Monday, February 5, 2018

Detroit's Forgotten Speedboat Champion Gar Wood

Garfield "Gar" Wood
One of the least remembered Detroit sports celebrities is speedboat champion Garfield "Gar" Authur Wood. He was known as the "Grey Fox of Algonac" by many in the speedboat racing world. He was the first person to go over 100 mph on the water. Gar Wood won five straight powerboat Gold Cup races between 1917 and 1921. He won the British International Trophy for Motorboats known as the Harmsworth Trophy nine times and retired from speedboat racing in 1933 to concentrate on business concerns.

Gar Wood was born in Mapleton, Iowa on December 4, 1880. His father was a patriotic Civil War veteran and named Gar after the current president James A. Garfield and his vice-president Chester Arthur. Gar was the third of twelve children. As a growing boy, Gar assisted his father who was a ferryboat operator on Lake Osakia in Minnesota. It is here where he learned his love of boating and developed his mechanical skill for inventing devices to solve mechanical problems.

Without any formal engineering training, Gar Wood invented the hydraulic lift for the titling beds of coal trucks in 1911 at the age of thirty-one. In addition to the dump truck, his company developed the self-packing garbage truck familiar in every corner of this country. In all, Gar Wood held over thirty United States patents making him a multi-millionaire by the age of forty.

Gar Wood and his eight brothers established the Wood Hoist Company which soon became Garwood Industries. Alongside industrial giants like Ford, Dodge, and Chalmers, the family built an industrial empire around the hydraulic lift which enabled Gar to pursue his love of speedboat racing.

In 1916, Gar Wood purchased his first motorboat naming it Miss Detroit. The following year he put a Curtiss "12" airplane engine in a speedboat against the advice of everyone and won the 15th Annual Gold Cup Race on the Detroit River. Fours years later, he set a new water speed record of 74.87 mph. In the next twelve years, he and his racing team built ten Miss America's and broke the water speed record five more times raising the speed to 124.86 mph on the St. Clair River in 1932.

Miss America X was the last of Gar Wood's racing boats. The $600,000 speed boat was powered by four 1800 horsepower, twelve cylinder Packard engines run in tandem in a double-hulled boat. The boat's stringers were made of top quality spruce with the rest of the boat made of mahogany. This was the first boat to go over two miles a minute using 10 gallons of fuel per mile when full open. After Wood won the international Harmsworth Trophy in 1932 and 1933, he retired from racing leaving his son to carry on the family tradition. Gar Wood did more to develop the American speedboat sport than anybody.

In the 1930s, Garwood Industries built a new boat plant in Marysville, Michigan capable of producing 1,200 quality custom boats a year. Their two basic commercial models were a 28' runabout and a 22' runabout. In all, the factory produced 10,000 boats before the company converted over to the war effort during World War II. The company had extensive military contracts for military hoists, hydraulic units, dump trucks, tow trucks, and transport trucks. After the war, Garwood Industries quit boat production in 1947.

In his later years, Wood worked on a commercially feasible, battery-powered electric automobile. His electric car used eight 12-volt lead batteries connected in a series to power two specially designed 90-volt, 2 hp DC motors. The top speed was 52 mph and cost about twenty cents to recharge the batteries. The car was named the Gar Wood Super Electric Model A and was featured in the July 1967 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Garfield Arthur Wood died from stomach cancer at the age of ninety on June 19, 1971 and was buried in Algonac, Michigan. Upon his death, Detroit News reporter George Van wrote, "To the public, he was Tom Swift, Jules Verne, and Frank Merriwell, with a little bit of Horatio Alger thrown in."

A short clip of Miss America X and Gar Wood in action winning the Harmsworth Trophy in 1932.

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