Gar Wood

Garfield A. 'Gar' Wood was a prolific inventor and, luckily for us, a successful industrialist. The fortune he generated and his passion for speed enabled him to become a world-record-setting speedboat racer and boat builder. Gar Wood produced magnificent runabouts, admired by all, and coveted by the elite. Known as the "aristocrat of motorboats," vintage Gar Wood boats are among the rarest and, even today, perhaps the most sought after of the wooden runabouts.

The race boat legend

Gar Wood and Orlin Johnson in Miss America X
Gar Wood in Miss America X.

It all began when Gar Wood stepped up and purchased a race boat named Miss Detroit in 1916. That same day, when he went to see his new boat in Algonac, he bought the boat yard itself, an outfit named, Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company. It soon proved to be a productive relationship. Gar Wood had a new boat built at his shop by Chris Smith, named Miss America, and drove it to set a world speed record (74.870 mph) in 1920 on the Detroit River.

Gar Wood won five straight Gold Cup victories until, in 1921, politics and influence won out over speed as the determinant of success on the water. Gar Wood had proven himself unbeatable, so the American Power Boat Association (APBA) changed the rules. Along with other new restrictions, boats entering a Gold Cup race could no longer utilize the new hydroplane hulls and could no longer utilize engines with more than 625 cubic inchs of displacement (for "safety" reasons).

Gar Wood in race boat.

The APBA announced the intent of their new restrictions: to encourage construction of so-called "Gentlemen's Runabouts," that would enable more gentlemanly uses of the boats when not racing. The APBA decision had important and interesting implications for Gar Wood and Colonel Jesse Vincent, Chief engineer for Packard. In 1922, a Packard Model 1237 V12 aero engine (with 6 of the 12 engine's cylinders removed) was installed in one of Gar Wood's race boats for the newly-regulated Gold Cup trophy race. One half of 1237 cubic inches is 618.5 cubic inches - just under the new APBA regulations. The temporarily modified Model 1237 Packard aero engine was installed in a new race boat named Packard Chriscraft for Colonel Jesse Vincent to drive in the race. Vincent defeated Gar Wood. Gar Wood's domination of the Gold Cup ended, permanently.

Gar Wood then focused on unlimited competitions, like the Harmsworth Trophy. Gar Wood took this trophy home 9 times and retired undefeated. He was the undisputed speed king on water.

Learn more about the Packard Model 1237 V12 engines used in Hornet II and other early famous Gar Wood race boats here and by reading Robert J. Neal's book "Packards at Speed" (see pp. 99-111).

Gar Wood shows "it's a gentleman's boat."
Gar Wood shows it's a gentleman's boat

If you drove what the APBA defined as a "gentleman's runabout" you could compete for the Fisher-Allison Trophy. Gar Wood's boats, powered by aircraft engines, had been disqualified for previous Fisher-Allison Trophy races because aircraft engines were prohibited. Finally, however, the rules were relaxed and engines up to 1050 cubic inches were allowed. So Gar Wood and his ever-present mechanic, Orlin Johnson, entered the 1924 Fisher-Allison Trophy race in Buffalo, wearing formal attire, including white ties, tails, and top hats (with chin straps). They won. Driving past the judges stand after the race to accept their trophy, Gar Wood smiled and said, "See, this really is a gentleman's boat."

Gar Wood built ten Miss America race boats and set a new world speed record five times (up to 124.9 mph). By 1933, Gar Wood was the undisputed champion of unlimited racing.

For more information about Gar Wood and his contributions to the history of boat racing: