Garfield Wood never intended to go into the boat
building business. His goal was to personally set every speed record on
water and be recognized as the world's speedboat king. However, as he set
forth to achieve these goals, he was influenced by colleagues and friends
and as a result built the world's finest line of production recreational
Today Gar Wood boats are among the most
sought-after classic boats in the world. The fascinating events that led to
the development and production of Gar Wood boats is one of the most
interesting stories in boating history.
Garfield Arthur Wood was born in l880 the oldest of
l3 brothers and sisters. He was named after both the nation's President and
Vice President, James Garfield and Chester Arthur. When his father was just
a lad he ran away from home to join the Union Army as a drummer boy so it
was only natural that he would name his first son after America's leaders.
As Gar grew up his father was a ferryboat operator
on Lake Osakis in Minnesota. He often took his oldest son with him to help
crew on the ferries. Frequently a race between ferry boat operators would
emerge. It was good for business to have a reputation for speed, so races
were often taken seriously. Young Gar Wood learned early that speed on water
meant recognition and fame. Working with his father, Gar also developed
unusual mechanical skills far beyond his years. More important still was the
development of an aptitude for inventing devices to solve mechanical
problems. These skills would continue to develop within him and result in
hundreds of patents in his lifetime. However, one invention and patent would
create a personal fortune and make him a racing legend.
Invents Hydraulic Lift
By the turn of the century Gar and his wife Murlen
lived in St. Paul where he was involved in a number of enterprises including
a traveling repair shop to service machines and early automobiles. In spite
of the rapid industrial growth that was all around, he was still on the
outer edge and had not begun to prosper from it. Then in 1911 at age 31 he
focused his creative skills on a mechanical device that would unload coal
trucks. Coal was a common fuel for home and industrial use, yet the only way
to unload trucks was slow and difficult. He convinced a local coal company
to lend him a truck to try out his new invention. With Murlen by his side,
and their life savings invested, Gar demonstrated his hydraulic lift. He had
attracted several potential investors who insisted on getting in the truck
bed to see how it worked. When Gar dumped them in the street with the pull
of a lever, they knew he had a marketable product. So vast was the
market for the hydraulic lift that Gar built an industrial empire around it.
Soon Gar's eight brothers joined him and they moved
everything to Detroit where they established the Wood Hoist Co. Along side
other emerging giants like Ford, Dodge and Chalmers, Wood's fortunes grew
and the time was right for him to participate in his first love – speedboat
Purchases Chris Smith Boat Co.
In 1916, at the noonday meeting of the Detroit
Exchange Club, Lee Barrett secretary of the Miss Detroit Powerboat
Association made a plea for some local Detroiter to help out the syndicate
and purchase Miss Detroit 1. The man that stood up and said he was ready was
Gar Wood. After he agreed to purchase Miss Detroit he left for Algonac to
see her. While he was there he bought the yard that built her – the Chris
Smith and Sons Boat Company. For the next six years Chris Smith built racing
boats under the direction of Gar Wood. With Gar Wood driving and Smith
building the boats, they won 5 straight Gold Cups from 1917-1921 and 2
Harmsworth trophies in 1920 and 1921.
During the winter of 1921-22 the rules governing
the Gold Cup Races were changed dramatically by the American Power Boat
Association. The changes limited engine size, length and configuration of
hulls. The rules committee said that they wished to encourage "Gentlemen's
Runabouts" that could be used for family recreation as well as racing.
However, the intended target of these changes was Gar Wood whose advanced
technology and use of aircraft engines had totally dominated the Gold Cup
since 1917. It was clear the rules were designed to frustrate Gar Wood.
Gar Wood was always ready for a challenge. In this
case he and chief designer Nap Lisee developed an entirely new boat as their
version of the Gentleman's Runabout. The result was the legendary 33' "Baby
The new Baby Gar was a superb design. It was a
comfortable, safe runabout with 3 cockpits and a bottom that incorporated
all of the characteristics of the Miss Americas with the step. So great was
the performance of this Baby Gar that from the time it was introduced some
of America's wealthiest sportsmen appealed to Gar Wood to build one for
them. Edward Noble, William Randolph Hearst, John Dodge, Col. Vincent and P.
K. Wrigley were among the first to purchase Baby Gars. Soon Gar Wood had to
set up a whole section of his Algonac plant to build Baby Gars just to fill
special orders. By 1924 Howard Lyon of New York City had convinced Gar Wood
that he should place Baby Gars in regular production and he would sell all
he could build. Two years later Howard Lyon ran a double page ad in Motor
Boating magazine that listed the names of 60 of the world's most
prominent sportsmen who were already Baby Gar owners.
What began as an attempt by the APBA to end Gar
Wood's domination of the Gold Cup competition resulted in an entire new line
of runabouts that became the playthings of millionaires. Gar Wood was now in
the boat building business and the small Algonac plant was stretched to the
In 1923 Chris Smith and his sons separated
themselves from Gar Wood and decided to operate their own boat building
company under the name "Chris Craft Boats". Chris Smith wanted to build a
full line of stock boats on a production system to reduce cost and make them more
affordable. He was convinced that promotion, advertising and high volume was
the key to achieving his goals.
In 1927 a smaller version of the original Baby Gar
was introduced at the National Boat Show in New York. The new 28' Baby Gar
was an instant hit and sales exceeded those of the larger 33' model. In
addition to these stock runabouts the small Algonac plant built high speed
custom cruisers and the Miss America racers.
Gar Wood on the other hand was becoming an
industrial giant with his manufacturing plants in Detroit. Boats to him were
a source of pleasure and he wanted to achieve the highest in quality,
engineering and performance for those who could afford his boats. So the two
boatmen parted to build their own types of boats in tune with their
individual philosophy. Only time would determine which was right.
With the small Algonac plant no longer capable of
meeting the demand for Gar Wood boats, Gar decided to build a new factory.
World's Finest Boat Factory
His experience with hydraulic hoist production
demonstrated the value of efficiency of facilities design. His new boat
plant would be designed to be the finest boat building factory in the world.
In 1930 at Marysville, Michigan Gar Wood opened the new factory that could
produce 1200 custom quality boats a year. The same excellent
standards of quality, finish and performance that had been a Gar Wood
tradition would be maintained, with higher production and a new variety of
models. Such was the optimism when the new Gar Wood factory opened right on
schedule just 3 months after the nation was rocked by the stock market
The first production year for Gar Wood at
Marysville included 2 basic models: the 28' Runabout and the new 22'
Runabout. The 28' runabout was also offered as a limousine, a sedan and a
landau. The Algonac plant continued to produce the 33' runabout which would
be the new stock version of the Baby Gar hull. In addition a stock 40'
Commuting Cruiser was being built at Algonac.
The line remained the same in 1931 but was expanded
in 1932 to include an 18' split cockpit runabout and a very well-received
25' triple cockpit runabout. Both the 28' and 25' runabouts were given the
famous Gar Wood folding V-windshield that would become a trademark for the
next 10 years. This windshield was an extremely well-designed feature that
was far ahead of its time and never exceeded for beauty.
The next change came in 1934 with the introduction
of the 16' split cockpit runabout. Then in mid-year Gar Wood received a
personal request from his good friend Edward Noble, owner of the Lifesaver
Candy Company. Since 1926 Noble had been speeding on the St. Lawrence River
in his famous 33' Baby Gar, "SNAIL". He told Gar Wood that he and his
friends on the St. Lawrence River wanted a small, sporty racer that would be
like a water version of the popular European sports cars. Gar Wood's answer
was a high performance sixteen footer with 2 seats aft of the engine that he
called the "Speedster". Its performance and appearance was similar to a
cut-down Miss America racer. Noble fell in love with the boat and the first
dozen produced were sent to the St. Lawrence River for Noble and his
friends. His speedster was named the "Miss Behave" and others in the group
were called "Miss Adventure". "Miss Chief", and "Miss Conduct". Speedster
racing became a regular event on the St. Lawrence River right to the start
of World War II. (Today the original "Miss Behave" is in the Thousand
Islands Shipyard Museum).
The success of the Speedster made Gar Wood
receptive to customer suggestions. So in 1935 Gar Wood introduced its first
utility, a 20' model and a 26' family cruiser for four because their dealers
felt that these models would make the line more popular to the growing
numbers of people who were becoming interested in boating.
The trend continued in 1936 as Gar Wood introduced
an 18' Utility and a 32' Express Cruiser. In addition they offered
streamlined sedan cabin versions of the 18' and 20' utility models. The 18'
runabout was offered with twin cockpits forward for the first time in this
By 1937 boating popularity was growing throughout
the United States. Dealers were expanding their inventories and the outlook
was very bright. The new Gar Wood catalog had a full color cover and had 30
pages filled with photographs of their full line. The utilities proved so
popular that in 1937 they introduced a 24' model that would remain in the
line until 1942. A sedan version was offered and proved to be very popular.
This was also the year that the very popular 19' runabout made its debut.
The new boat of 1938 was the revolutionary
rear-engined Streamliner. This was the hull of the 22' runabout with 3
"cockpits" forward of the engine that was all the way aft. Using a Chrysler
crown with a special reduction V-drive this boat had excellent speed with a
modest size engine.
The 1939 Trophy Fleet was introduced with great
fanfare at the National Motor Boat Show in New York. It was the most
complete fleet ever offered and the design detailing was superb. All
runabouts had barrel bows and the utilities had the finest styling in the
industry. The sedan utilities were unsurpassed for their good looks and
customer acceptance. And the nicest surprise in the 1939 fleet was the
introduction of the 24'6" "Overniter", a high performance pocket cruiser
built on the proven hull of the 24'6" utility.
The large Gar Wood display at the National Motor
Boat Show was selected by major boating magazines as the best in their
history. Gar Wood was on a roll and production was at its maximum output for
the first time since the Marysville plant opened 10 years earlier.
His production continued through 1940 without
changes in any models. In 1941 the barrel bow styling was given to the 24'6"
utility as well as a larger, redesigned windshield. The sedan utilities had
mahogany extended tops over the windshields which were called military visor
styling. The 24'6" Overniter was completely restyled and was the
best-looking, high-performance pocket cruiser in America. Two totally new
boats were added to the 1941 line that shared the same 30' hull. One was the
unique Commuter and the other was the Commodore, a handsome trunk cabin
It was just about this time that Gar Wood, age 60,
decides that it's time to retire to his island home in Miami. His plans are
to continue inventing and designing new products, but to divest himself from
Gar Wood Industries. Although some boats were offered in 1942, they were
essentially left over 1941 models. With the start of World War II the
Marysville plant converted entirely to war-effort production of' target
boats and military tug boats.
Post War Designs
In early 1945 as World War II wound down to its
final campaigns, a series of advertisements from the "new" Gar Wood boat
division began to appear. The new management of Gar Wood Industries decides
to restyle their boat line and Norman Bel Geddes, noted industrial designer,
is retained to give Gar Wood boats a complete new look. This was a decision
of great magnitude because it meant total re-tooling of their patterns,
costly new set ups and high production costs.
The new post-war Gar Wood designs were introduced
at the 1946 National Motor Boat Show to an enthusiastic audience. The
designs were superb and worthy of the great Gar Wood tradition. But their
new boats were expensive and production was slowed by lack of quality
materials. Shipments were delayed and production was constantly interrupted
by shortages. Dealers sold their impatient Gar Wood customers other boats
that were available.
Gar Wood concentrated on building the small 16'
utility that had very little bright work and white painted sides. The boat
was easy to build and was the lowest priced boat in the line. The other
boats took longer to build and required higher quality matched mahogany. In
addition the larger boats required much more hardware which was still hard
to get in 1946 and 1947. Strikes by major suppliers resulted in repeated
At the 1947 Boat Show Gar Wood shocked the public
by displaying 4 models that had all painted finishes – no varnished
mahogany. Whether this decision was for dramatic showmanship to attract
attention or due to the lack of quality mahogany was never determined.
However, in less than 6 months from the show Gar Wood boats would cease
Before the end of 1947 Truscott Boats and Cygnet
Boats introduced a line of boats that were identical to the post-war Gar
Wood designs. Within 2 years, they too were out of business.
Gar Wood produced boats from 1921 to 1947 excluding
the four years of World War II. It is estimated that over 10,000 Gar Wood
boats were built during that period. Yet less than 300 Gar Wood Boats are
registered with the Gar Wood Society and ACBS. Gar Wood Boats will always be
among the most sought after craft among wooden boaters and every one is a