In Our Wake: The Madman’s Dream

In Our Wake: The Madman’s Dream

Were you around in the early 1900’s, you would have likely known the name Garfield Wood. Born to a ferryboat operator in 1880, the entrepreneurial “Gar” made a tenuous early living as a skilled and intuitive repairman. Then one day in 1911, he watched a sweaty, swearing coal truck operator struggling to hand-crank the lift that emptied his coal bed. Wood and his wife Murlen poured their savings into designing a hydraulic bed lift—creating the first dump truck.

Gar Wood

Photo Courtesy of the Detroit News

Wood and eight of his 12 siblings moved to Detroit and established the Wood Hoist Company. Wood was a multi-millionaire by age 40. Having come of age watching steamboat races, he became a fanatical speedboat racer after his first win in 1911 piloting Miss Detroit. “I was speed boat crazy from that moment,” he told a reporter. Wood bought Chris Smith & Sons boats (later re-christened Chris-Craft) and launched a line of renowned “Gar Wood” branded runabouts that included 33-foot-long 500 horsepower Liberty aircraft engine driven gentleman’s racers called Baby Gars. In 1925, the media-savvy Wood’s Baby Gar IVbested a passenger train racing from Albany to Manhattan. But “Gar” was best known for a series of ten flyers he christened the Miss Americas.

Photo Courtesy of the Detroit News

Twin Engine Miss America 1

Photo Courtesy of the Detroit News

The years between World Wars saw a speed war between the U.S. and U.K. Wood’s fiercest rival was Irishman Kaye Don, whose Rolls-Royce powered beasts kept the pair trading records. Wood topped 100 mph in 1931 aboard Miss America IX. Then in 1932, Don hit a stunning 119 mph aboard Miss England III. Thus, Miss America X would become Wood’s icon. Dubbed “a madman’s dream,” her mahogany hull was 38 feet long, ten feet wide and powered by four supercharged 12-cylinder Packard airplane engines with 1,800 horsepower apiece. Wood wanted them connected, in tandem, by a single crankshaft, creating in effect, two 24 cylinder engines-—with 16 carburetors and 96 spark plugs.

“You may as well put a bomb in an egg crate, Mr. Wood,” Packard engineer M.J. Steele said. “The first trial might kill you.”

“I’ll take that chance,” Wood answered.

In August 1932, before a million Detroit River spectators, Wood and mechanic Orlin Johnson took their seats behind all that horsepower, blazing a world record that would stand for five years as the first boat to exceed two miles a minute—124.9 miles per hour. So crushing was her victory that Rolls-Royce reportedly exited boat racing.

“Speed boat racing is a mechanics game,” Wood said afterwards. “I guess that’s why I like it.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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