they successfully campaigned in 1972/73. Here they are competing in a race in Northern Ireland, Belfast Lough in 1972 (note what looks like a small castle in the back ground).

Gunnings Race Boat
The power of social media… Early this morning (4:00 AM EST) as I was preparing this story, I wanted to confirm a few details. So via Facebook, I sent Austin a message (knowing it was mid-morning in Northern Ireland) and he returned my message with the information I was looking for within an hour.

Kind of makes you wonder what the Editors of Science and Mechanics magazine would have thought about the Internet back in 1937… Exchanging information and photos in mere minutes, half way around the world. They would probably have thought it would make for a good feature story in the magazine!

Thanks to Austin Gunning for sharing this with us today.


19 replies
  1. Rick
    Rick says:

    Great story Texx, thanks for starting a cold snowy Sunday in a great way. Its strange to think that it wasn’t all that many years ago we were MUCH less connected. Gotta love this easy exchange of information.

  2. Greg Lewandowski
    Greg Lewandowski says:

    The cover shot for the magazine clearly depicts Miss America X running on the Detroit River with the Belle Isle bridge in the background. This would be just off the Detroit Yacht Club with a skyline of Detroit’s Industrial might as a backdrop. I am going to try to print and frame that great picture.

  3. Cliff
    Cliff says:

    I LOVE WODDY BOATER! It’s 20 degrees ,snow flying the river is completely frozen the lake has ice every where the 283 is out of the boat and I’m starting to have a little freak out! Then BAM, Texx n Matt save the day. Gonna dig out the stairs and paint the bilge. Thanks guys I needed a little speed boat this Sunday. Ohh now the math part……

  4. Texx
    Texx says:

    Greg – The moment I first laid my eyes on that 1937 Science and Mechanics cover shot, I thought of the (now) iconic Belle Isle Bridge that is captured in so many race boat shots over the years.

    Like this one of Miss Canada IV in 1949.

  5. Troy
    Troy says:

    That is a GREAT read!

    It is a joy to read the words of Gar Wood as he spoke them so many years ago. I never would have had the opportunity to read this if it were not for Woodyboater.



    • Troy
      Troy says:

      Makes me think it must be time to DONATE again!

      These guys will be hitting the road soon to bring us all more great stories, so don’t forget the DONATE button is on the ABOUT page now.

  6. Don Ayers
    Don Ayers says:

    I was lucky enough to set in Miss America X. An awesome craft. Perhaps someday we will see it run again.

  7. Cobourg Kid
    Cobourg Kid says:

    Texx that cover is fantastic ( should be made into a poster) thanks to you and Austin .

    In the Science and Mechanics interview Wood mentions that his mechanic, Orlin Johnson, sustained major trauma during a 1928 test run in Miss America VI . Oddly Wood did not use that opportunity profile the immense contribution his loyal cadre of employees played in making his often unorthodox speedboat campaign a reality.

    In this excerpt from an article plucked from the May 1937 issue of MotorBoating Magazine, correspondent Earl Vernier recalls just how far Wood’s devoted crew and the community of Algonac was willing to go to assure that the 1931 Harmsworth trophy stayed in Detroit.

    “The hull of Miss America IX somehow couldn’t take all the power of those engines. It bobbed badly in the swell thrown by the English challenger which was always in the lead.

    This was the first time in the long dramatic history of these (Harmsworth) events that Wood had ever lost a heat. I was curious to know the cause of the trouble. How was it that Wood had been beaten at last? What had happened to Miss America IX? What was Wood doing to do to get his boat in shape? Could he get it ready in time? After-all If (Kaye) Don should win one more heat the trophy would go back to England for the first time since 1920.

    I wanted these questions answered. So I went to Grayhaven, Wood’s home. It was just past midnight in Wood’s boatwell. I was sitting in the corner of the yard watching the beehive of life that swarmed around the Harmsworth defender,(Miss America IX), when fifty staccato sounds pierced my ears at once. Rivets were biting fast into that beautiful Mahogany frame that held in its stomach over 2,000 horsepower. Men were climbing all over that boat, mechanics and engineers, riveting, sawing, hammering, bracing. We counted fifteen…
    The little band that works behind the scenes; the little band that had built this very boat, in fact all Wood’s boats, in Algonac, forty miles up the river; the little band that checks every inch of those engines, that keeps the hull strong, balanced to a hairs breadth.

    They were fingering the carburetors, oil lines, gas lines, water lines, everything. Someone was putting a stiffening brace on the hull where the water pounds hardest at 100 miles an hour. That hull must hold together. To a man all were thinking America must keep the Harmsworth. Wood must win. The boat must be ready to sweep across the line.

    These things were boring into the brains of these boys as they worked there, doggedly, jaws set, determined. They wouldn’t fail Wood this time.. Yesterday the hull had sprung under the terrific pounding of that water. That wouldn’t happen again

    They thrilled us as we sat there, watching. Woods loyal crew. Those boys would die for him. Sleep didn’t mean a thing to them as long as Miss America was not ready. When the hull of this very boat was a-building at Wood’s plant in Algonac these boys were there, working day and night, same as now.

    In Algonac they call these boats “Our Miss Americas”; and it’s well they should. The whole town for years has helped to build these boats. Men of the town have worked day and night on them for weeks at a stretch, often with only snatches of sleep here and there; many times without food.

    Mothers and wives would say nothing. It was all right as long as it was for Gar Wood, for Algonac, for America. And these men would come home sometimes and say, ‘Just another week and we’ll have her in the water”,and they would go back to the boat plant on the banks of that blue river and stick their hearts in that boat.

    About three o’clock in the morning Wood himself came out into the yard—short thin, his shock of white hair blowing, his shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, his collar flung open at the neck. He walked briskly over to his boat, climbed in, and began fingering the vital parts of those engines and super-chargers

    The sun came up finally, bright and hot, but that didn’t stop these men. The work went on all through the day. At 4:45 P.M., just fifteen minutes before the starting gun, the last tired mechanic climbed, out of the hull. Miss America IX was ready.

    At least they thought so. But just then Orlin Johnson noticed a leak in the gasoline tank….. With just fifteen minutes left the gasoline tank was leaking! Wood hurried to a telephone to call the race committee. Ask Don if we can have another forty five minutes,” he said “we can’t get ready by five o’clock there’s a leak in my gas tank”.

    The committee went to Don. There he was in his Miss England II near the judges’ stand, ready, waiting for the gun that would send him across the line. They explained Woods trouble. “No,” was Don’s answer. “Wood has two boats. Let him send one of them on, I am ready.”

    They asked the reason for his refusal. “If we delay forty five minutes,” Don said, I’ll have to go back to my boatwell and reheat my engine oil.”

    Wood, exhausted from lack of sleep and the high tension of the past few days, was surprised at Don’s refusal. “All right”, he answered. “I’ll be there. Tell Don I’ll be there. Tell him I’ll lead him into that first turn” and he hung up.

    There was only one thing to do—solder the tank. But they didn’t have the time to drain and refill. It was dangerous business but Wood didn’t hesitate. There was his beautiful home of Georgian stone, his yacht, his sea-plane, his boatwell. An explosion would wreck it all, but Wood didn’t hesitate.

    Johnny Brewer, one of Wood’s men, climbed under the hatches with the soldering iron. In a few minutes he was dragged out, unconscious from the gasoline fumes. Someone else crawled in. They didn’t care, these men they wouldn’t give up now. They had risked too much.

    The tank was soldered. Barely three minutes were left to warm up those engines and get to the starting line two miles away. Wood and Johnson threw on their helmets and ribbed life preservers, packed their ears with batting, put on heavy grease to protect their skin from exhaust fumes, donned their goggles and jumped into the cockpit.

    Johnson fired the engines and down the river they headed straight for the line.”

  8. Texx
    Texx says:

    Today I was asked how the four Packard V-12’s propelled “Miss America X” across the water in 1937. With some help from fellow Woody Boater Brian Robinson, here’s how I replied: (Think I got it right…)

    “Miss America IX” was originally powered by 2 Packard V-12’s (now powered by 2 big block Chevrolet’s) and “Miss America X” was powered by 4 Packard V-12’s. Both boats utilized twin props through twin v-drive’s. The v-drives were overdriven by 1:3 (approximately) as the Packard engines maxed out at 2,500 RPM and the twin race props needed to turn at 9,000 to 10,000 RPM.

    In the case of “Miss America X” (with her 4, V-12 Packard’s) there was a basic gear box (in/out box) between the two engines (twin port and starboard engines) which connected the front and rear engines together, and operated the prop shafts (see photo). The twin props were located behind the transom (behind where the driver & mechanic sat) to avoid injury in the event of a prop / shaft failure.

    The guys that drove those old race boats back in the day were very brave. – Texx

    • Cobourg Kid
      Cobourg Kid says:

      Thanks Texx …..I was wondering how that all worked… Frankly it’s a mystery to me that in an age when computer controls did not exist that Packard engineers were able to perfectly time two banks of twenty-four cylinders to fire in sequence and it’s even more amazing that Gar Wood himself was able to design a drive system ( without computer modeling or CAD) that did not tear itself ( and MA-X) to smithereens as soon as those 6400 horses were let out of the barn .

  9. Dean Bradford
    Dean Bradford says:

    Me and my dad acquired a boat that turned out to be a very Historical Boat. Resent research shows that Our Framar has been in motor boat magazine on 28th May 1937. This lead me here where other like minds join up.
    Me and my dad didn’t realise how much work we need to get done. We kind of went in the deep end for our 1st Boat.
    We done such a lot of history research and learned the boat had been involve in secret missions during the war.
    My disability and my dads illness is making it difficult for us to keep boat at her best.
    And for that reason we may consider selling her as long as the history and stories are shared to the world.
    Here’s a clipping

  10. Paul Rentz
    Paul Rentz says:

    1937 was the year my mother’s father, Elmer LeSuer, came back to Detroit to work for Gar Wood. He had worked for Edward Gray (Henry Ford’s Chief Engineer and the builder of ‘Grayhaven’ from their days at Riverside Engine in Oil City, PA to Gray’s ‘post Ford Days’ building Grayhaven) then left in 1919 to go back to Pennsylvania but returned at Gray’s bidding and interviewing with Gar Wood.

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