Saturday, March 19, 2022

Early Detroit River Speedboat Racing History

The Gold Cup--officially known as the American Power Boat Association (APBA) Challenge Cup--is the oldest continually-awarded trophy in all of motorsports. This huge trophy dates back to 1904 when the motorboat race was held in New York. In those early days, boats plowed through the water rather than skimming the surface. The first winning boat measured 59 feet with an 8.5 foot beam; its 110 hp Standard motor averaged 23 mph.

In 1915, the community-owned Miss Detroit won the Gold Cup on Manhasset Bay, New York. On race day, Miss Detroit's pilot could not be found, so crew member Johnny Milot jumped into the cockpit at the last minute without any protective gear next to riding mechanic Jack Beebe. Milot took a pounding on the first turn and heaved up his guts, so Beebe took over and won the race. The Miss Detroit team earned the right to defend the Gold Cup in home waters.

The single-step hydroplane was powered by a 250 hp Sterling engine. The revolutionary hydroplane design gave the boat the ability to plane over the water's surface and break the 60 mph speed barrier. The decisive win spelled the end of the speedboat displacement era and the beginning of the hydroplane era.

Detroit, Michigan became the Boat Racing Capital of North America surplanting New York as the watersport's epicenter. The Detroit River track was 2.5 miles long for a 5 mile circuit. Beginning in 1917, industrialist Garfield (Gar) Wood became the sport's first superstar winning five consecutive Gold Cup victories. During the winter of 1921-1922, the APBA changed the Gold Cup rules to make racing more competitive and affordable because Wood's boats were unbeatable. Wood retired from Gold Cup racing.

Gar Wood also won the prestigious British Harmsworth Trophy nine times in international competition. In 1932, Wood piloted Miss America X --powered by four supercharged Packard V-12 engines producing 6,400 hp, setting a waterspeed record that went unbroken for over thirty years.

In addition to Gar Wood's unchallenged reign, I found a couple of other noteworthy Gold Cup races on the Detroit River. In the 1933 competition, Dodge Motor Company heir, Horace Dodge Jr. entered eight hydrofoils in the race. El Lagarto--also known as The Leaping Lizard of Lake George (New York)--left the Dodge boats in its wake.

Due to gas rationing for War War II, the APBA suspended its Gold Cup competitions from 1941 through 1945. The race resumed in Detroit on Labor Day in 1946 to huge interest. Big Band leader Guy Lombardo piloted Tempo VI garnering lots of pre-race publicity for the sport. After a hard-fought race, Lombardo won a spectacular victory by breaking Gar Wood's average 70.412 mph lap record for the 30 mile race by 0.478 mph. Gar Wood was in the grandstands to see his twenty-six-year-old Gold Cup record broken by the bandleader.

More on industrialist Gar Wood

Friday, March 11, 2022

The Ford V-8 Gives G-Men Run For Their Money

Henry Ford with his Miracle V-8 Engine--1932

Midway through the 1927 Model T year, Henry Ford announced he was shutting down operations in 25 of 36 Ford plants across the country to develop a new model to retain his company's hold on the low-priced market. The 1928 Model A was a big success with its new streamlined styling and a beefy, four-cylinder engine that performed favorably with Chevrolet's inline, six-cylinder. But Chevy's advertising slogan "A Six for the Price of a Four," captured the imagination of the car-buying public and Chevy was on pace to outsell Fords.

"If the public wants more cylinders, we'll build an eight-cylinder," Henry Ford told a group of hand-picked engineers. His goal was to produce an affordable V-8 engine for FoMoCo's low-cost line of cars. Ford did not invent the V-8 engine; in fact, Ford's Lincoln Division had offered them for years. But those engines were heavy, complex, and far too expensive for the low-priced market.

By casting the engine block in one piece of alloy steel, parts were eliminated and assembly was simplified. After much trial and error, FoMoCo offered its first Flathead [side valve] V-8 in February of 1932 as the successor to the Model A's four-cylinder engine. The 1932 Model 18 soon became known simply as the Ford V-8. The engineering of this innovative, affordable engine represented Henry Ford's last mechanical triumph for the company he founded. Ford was sixty-nine years old.

To accommodate the V-8's new engine dimensions, the Model 18 boasted a new frame with a wheelbase that was six inches longer than the Model A. The chassis for the Model A was simply two straight, steel rails. The Model 18 had an outward curved chassis with cross members welded-in for strength. The wider rear end gave the car more stability at high speeds which appealed to a specialized portion of the Ford V-8's fan base.

The Model 18's transmission was a manual, three-speed Sychromesh which greatly improved performance with a top speed of 65 mph in 1932. As improvements were made on the engine, horsepower climbed and speeds increased to 76 mph and beyond.

The Model 18 Ford V-8 came equipped with an electric fuel pump which allowed the gasoline tank to be positioned underneath the rear of the car for improved passenger safety. A high-pressure oil pump lubricated the internal workings of the engine. Rubber engine mounts reduced vibration and rubber weather stripping eliminated mechanical squeaks and rattles in the doors and the engine compartment.

1932 Model 18 Ford V-8

The Model 18 debuted in the Highland Park Ford Showroom on Woodward Avenue. Interest was high, but sales were slower than expected because of the Great Depression. Still the car sold a million in 1932 and the same number in 1933.

In 1934, Ford designer Joe Galamb updated the body of the Ford V-8 with a sweeping grill resembling a Medieval shield. The headlamps were built into the car's front end, rather than bolted to an old-fashioned headlamp bracket spread across the front of the car. The Ford V-8 was a brilliant performer winning road races and hill-climbing contests across the United States.

Restyled 1934 Ford V-8

The Ford V-8 became a favorite of bank robbers in the mid-1930s. John Dillinger broke out of jail in Crown Point, Indiana by whittling a piece of wood to look like a handgun. He used black shoe polish to disguise the phoney weapon and bluffed his way out of his cell. He then hijacked Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford V-8 parked outside of the jail and escaped. Two-months later on May 16, 1934, Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger allegedly wrote Henry Ford:

Hello Old Pal,

Arrived here at 10:00 am today. Would like to drop in and see you. You have a wonderful car. Been driving it for three weeks. It's a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be, drive a Ford and watch all other cars fall behind you. I can make any other car take a Ford's dust.

John Dillinger

The provenance of the letter has never been established. Ford turned the letter over to the FBI, but they determined it was fake. Six weeks after the letter was received, John Dillinger was gunned down by G-Men in front of a Chicago movie theater on July 22, 1934, so the letter can never be properly authenticated.

Seventy-five years later, another Dillinger letter was found in Henry Ford's FBI file after a Freedom of Information search. This letter was dated May 6, 1934, at 7:00 pm.

Dear Mr. Ford,

I want to thank you for building the Ford V-8 as fast and sturdy a car as you did; otherwise, I would not have gotten away from the coppers in that Wisconsin, Minnesota case.

Yours till I have the pleasure of seeing you,

John Dillinger

This letter is believed to have more validity than the other letter Henry Ford leaked to the press. That letter was probably penned by some company adman. It is thought by Ford historians that because of the reference to escaping from the police, this rediscovered letter was not publicly acknowledged by FoMoCo.

Police departments all over the United States represented Ford's largest buyers of fleet vehicles, so Henry Ford, rather than risk angering law enforcement, turned the original letter over to the FBI where it languished for three-quarters of a century. That letter, though barely legible, is thought to be legitimate.

That was not the first endorsement Henry Ford's V8 received from gangsters. A month before the Dillinger letter was written, Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame wrote Ford on April 10, 1934.

"While I have still got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedon from trouble the Ford has even other car skinned and even if my business hasen't been strickly legal it don't hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8."

Handwriting analysts question the authenticity of the letter. Some believe Bonnie may have written the letter for Clyde; others believe it was the brainchild of the Ford publicity machine. Forty days after the letter was dated, Bonnie and Clyde were shot dead by a posse of Texas Rangers and local police on a county road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934.

The stolen 1934 Ford V-8 Deluxe Sedan was riddled by 112 armor-piercing bullets. The coroner's report indicated 17 entrance wounds in Clyde Barrow and 26 in Bonnie Parker. When the car was returned to its rightful owner, it immediately began to tour the country as a notorious attraction at county fairs and carnivals.

Bonnie and Clyde Death Car

At least half a dozen fake death cars also toured the United States. The authenticated Bonnie and Clyde death car has the car's original registration number stamped three times on the car--the engine, the transmission, and the frame.

The original car is usually housed behind plexiglass at Whiskey Pete's Hotel and Casino in Primm, Nevada, but as of January 2022, it is part of an exhibit on loan to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Museum in Simi Valley, California.

Handwriting Analysis of Clyde Barrow's letter