The Saga of Hermes III
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
The 725 Cubic Inch Class of racing hydroplanes was a popular regional class during the years between the World Wars. The 725s were the showcase of the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association circuit in the South and the Mid-West.
The 725 Class was comparable to the Gold Cup Class of the American Power Boat Association. After World War II, the 725s and the Gold Cuppers combined and changed over to the Unlimited Class.
One of the most popular of the 725 Class campaigners was the HERMES III, co-owned by George Davis and Turley Carman of Vine Grove, Kentucky, and Marion Cooper of Louisville. Cooper was the driver and Davis served as the riding mechanic, while Carman owned the boat building facility in downtown Vine Grove where the hydroplane was headquartered.
In later years, Marion achieved fame as the original driver of the first MISS MADISON during 1961 and 1962. George drove the popular IT'S A WONDER between 1951 and 1957.
HERMES III was a step hydroplane, painted black and yellow with orange checkers on the foredeck. She measured 22 feet by 5-1/2 feet, had a sharp curving bow and a deep notch across the bottom amidships. The craft utilized a three-bladed brass propeller that turned 3600 revolutions per minute. HERMES III had a 15-gallon fuel tank and used one gallon of fuel every three-quarters of a mile at racing speeds.
The engine was a 1914 vintage Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") V-8 power plant that developed 240 horsepower. Although intended for 1800 rpm, the Hisso did 2400. The gear ratio was one revolution of the motor for every one and a half revolutions of the propeller.
Hisso power was the engine of choice in the 725 Class. It was intended for use in the Spad aircraft during World War I. The Hisso's design concept was later used as the basis for the V-12 Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
HERMES III could do about 60 miles per hour on the straightaway and posted heat speeds of over 50 mph.
Unlike the Gold Cup boats, which used the "G" designation, the 725s utilized an "I" racing numeral. HERMES III, throughout her career, carried the number I-100.
In the years just prior to World War II, a sizeable fleet of the largely homebuilt 725s called the Cincinnati and Louisville area home.
During the 1920s and '30s, the Motor City of Detroit reigned as the capital of power boat racing in North America. Three times (in 1937-38-39) the 725 Class boats were invited by the prestigious Detroit Yacht Club to participate in a special event, offered in conjunction with the APBA Gold Cup race for the more expensive and more exotic-looking Gold Cup Class contenders. The DYC gatherings provided the 725s-popularly known as the "Haywire Class"-with their finest national showcase.
In those days, the boats raced clockwise-rather than counter-clockwise-because the 725s didn't turn well to the left. They also used flag starts without any blackout or digital clock.
While en route to Detroit that first year, an incident occurred that didn't get reported in the newspapers. In the words of George Davis, "We (Marion Cooper and I) were towing HERMES III. I was over on the right-hand side and I'd pull a rope to put the brakes on if we got in a close place. If the car brakes wouldn't hold, then I'd pull the rope which would pull a lever and that would work the brakes.
"We were going along in the early morning and Cooper said, 'Whose boat is that passing us?' And we looked over to the right and there was our boat running along side us plowing through a cornfield. We found out that our trailer hitch had broken on one side. We got some baling wire and wired it back on and got out of there real quick."
The HERMES team did extraordinarily well in the three invitational races at Detroit. They finished first in 1937 and second in 1938 with HERMES III. This was followed by a third-place performance in 1939 with HERMES IV.
The victory in 1937 didn't come easily. Co-pilots Cooper and Davis were involved in one of the more hair-raising encounters in Detroit River racing history.
In the first heat of two 725 Class heats on a 3-mile course, MISS CINCINNATI, JR., took an early lead with HERMES III, WARNIE, MISS TRAILMOBILE, and WHY WORRY closely bunched. MISS TRAILMOBILE-a 510 Cubic Inch Class rig that had stepped up to run with the 725s-was caught in the cross wakes of two other boats. Driver Jim Vetter lost control and ran over the WARNIE, piloted by Warnie Anderson. MISS TRAILMOBILE then landed on top of the HERMES III and knocked out the freeboard.
Miraculously, no one was seriously injured, although the deck of the WARNIE was crushed on both sides. WARNIE, an early cabover hydroplane, also suffered a gash just behind the driver's seat caused by MISS TRAILMOBILE's propeller.
HERMES III went on to win the heat at 54.800 miles per hour although, in Cooper's words, "They had to pull us out pretty quick because it would have sunk."
The final heat was a battle from start to finish between the patched up HERMES III and WARNIE. HERMES III again had the lead on lap two when the sheer plank let go on the starboard side. The plank flapped dizzily and undoubtedly slowed the boat down somewhat.
WARNIE then passed the ailing HERMES III and proceeded to win the heat at 56.890 for the 12-mile distance. The Cooper/Davis team nevertheless stayed close to the leader all the way to the checkered flag and-in so doing-defeated third-place Bill Cantrell in WHY WORRY and fourth-place Cam Fischer in MISS CINCINNATI, JR.
HERMES III claimed the overall victory in the 725 Class event with 700 points, compared to 625 for WARNIE and 525 for WHY WORRY.
The 725s had the option of entering the Gold Cup main event, since most of them met the minimum requirements for the APBA Gold Cup Class. But with the exception of MISS CINCINNATI, JR., none of them chose to do so. The "Haywire Class" was basically a "blue collar" category. HERMES III, WARNIE, and WHY WORRY weren't quite in the same league as the NOTRE DAME or the EL LAGARTO or the IMPSHI or the ALAGI, which were fielded by multi-millionaires.
The 725 Class participants nevertheless acquitted themselves quite well at Detroit in 1937. The race committee gratefully invited them back for 1938 and 1939.
Another notable 1937 performance by HERMES III was a second-place finish behind WARNIE at the Queen City Regatta in Cincinnati.
The 1938 season emerged as another successful campaign for the triumvirate of Marion Cooper, George Davis, and Turley Carman. They won a pair of important races that year. And both events took place on the legendary Ohio River.
At Evansville, Indiana, a new 725 Class venue, HERMES III won both heats of a race sponsored by the local Jaycees at speeds of 54.545 and 49.328. The pit area was the exact same as the one used by the Unlimited hydroplanes since 1979.
Heat One was something of a destruction derby as two early leaders-WHY WORRY and WARNIE-failed to finish due to mechanical difficulties. WHY WORRY with Cantrell broke a rudder on the backstretch of lap two; WARNIE with Anderson-who appeared to have the race won-threw a couple of connecting rods out the side of the Hisso engine and conked out just a few hundred feet from the finish line.
Cooper and Davis weren't extended in winning Heat Two at Evansville. HERMES III easily defeated Bill Mennen driving WHO CARES, the oldest 725 Class boat in the fleet, which had raced back in the 1920s as DOC'S II.
A few weeks later, the HERMES III team added the prestigious Calvert Trophy to their treasure trove. They did this by winning a 10-mile heat at the Ohio Valley Motor Boat Racing Association Regatta in Cincinnati. The always-challenging Ohio River was less than ideal for racing that day. Flood conditions left the race course littered with debris, which caused problems for quite a few of the boats.
HERMES III won the Calvert Trophy at a speed of just over 51 miles per hour, followed by Bill Cantrell in WHY WORRY and Chuck Wilkinson in PIN BRAIN III.
The same weekend as the Calvert Trophy, HERMES III participated in two other events at Cincinnati-the Brad Kreis Memorial Trophy and the Ohio Valley Trophy, also 10 miles in length on a 2-1/2-mile course. HERMES III didn't finish the Brad Kreis race (after striking a piece of driftwood and damaging the drive shaft) but took second in the Ohio Valley race.
Victory in the Ohio Valley Trophy went to a tiny 225 Cubic Inch Class upstart named TOPS II, powered by a 221 cubic inch Lycoming engine and driven by the popular Jack "Pop" Cooper (no relation to Marion) of Kansas City, Missouri.
TOPS II, a three-point hydroplane, was one of the very first boats in the world with sponsons on it. The 16-foot Ventnor hull, which was later renamed SLO-MO-SHUN I by Seattleite Stan Sayres, won the Ohio Valley event at an unbelievable 68 miles per hour. This was embarrassingly close to the speeds turned by the much larger and more powerful Gold Cup Class contenders.
Sponsons had been tried on race boats since as early as 1915. But they had only just recently achieved competitive results.
Clearly, the design of the future had arrived. Only refinement of the three-point concept was all that stood between the time-honored step hydroplane and obsolescence.
The HERMES teamed recognized this fact of racing life. They retired HERMES III and built two sponson boats of their own-HERMES IV in 1939 and HERMES V in 1941.
Also building three-point hulls for the 1939 season were the WHY WORRY and MERCURY teams. From then on, sponson boats accounted for most of the victories in the 725 Class.
As for HERMES III, she was sold to Chuck Wilkinson of Louisville and renamed PIN BRAIN IV. Her last major appearance was in the 1939 725 Class race at Detroit. With Wilkinson driving, she finished fourth behind Cantrell in WHY WORRY, J.S. Brown in KING STATEN, and Davis in HERMES IV.