Garfield Arthur Wood – the immortal “Grey Fox of Grayhaven (Michigan)” – was Unlimited hydroplane racing’s first superstar. In the years prior to World War II, “King Gar” personified power boat competition in the eyes of the world.
He won the APBA Gold Cup four times as an owner and five times as a driver, and captured the Harmsworth International Trophy eight times as a driver and nine times as an owner. Gar was the first to average over 70 miles per hour in a heat of Gold Cup competition (in 1920). He was also the first to average over 100 miles per hour on a straightaway mile (in 1931).
In his five Gold Cup wins, between 1917 and 1921, Wood started 15 heats, finished first 12 times and second three times.
In his nine Harmsworth Trophy wins, between 1920 and 1933, Gar was the winning driver every year with the exception of 1931. His brother George Wood, driver of MISS AMERICA VIII, was declared the winner that time.
The British challenger in 1931 was Kaye Don with MISS ENGLAND II. Don won the first heat with Gar Wood finishing second in MISS AMERICA IX, while MISS AMERICA VIII came in third.
In Heat Two of the 1931 Harmsworth, both MISS ENGLAND II and MISS AMERICA IX jumped the gun and were disqualified. MISS ENGLAND II rolled over in the first turn. MISS AMERICA VIII ended up as the winner.
Since the Harmsworth was a best two-out-of-three-heat contest, only MISS ENGLAND II and MISS AMERICA VIII were eligible to run in Heat Three. MISS ENGLAND II was too badly damaged to continue. So, George Wood and MISS AMERICA VIII ran the third heat unopposed and won the race.
Wood was a multi-millionaire who worked with the government in developing the U.S. Navy’s PT Boat for service in World War II. But he was not born to great wealth.
The saga of the “Grey Fox” began on December 4, 1880, in a small town in Iowa. His parents, Walter and Elizabeth Wood, named their son Garfield Arthur in honor of the newly elected U.S. President, James Garfield, and his Vice-President, Chester Arthur.
A few years later, the family relocated to Minnesota where Walt Wood operated the ferry boat MANITOBA on Lake Osakis. At the time, another ferry boat was plying the same waters and a rivalry developed between the two captains.
Boasts about the speed of the vessels–and arguments about it–inevitably led to a contest for the title of fastest boat on the lake.
With young Gar Wood on board as a part of the crew, the two ferry boats squared off against each other. The MANITOBA jumped into an early lead but lost it when Walt Wood’s paddlewheeler ran out of fuel. Undaunted, Walt yelled to Gar to break up the boat’s furniture for fuel. Father and son quickly dismantled the chairs and tables, regained the lead, and went on to win the race in a frenzied finish.
Gar never forgot that first taste of competition–and victory–on the water. Years later, he would recall, “I still feel the thrill of winning that race. The engines driving those paddlewheels fascinated me. I resolved right then that someday I was going to build race boats of my own.”
As a young man, Gar married Murlen Fellows, had a son, Garfield A. Wood, Jr., and moved to St. Paul. There, he opened a machine shop. One of his first projects was the construction of a racing craft, which he built in 1910 and named LEADING LADY. Under the sponsorship of W.P. Cleveland, LEADING LADY covered ten miles at an average of 30 miles per hour.
The following year, Wood and Cleveland modified the hull and entered her in some races on the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association circuit in the Mid-West. They managed to win a few trophies but lacked the financing to be truly competitive.
The problem of money was solved when Wood invented the hydraulic lift dump truck. This came about one day when Gar happened to observe a truck driver laboriously unloading two tons of coal with a hand-operated lift. After listening to the poor fellow curse his fate about having to perform such dirty and heavy work, an idea took root in Wood’s mind.
He went home, took half of his life savings of $200, and in his backyard garage built the world’s first hydraulic truck hoist, for which he obtained a patent. Gar then established the Wood Hydraulic and Body Company, and his fortune was made.
Wood then stepped up his participation in boat racing. He built a new craft, the LITTLE LEADING LADY, in 1912. Gar won every heat of the MVPBA Regatta at Keokuk, Iowa, that year, and a racing legend was born.
At this time, Wood added two important members of his team. They were a couple of teddy bears, named Teddy and Bruin. These two mascots were decked out in racing apparel, which included tiny cork life preservers.
For the balance of his career, Gar would never set foot in a race boat without his twin good luck tokens. Teddy and Bruin rode with Wood during all of his championship exploits over the next two decades. And he kept them close by for the rest of his life until his death on June 19, 1971.
When MISS AMERICA VI crashed to the bottom of the St. Clair River in 1928, the first items salvaged from the wreck were the teddy bears. Gar credited Teddy and Bruin with saving his life and the life of his riding mechanic, Orlin Johnson.
In Wood’s words, “They (the teddy bears) are the captains of my fate.”
Gar had a flair for showmanship that is legendary. He did more to popularize power boating in the United States than any other individual.
On May 27, 1925, Wood staged one of the sport’s most incredible publicity stunts–a match race between the Liberty-powered BABY GAR IV and BABY GAR V and the TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED, a train from Albany to New York City.
Four years earlier, in 1921, Wood had similarly captured the nation’s imagination when he raced GAR JR. II against the HAVANA SPECIAL train up the Atlantic coast from Miami to New York. GAR JR. II covered the 1250-mile distance in 47 hours and 23 minutes and defeated the HAVANA SPECIAL by twelve minutes.
On the morning of May 27, 1925, the 33-foot BABY GAR IV and BABY GAR V sat poised and ready, beneath the New York Central Bridge in Albany. At 6:53 A.M., the TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED roared by and the race was on.
Just above Poughkeepsie, the faster BABY GAR V went dead in the water due to mechanical difficulties. Wood had to wait seven minutes for BABY GAR IV to catch up. Gar then transferred from the disabled “V” to the back-up boat and quickly resumed the race.
At 9:50 A.M., Wood and mechanic Johnson pulled up to the Columbia Yacht Club dock on 86th Street in New York with BABY GAR IV. They had defeated the TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED by a full seventeen minutes. Gar and Orlin shook hands. Wood then reached into his wallet and presented his co-pilot with a 500-dollar bonus for a job well done.
The race was duly reported by the print media and the movie newsreels and generated a lot of favorable publicity for the sport. Beating the TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED gave added luster to the Gar Wood legend that flourishes to this day.
Gar Wood and Christopher Columbus Smith (of Chriscraft fame) probably did more to refine the “step” hydroplane concept than anyone else. Wood and Smith collaborated on MISS DETROIT III in 1917. They were the first to try a lightweight aircraft engine adapted for marine use in a race boat. The engine in question was a 1650 cubic inch V-4 Curtiss power plant.
MISS DETROIT III achieved victory in the 1917 Gold Cup on the Mississippi River at Minneapolis. Three years later, Wood’s MISS AMERICA I set a long-standing Gold Cup heat record of 70.412 miles per hour on a 5-mile course.
From 1910 to 1936, the “step” hydroplane reigned supreme as the undisputed king of big-time power boat racing. This was especially true in the area of Harmsworth competition.
The British International (“Harmsworth”) Trophy was the bronze plaque traditionally emblematic of the speedboat championship of the world. The Harmsworth was technically a race between nations rather than individual boats. During the years between the World Wars, the two countries that usually battled for possession of the Harmsworth Trophy were the United States and Great Britain.
MISS AMERICA I journeyed to England in 1920 and won the race hands down, powered by a pair of Smith-Liberty engines. Wood found that by adding a second engine–and by lengthening the hull accordingly–he had the fastest boat in the world.
By the time MISS AMERICA X came along in 1932, Wood had upped the ante to four giant engines. These were V-12 Packards, rated at 7600 horsepower, installed two-by-two in a mahogany hull, 38 feet in length. MISS AMERICA X had great difficulty in cornering, but she was the first to average over 124 miles per hour on a mile straightaway course.
After Wood’s fifth straight Gold Cup victory in 1921, he became a victim of his own success. His team was simply unbeatable. The American Power Boat Association outlawed hydroplane hulls and imposed a 625 cubic inch piston limitation on engine size–supposedly for safety reasons but obviously to stop Gar’s domination. The intent of these new regulations was to encourage the construction of “Gentlemen’s Runabouts,” race boats that would be useful for something besides racing.
The Fisher-Allison Trophy was also offered for Gentlemen’s Runabouts. Wood’s entries were ruled out of two Fisher-Allison Trophy Races because the rules prohibited the use of aircraft engines. The opposition finally backed down a bit and decreed that any craft with an engine up to 1050 cubic inches could enter. But, off the record, the opposition wagged, “No gentleman would ever ride in one of those boats.”
So Wood and Orlin Johnson showed up at Buffalo for the 1924 Fisher-Allison Trophy resplendent in white tie and tails, their top hats secured by strings under their chins. Even the two Teddy bears were decked out in evening attire.
They won going away in BABY GAR IV, driving up to the judges’ stand as immaculate as when they had started.
“You see,” quipped Wood as he accepted the trophy, “this really is a gentlemen’s boat.”