Featured: Garfield Wood Was A Record-Smashing Inventor

Garfield Wood Was A Record-Smashing Inventor

By Ronald Ahrens
July 3, 2015

Benito Mussolini wanted the American boat racer Gar Wood badly enough to send a special train.

Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, wouldn’t countenance Wood’s absence from the first Concorso Motonautico Internazionale di Venezia Lido, the speedboat races being held in September of 1929. The organizing committee desired American competitors’ participation and arranged free transportation of any racing boats on the Cosulich Line, which was based in Trieste.

But Wood’s Miss America VIII hadn’t dried out after winning the Harmsworth Trophy at Detroit on Sept. 1. Instead of a Cosulich ship, the New York Times reported the speedboat would be taken aboard Mauretania, the Cunard superliner that only weeks earlier had been displaced by the new Bremen as world’s fastest ocean liner. At Cherbourg, France, Mussolini’s train would load Miss America VIII and rush her to Venice.

Miss America VIII was Wood’s latest and greatest. Since 1918, with Miss Detroit III, he had been fitting his speedboats with aircraft engines, first Curtiss and then Liberty V-12s. Wood was so committed to winning—nine times he took the Harmsworth Trophy, formally known as the British International Trophy for Motorboats—that he relentlessly pursued better hull design and more power.

For the new craft, he commissioned Harry Miller to create two supercharged DOHC V-16s. Each of the 18.25-liter engines featured a 54-degree V-angle and could produce 3,600 hp at a screaming 6000 rpm. There were teething problems, but eventually, at New York in 1931, Miss America VIII reached 104 mph.

The next year, Wood had four of the much lower-revving Liberty V-12s in Miss America X, his last racing boat, which was called a “madman’s dream.” He had devised a method for synching the V-12s, sketching it out on his living room floor. Thanks to the combined 6,400 hp, he reached a new record of 124.91 mph on Lake St. Clair, near Detroit.

After that run, he squeezed reporter W.W. Edgar between himself and mechanic Orlin Johnson in the 38-footer and duplicated the feat. Looking aft at the “two mountains of foam,” Edgar imagined being chased by Niagara Falls. “It seemed that any minute this mountain of water would engulf us,” Edgar wrote. “We never were more than six inches ahead of it in the mad pursuit down the river.”

Wood and Edgar met up again in 1943, talking this time about the effectiveness of the United States Navy’s PT boats. “I guess it was Miss America X that was the mother of them,” Wood said, thinking of hull refinement and powertrain development. “They’re all offsprings from her.”

It was estimated that fielding a Harmsworth Trophy entry cost around $100,000. Wood could afford it easily enough. He built up a $50 million fortune, owned five homes, and flew around in gorgeous Fairchild and Grumman amphibious airplanes.

Born in 1880, Wood grew up in Minnesota and spent his summers on Lake Osakis, where his father operated a paddle-wheel ferry. (The elder Wood, a staunch Republican, named the boy Garfield Arthur, honoring two presidents.) After obtaining a basic engineering education at Armour Institute of Technology, in Chicago, Wood worked as an engineer in Duluth, Minn., and then sold Fords in St. Paul.

And always, he tinkered. Achieving a breakthrough with his hydraulic ram for dump trucks, he moved to Detroit in 1913 and established Wood Hydraulic Hoist & Body Co. Soon, he could involve himself with boat racing, starting out by winning every Gold Cup from 1917 to 1921 in his Miss Detroit boats. After a change in rules, he developed the 33-foot Baby Gar, which went into commercial production. His collaborator Chris Smith thought the runabout was too big and expensive, so he founded his own company: Chris-Craft.

Wood lived 90 years, and he kept futzing around. At one point, it was said Wood held more patents than any living American. From numerous truck-body inventions, he turned his attention to marine, automotive, and aviation innovations, including an automatic pilot for airplanes in 1938.

In 1954, his twin-hull, 120-ton Venturi sank in the Bahamas when its plywood cladding failed. “I guess maybe she’d become brittle,” Wood told the New York Times.

Living alone on Fisher Island, near Miami, in 1967, he was working on the Super Electric Model A, a lightweight car, and a reporter from Popular Mechanics wrote that “if the results of preliminary tests were to be disclosed, excited auto bigwigs would be sloshing a watery pathway to his door.”

Gar Wood’s name isn’t widely known today except to vintage boating aficionados, but for two generations of racing fans—and for Italy’s dictator—he was the ultimate sportsman.

Image sources: woodyboater.comgenevalakesboatshow.comphotobucket.comwoodyboater.com

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Bill Heptig
Bill Heptig
8 years ago

I went to the Packard national in ’13, at the Proving grounds in Utica Michigan is the most impressive boat I’ve ever seen Miss America X, reminds me of a Multi Engine pulling tractor, just the most awesome speed boat ever, 4 Packard Marine engines took a brave guy to get in this thing and run flat out!

Matthew Lange
8 years ago

There was a fantasy documentary on the BBC about 10 years ago that detailed the rivalry between Wood and Britain’s Kaye Don (driver of Miss England II). Trying to find a record of it through Google is proving difficult. It is well worth watching if you can find it though

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
8 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Lange

Somewhere out there in the vaporware void there’s also a video from an old news reel of those insane four V12’s being warmed up that I just recently ran across on the net . The sound alone was worth watching it for never mind the visuals . Like you though search as I may via BING etc I’m coming up empty handed

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
8 years ago

Great catch ! For certain Garfield Wood is a seriously under appreciated American genius that you’re absolutely correct in saying barely gets his due amongst the ‘ Mahogany ‘ set [ wooden power boat aficionados ] never mind the general public . So a two huge thumbs up for the article and here’s hoping its read by all .

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