The Boats That Didn't
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Unlimited hydroplane racing, at its best, represents the ultimate in "no holds barred" experimental boat racing. The door is always open to new ideas. Anything goes.
Much has been said and written about the successful innovations that justified the faith of those who had the courage to try something different. But what about those who tried but ended up dead in the water? They too deserve honorable mention.
Over the years, a lot of new ideas have been tried in the Unlimiteds. A few have succeeded beyond their makers' wildest expectations. And there have been those "noble experiments" that would put an Irwin Allen disaster movie to shame.
In the words of Gold Cup champion Bill Cantrell, "Every boat's a world beater on paper." But transferring an idea from the drawing board to the victory lane is another matter entirely. For every Slo-mo-shun IV or Tiger Too that made it, there's a Miss Liberty, a Zephyr Fury, an Eager Beaver, and a Miss-Ter-E that didn't.
Some of the more time-honored concepts in boat racing have been introduced by forward-thinking people who may have "failed" but who left behind the germ of an idea that was later picked up, improved upon, and perfected by others.
Even those U-hydros that are generally regarded as total fiascoes ought to be remembered. As experimental boats, they served their purpose well.
Unlimited racing's famous flops range from the unheralded poverty row variety of craft, built in a backyard and fielded by persons with little or no racing background, to the highly-touted and heavily financed efforts, conceived and executed by some of the sport's most respected veterans.
The modern hydroplane era began in the years following World War II when the Gold Cup Class was changing over to the Unlimited Class. It seemed that everybody and his brother was trying to fit one of those new-fangled Allison or Rolls-Royce government surplus motors into the engine well of a race boat. The results ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.
This is not to suggest that the post-war era cornered the market on those concepts that looked good on paper but failed. The pre-war years likewise had their share of memorable flops. One of those was El Lagartito ("Little Lizard"), a sister ship to the famed El Lagarto, owned by George Reis of Lake George, New York.
El Lagartito was a product of the 1929 Gold Cup rule change that allowed hydroplanes with "shingled" or "stepped" hulls to compete for the American Power Boat Association's Crown Jewel. Reis ordered the step hydroplane from the highly regarded Purdy Boat Company of Port Washington. With Reis at the wheel and Anderson ("Dick") Bowers alongside as riding mechanic, El Lagartito was trounced in the 1930 Gold Cup contest at Red Bank, New Jersey, which was won by Hotsy Totsy, a V-bottomed old-timer from the 1920s that had been "shingled" by owner Vic Kliesrath. Back to Lake George trekked Reis and Bowers with ideas of fitting a series of shallow hydroplane steps to the underside of a displacement type boat.
Early in the summer of 1931, Reis applied five steps to the underside of his previously retired El Lagarto and trotted her out as a trial horse for El Lagartito. The older "Lizard" had made a lackluster debut in the 1922 Gold Cup as Miss Mary II and for years had been nothing more than an errand boat, fishing smack, and runabout.
With Bowers at the helm of the old boat and Reis handling the new one, they squared off in the middle of the lake for a comparison of speed. There was none. The old "Lizard" ran away from her younger sibling. Reis retired the $12,000 El Lagartito on the spot. He never campaigned her again. From that day forward, Reis and Bowers concentrated all of their efforts on the old rig and a racing legend was born.
As for El Lagartito, it later became Miss Saranac, owned by E.A. Gugenheim. She was strictly an "also-ran", failing to live up to expectation, and ended her days in obscurity.
Horace Elgin Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family attempted to take advantage of the huge supply of government surplus Allison aircraft engines after World War II. In 1949, he built two enormous multi-step hydroplanes, both lengthened out copies of Dodge's old favorite Delphine IX from the 1930s. They were Delphine X and Lotus.
The X measured over 38 feet in length, was powered by two V-12 Allisons, and required an on-board crew of three. In the tradition of Gar Wood's Miss America X, the 36-foot Lotus was designed to carry four Allisons but never used more than two. Both boats had extreme difficulty in cornering and only Delphine X ever made it into a race.
After the war, the most prestigious of all APBA classes was populated not only by the affluent, as in the past, but also by men of ordinary income. All that was basically needed for the common man to compete in the Unlimiteds was an ability as a carpenter, a lot of willing friends, and a little money to purchase the lumber for a boat and an engine.
Miss Windsor was a 26-foot three-pointer, home-built in 1946. She only started in one heat of competition. Based in Windsor, Ontario, the craft is remembered mostly as the earliest known North American example of a boat with a Packard Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
Lion Bar Special, which also debuted in 1946, used a 12-cylinder Lycoming engine in its 22-foot hull. The craft never lived up to its advance billing, even after switching to Allison power. In the words of one critic: "An extremely dangerous boat; close your eyes on the turns."
Miss-Ter-E was an eccentric-looking Detroit craft of the late1940s that was intended for turbo-jet power, but which used a pair of Gray Fireballs and then a pair of Fageol bus engines instead. Miss-Ter-E had a unique hull configuration, described as a "tri-prow hydro-air plane", built entirely of stacked lamination-hand-shaped and an absolutely beautiful piece of woodwork. Unfortunately, she was too heavy and badly under-powered.
Other low-budget Motor City efforts of the post-war era included the likes of Sheri-San, Let 'Er Go, Gallagher, and Miss Grosse Pointe, none of which ever finished a heat of competition.
Sheri-San had a multi-step configuration and sank when first placed in the water.
Let 'Er Go, Gallagher was a curious contraption that resembled a cross between a conventional race boat and a soapbox derby push-car and was appropriately re-titled Wha Hoppen.
Miss Grosse Pointe, which struck the Belle Isle Bridge during the 1948 Detroit Memorial Regatta, was the twin-Fageol-powered entry of Al D'Eath (father of Tom and Roger). D'Eath used both hands to operate the twin throttles and had to steer with his feet.
In 1949, Harris McBride, Bill Goeschel, and A.C. Smith unveiled their 34-foot 10,000-pound three-pointer, Miss Michigan, at the Detroit Memorial event. The craft was unique in that she was the first twin-Allison entry to make a start in a bona-fide Unlimited event. The Miss Michigan threw a twin roostertail off her double-propeller configuration. Even more unique was the fact that one roostertail was higher than the other. Although the McBride/Goeschel/Smith team failed to reap competitive results, the Miss Michigan was ahead of its time in one respect. It was a prop-rider at a time when most Unlimiteds were stern-draggers. Not until the Ted Jones-designed Slo-mo-shun IV came along in 1950 would the prop-rider concept become viable.
Over the years, a number of experimental boats seemed to hold forth exceptional promise but were tragically snuffed out before they could achieve lasting fame. One of these was Laura 3, a Timossi three-point hydroplane from Italy.
Powered by twin-Type-159 Alfa-Romeo engines, Laura 3's combined power plants displaced only 1500 cubic centimeters but were supercharged and together developed 800 horsepower. The 29-foot 10-inch hull with an 8-foot 6-inch beam weighed a mere 2094 pounds but was driven two-time World Champion Mario Verga.
In 1954, on Italy's Lake of Sarnico, Verga was shooting for Slo-mo-shun IV's world straightaway record of 178.497. Laura 3 reached an officially clocked 186.6 when the hull reared, plunged free of the water, and vanished in a cloud of spray. It looked to observers that Verga's craft had been picked up and vengefully smashed to kindling by some unseen hand. A diver later recovered both the battered hull and the late driving star's body.
The experimental boat is nevertheless an honored tradition. And a tradition that continues right up to the present day.
Who could ever forget the Eager Beaver that owner Howard Eager allegedly filled with pingpong balls to aid in buoyancy … Sam Palazzolo's mortarbox-shaped Miss Liberty, which rode like a skipping rock but was among the first to try a turbocharged Allison set-up … Jim Davis's Stubby VI, a scaled-up version of a Jersey Speed Skiff … Armand Swenson's strange Miss U, the one-point craft with outriggers and a six-cylinder Ranger aircraft engine … the broad-beamed Miss United States III with a vee-bottom and two V-12 Packard Marine power plants mounted side-by-side … the V-belt-driven Miss Skyway (nicknamed "The Rubber Band Boat") with twin V-8 Corvette engines…the outlandish Etta, which resembled a deranged mosquito and pushed water in every direction … the outboard-powered Texmo … the outrigger Pride of Pay 'n Pak … the Cosworth-powered Aronow/Halter Special … the four-point Miss Circus Circus "rocket ship." The list goes on.
Today, Unlimited hydroplanes with Lycoming turbine engines dominate the sport. But in the 1960s, turbine boats were considered science fiction.
One early attempt at turbine power, the Golden Komotion, never got off the trailer in 1969. The elephantine Miss Lapeer of 1973 received a thorough roasting from the critics when it failed to reach qualification speeds. Not until 1974 did a turbine boat (the U-95) start in a heat of competition. Not until 1982 did a turbine craft (the Pay 'n Pak) win a race. And not until 1984 was a turbine-powered hydroplane (the Atlas Van Lines) truly competitive.
The turbine concept in Unlimited racing definitely has its roots in the time-honored "Let's Try Something Different Club."
Excitement inevitably ensues whenever anyone attempts something new-especially where Unlimited hydroplanes are concerned. The boats that tried but didn't make it are still the stuff of which good memories are made. They are a cherished part of a sport that represents the epitome of "anything goes" experimental boat racing.