1939-104 (Sharkey) / 39104 (UNJ)
A Wonderful Ride in It's A Wonder
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
Many years ago, in 1971, yours truly sat for the first time in the cockpit of It's A Wonder, a storied Gold Cup Class campaigner of the 1930s. On June 1, 1996, I finally got to go for a ride in It's A Wonder, the answer to a lifetime's dream. This occurred on the Detroit River in conjunction with the annual APBA Gold Cup Regatta.
Owned, driven, designed, and built in 1939 by the late George N. Davis, It's A Wonder was one of the first boats in the world with sponsons on it. As one of that first generation of three-point hydroplanes, the Wonder is a non-proprider with a propeller that is completely submerged. For power, she uses a 1914 vintage Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") engine from out of a World War I fighter plane.
At the 1939 Gold Cup Regatta, It's A Wonder (then racing as Hermes IV) finished third overall with George Davis at the wheel. It was a special thrill for me to ride in the Wonder on the same body of water where she turned in her most noteworthy performance. I had always hoped that George would put her back in the water, but this never occurred. Davis last ran It's A Wonder in 1957, when he won a free-for-all race with her at Dale Hollow, Tennessee.
He put her on display a few times in the 1960s and '70s, but the boat spent most of the first quarter century of her retirement in a tobacco barn in Vine Grove, Kentucky. Following George's death in 1979, his widow sold It's A Wonder to Jeff Magnuson of Alfred, Maine.
Jeff belongs to the Antique and Classic Boat Society, a national organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of old wood hulls. After nearly a decade of painstaking work, It's A Wonder has been restored to her former glory (and then some!) by Magnuson. The restored Wonder is now one of the stars of the antique boat circuit across the country.
It's A Wonder was the first Gold Cup Class boat that I had ever ridden in.(The Gold Cup Class evolved into the Unlimited Class after World War II.) In 1994, I rode in Slo-mo-shun V with Ken Muscatel. But the difference between a "G" boat of the '30s and a "U" boat of the '50s is like the difference between night and day. Slo-mo V is a prop-rider and rides on a cushion of air, while It's A Wonder is a tail-dragger. But both are exciting in their own way.
My driver was crewmember Vincent Bober. To Vince as well as to Jeff, the Wonder is a labor of love. And they were good enough to share the result of their labors with me. We climbed into the boat, Bober fired up the engine, and we were on our way. It's A Wonder rounded the famous "Roostertail Turn", and then Vince stood on the gas. The boat took off like a shot as we accelerated past the Horace E. Dodge Pits and the Gar Wood Judges' Stand.
The sensation of speed was tremendous. We fairly galloped around the Grand Prix Class oval course. Sharing the river with us were the Arab IV (also owned by Jeff Magnuson), the Miss Severn, the Lil Miss Pepsi, and the Short Circuit offshore boat. As we entered the backstretch of lap two, we blew past the MISS PEPSI and roared by the historic Detroit Yacht Club.
It's A Wonder rides a lot rougher than Slo-mo-shun V. (The next morning, I woke up feeling rather stiff and sore from all of that bouncing around. But it was worth it.) I was impressed with how well It's A Wonder handled the wakes of the other boats. The first time that we approached a wake, I thought, "Oh, oh, we're done for!" But the old Wonder rode the wake with ease and never missed a beat.
We headed back to the Belle Isle Pits. Vince shut off the engine, grinned at me, and then we shook hands. I had realized my dream. A few minutes later, I hopped a shuttle boat bound for the Judges' Stand and there began my usual duties as APBA Unlimited Historian.
But I found it difficult to concentrate on my work. In my mind's eye, I was still riding the Wonder. My hat is off to Jeff, to Vince, and to George. Thanks, guys. You made my day.