By Kirsten N. Johnson

When the calendar recently turned from 2019 to 2020, it marked the centurial of a truly epic year in speedboat racing history. One hundred years ago, 1920 was a time for speedboat glory in America, and for two American men in particular. Gar Wood and Chris Smith – working out of a small boat shop in Algonac, Michigan – built the fastest speedboat in the world. With this boat, they won the world’s supreme, unlimited-class speedboat racing championship – the Harmsworth Trophy. The boat was Miss America – a sleek hydroplane made of Philippine mahogany and driven by two converted 12-cylinder, 500-horsepower Liberty airplane powerplants.1

From 1914-1919, the Great War in Europe precluded the Harmsworth Trophy competition. This race between nations – established by England in 1903 – was won by England in 1912 and 1913. The announcement that the competition would renew in 1920 prompted challenges from France, Spain, and America. The European countries eventually withdrew, but America sent three boats to the 1920 August event. Two were Michigan-built hydroplanes, Miss America and Miss Detroit V. The third was Whip-Po’-Will, Jr. (aka Whip), a speedboat from America’s northeastern coast.2

The Harmsworth Trophy Race activities were traditionally based on the Isle of Wight – a small island south of England – in a village called Cowes. Since 1826 – nearly a century – Cowes staged Regatta Week in August. Magnificent boats and yachts adorned the water around the tranquil island, signaling that European royalty and noted gentry were assembling for summer social recreation. Upon arrival at the historic racecourse, the three British defenders were greeted with enthusiastic and patriotic ceremony. They were Sunbeam-Despujols (with a Sunbeam engine), Maple Leaf V (with four Sunbeam engines totaling 1800 horsepower), and Maple Leaf VI (with two Rolls-Royce engines totaling 1100 horsepower).3

The American delegation of watercraft and crews, after shipping across the Atlantic, were welcomed into the festivities. Regatta officials and participants initially regarded the Yankee speedboats with curiosity and moderate skepticism. These perceptions appeared to gain credence when – three days before the first Harmsworth heat – a sudden fiery explosion in the bay attracted immediate and alarmed attention. Whip-Po’-Will, Jr., on a trial run, had apparently suffered a catastrophic gasoline leak in her twin Bugatti engines. Whip’s crew abandoned their flaming craft, diving into the sea where nearby boats rescued them. There was no saving Whip, however; onlookers could only watch as the ocean slowly swallowed the blazing, stately speedboat.4

The Yankees were now reduced to just two race boats, with gossip circulating that these were also experiencing engine problems. However, neither boat owner denounced these rumors. Gar Wood, the registered owner of Miss America, was occupied with race preparations. Gar Wood Jr., his two-year-old son and the registered owner of Miss Detroit V, currently lacked the appropriate vocabulary. Wood Sr.’s actions further stoked speculation; he only drove Miss Detroit V – a heavy, 38-foot craft built for rough water – for trial runs. The British defenders, observing the performances, were collectively unimpressed. Miss America, meanwhile, remained cloistered in the boathouse.5


Miss Detroit V



1. Barrett, J. Lee, Speedboat Kings, Hardscrabble Books and the Historical Society of Michigan, 1986, p. 44.

2. Bradley, W.F., “America Wins Motor Boat Supremacy,” Motor Boating, Sept 1920, p. 9.

3. Ibid.

4. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 46.

5. “Gar Wood – From Miss America to Deadly PT Boats (part 4),” Detroit Free Press, August 15, 1943


  1. Enjoyed your article about Gar Wood and the Harmsworth Race. I just completed a book about the history of the Gold Cup, (available on Amazon), and have been a fan of the unlimiteds for my entire life. Love the picture of Miss Detroit V, I have never seen that one before. Where did you find it? There are many pictures of Gar Wood and his boats on the Detroit Historical Society’s website. I know because as a volunteer I put them there.
    Have you been to Michigan and Algonac? Gar Wood is quite a famous person to its citizens. There is a statue of him with Gar Wood with Chris in a park there. Miss America X is currently kept at the Packard Motor Car museum, and Miss American VIII was at the ACBS National Show in Port Huron, Michigan in 2018. Are you working on a book about Gar Wood or the Harmsworth?

    • Hi Tim! Thank you for your comments, I am glad you enjoyed the article! Gar Wood was my great-uncle, and I have been researching Gar and the Wood family for several years. I am currently working on a biography about Gar, and I have been to Algonac and several other places significant in his life. The statue of Gar and Chris Smith is amazing! I have seen the restored Miss America IX, but haven’t yet caught up with the VIII and X (although I am very much looking forward to the opportunity)!

      Thank you again for your remarks; there is a Part Ii to the story on the ACBS website that I hope you enjoy as well!

  2. I enjoyed your article and was especially happy to learn about your efforts to write a biography of Gar Wood. I am also a historian about the sport of unlimited hydroplane racing, am the editor of a monthly publication called the Unlimited NewsJournal, and the author of a book titled “At the Ragged Edge,” which was published several years ago and is available on Amazon. The book is essentially a biography of both Gar Wood and Bill Muncey and, through their exploits, tells the story of the sport’s first 100 years. I’d be happy to send you a copy and share notes that might help in your project.

    • Andrew,
      Thank you for your comment! I am happy to relate that I have had a copy of “At the Ragged Edge” in my library for several years! The evolution of hydroplanes over the past century is nothing short of incredible, and the stories of the pilots that drive them just as fascinating. I will post to your Scribewerx site, and I look forward to connecting with you!

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