How Fast Will It Go? [1986]

Race Boat History

Moriey S. Smith

How Fast Will It Go?
How Fast Will It Go?

Some of the rarest and most beautiful antique boats are race boats. They are rare because they are usually one-of-a-kind and usually were very lightly built. Few survived.

Race boats are of interest because they were at the forefront of technical developments which were later incorporated into your pleasure boats. These articles should help explain why your pleasure boat is shaped the way it is.

It is a "macho thing" to have the fastest transportation around.

It probably goes back to the earliest of times. This was true when horses and row boats were the means of transportation, and was carried on when the gasoline engine brought automobiles and power boats onto the scene. The development of power boats is closely related to the development of the gasoline engine.

Displacement Hulls

A number of early powerboat builders got their start building canoes and row boats. These were true displacement hulls with pointed stems, pointed sterns and round bilges. As these hulls move through the water, the bow "displaces" the water, pushing it to the side in the form of a bow wave. A secondary wave closes in behind.

A longer the displacement hull, the more easily it is driven. Examples of extreme displacement hull shapes are the very long and frail shells used in Olympic rowing and paddling competition.

When gasoline, internal combustion engines began to appear about 1900, some small engines were installed in row boats and canoes. The engine could propel such craft much faster than paddles or oars.

As the speed of the displacement hull increases, the secondary wave crest moves further aft of the bow wave. At a speed (mph) equal to 1.6 times the square root of the waterline length, the secondary wave is at the stern of the hull. This might be called the "critical speed" of a displacement hull. The longer the hull, the higher the "critical speed". This speed is 7.2 mph. on a 20 ft. hull and 10.1 mph. on a 40 ft. hull.

When a canoe is at the "critical speed", the narrow bow is supported by the bow wave, and the pointed stern is supported by the secondary wave, and there is a hollow trough in between where the width of the hull is greatest. The hull becomes very tippy. To stabilize the hull,

the stern was widened into a transom. Thus was developed the shape which is prevelant in early pleasure boats which we call “Long Deck Launches” or "Lakers”.

Boat racers increased the length of their hulls and added more power to the basic "Long Deck Launch" shape. In 1905 the rule makers saw that things were getting out of hand with 65 ft. race boats so they set a limit of 40' length for boats racing for the two most prestigious races, the Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy.

The "critical speed" is also the speed where “planing" is said to begin. At speeds above the "critical speed", the stern sinks into the trough created by the bow wave, and the hull appears to be headed up hill. The hull takes on a positive angle of attack. Some of the weight is supported by dynamic forces and less is supported by buoyancy or "displacement". The widened transom reduces the amount of squatting, and the water no longer closes in behind the transom.

Dixie II

The most successful of the displacement type race boats was Dixie II. (This boat has been restored and is at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton N.Y.) The hull which was designed and built by Clinton Crane is 39' 3" long with a beam of only 5' 4". (Overgrown canoe proportions) It was very lightly built (for a 40' length) with 3/8" bottom and ¼" sides and weighed only 1,130 lb. (The original hull began to leak badly so a stronger replacement hull of exactly the same shape was built in 1909. (This was sometimes called Dixie III.)

The engine was designed and built by Clinton's brother Henry Crane. It was a very large V-8 configuration with 7¼" bore and stroke for a total displacement of 2,477 This was a phenominal engineering feat because the engine had a weight per cubic inch that was less than half of what our modern automotive engines weigh. The engine produced 220 horsepower at 900 rpm. The rpm was limited by the large size of the pistons and their length of travel. The horsepower was limited by low compression ratio necessitated by early gasolines which tended to knock badly, (due to detonation).

Dixie II won the Gold Cup in 1908, 1909 and 1910. She successfully defended the Harmsworth Trophy in 1903 and 1910, and was credited with over 100 victories during her career. Much of this record should be credited to the outstanding reliability of her engine. This level of performance meant that Dixie II was probably the best performing displacement type race boat ever built.

Early Race Boat Speeds

Moriey S. Smith

In the early 1900's very few boats ran trials over a measured mile. Magazines usually recorded the speeds achieved during a race. Speeds were for one lap or the average speed for a heat of several laps. Lap distances were quite long because the long narrow hulls could not negotiate a turn without almost coming to a halt. The two mojor races were the Gold cup races and the Harmsworth Trophy race, (more officially the British International Trophy or BIT.)

Dixie I 40' X 5'-6"5,150 Lb. total Simplex engine 150 hp.
1907 BIT Dixie I 31 .9 MPH. 3 mi. lap
Dixie II 39-'-3" X 5' 4" 3607 lb. total Crane Engine, 2,477cu. in. V-3 220 hp.
1908 BIT Dixie II 32.75 MPH  
1908 Gold Dixie II 29.2 MPH. 30mi heat
Dixie III Same as Dixie II but with a stronger hull.
1909 Gold Dixie III 32.9 MPH.  
1910 Gold Dixie III 33.6 MPH 32 mi heat (3 laps of 10.67 mi.)
1910 BIT Dixie III 34.7 MPH 10 mi lap
1910 BIT Pioneer 39.4 MPH 10 mi lap
Dixie IV 39'-6" X 6'-11* 2 1/2" step
Two Crane engines V-8 250 hp. each
Timed once over one mile distance at 45.2 MPH.
This was not an official record.
1911 Gold Dixie IV 32.5 MPH. 28 mi heat
1911 BIT Dixie IV 40 MPH 30 mi heat
Dixie IV 40.2 MPH 8.5 mi lap


Dixie II lost control making a turn during a race and ran ashore.

A spectator was killed and the boat was never raced again.

In 1912 the International speed record belonged to Tech. Jr. with an average of 40.4 MPH. for six runs over a one mile course. One of the runs was made at 58.3 MPH. Tech. Jr. was a 20' monohull designed and built by Adolph Apel, (later of Ventnor fame).

Dixie II achieved a speed of 35 mph around a 10 mile course in 1910 due primarily to the extremely light weight of her hull and engine.

(Later sections will comment on speed measurements.)

The power required by a displacement type hull increases as the cube of the speed (assuming no increase in weight with the increase in power).

It takes great increases in power to produce small increases in speed.

The 37 mph is well above the "critical speed" of a 40' displacement hull and into the planing region. At this speed the bow is lifted well clear of the water and the waterline length is no longer a factor with regard to hull efficiency.

Horsepower vs. Speed

What was needed was a hull shape that is more efficient at planing speeds and makes better use of the dynamic lifting forces involved.

Race Boats

Chapter Three

Morley S. Smith

A period of Transition 1910 to 1918

The first section explained how the first motor boats were round bilged displacement hulls of canoe-like proportions. Very long and narrow. The second section described Dixie II which was probably the most successful of the displacement type race boats.

By 1910, engine power had increased to the point where boats could easily achieve planing speeds. This initiated some major changes in hull shapes. Planing occurs when the hull travels so fast that the secondary bow wave does not have time to close in on the transom. The transom sinks into the trough of the bow wave. The bow of the hull rises and the keel is angled up hill. The hull then tries to climb up onto the bow wave and run on top of the water, rather than cut through it.

On a high speed displacement hull, the wave making resistance is about 75% of the total hull drag. At planing speeds, wetted skin friction becomes the main component of hull drag. It becomes important to reduce the amount of hull wetted area.

Hard Chines.

The chine or bilge, is the edge of the hull where the side panel meets the bottom panel. On a displacement type hull, the bow wave tends to cling to the hull, run around the curved bilge, and up the sides. This creates a large wetted area.

On a planing hull, it is desireable to throw the bow wave out and down, and to let the hull lift up on top of the bow wave. This is accomplished by making the bilges or chine sharp or hard.

Bottom panels were usually made concave or hollow in an effort to throw the bow wave down. A convex or slightly rounded bottom panel gives a much smoother ride in rough water. (Something that was not recognized in pleasure boats until the late 1930's).


At planing speeds, the long displacement type hulls tend to carry a significant amount of bow hanging out in the air. It was only logical that the surplus length be cut off of a race boat in order to decrease the weight. The result was that there were 20' boats racing against older 40' boats. The longer boats could handle rough water better, but had difficulty in making sharp turns.


Several of the early, narrow race boats rolled over and capsized when trying to negotiate turns at high speeds. Pieces were added along the sides of these hulls to increase their width, while newer boats were built to a greater width.

Stepped Hulls

A simple stepped hull looks as though the hull had been cut crosswise at about mid length, and the forward section is lowered relative to the aft section. When viewed from the side, (in profile) the keel appears to have a step in it.

The stepped hull (with a single step), rides on one short wetted area just forward of the step, and a second wetted area just forward of the transom. This greatly reduces the wetted area of the hull. The problem is, what should the fore and aft position of the step be relative to the center of gravity? How high should the step be? Stepped hulls are much more difficult to design than monohulls. There are more dimensions which have to be "just right". Determining the proper proportions was quite a challenge to designers who worked on a trial and error basis.

Some of the earliest stepped hulls had multiple steps (as many as five or seven). Henry Fauber, who first patented the step in the U.S., in 1908 could not rouse much interest in the concept, so he went to Europe where many fine race boats were built on his theories.


Sometimes the descriptions used in old magazines and other literature gets confusing. Stepped hulls were sometimes called “hydroplanes". Monohulls (hulls without steps) were often called "displacement" hulls even if they were hard chined planing hulls. The riding mechanic was called the "mechanician". It was his job to lubricate the engine and adjust the spark advance while the driver operated the throttle and did the steering.

Machinery and Arrangements in Planing Hulls

In addition to changes in hull shapes, designers were experimenting with different machinery. It was found that if the weight of the engine could be moved aft, the wetted length of the hull could be reduced, (less wetted area friction). To accomodate this, the engine was turned around so that the output shaft ran forward to a Vee drive gear box. The propeller shaft came aft from the gear box, under the engine, and thru the bottom of the hull to the propeller just under the transom. It was still necessary to locate the driver and mechanician aft of the engine so that they could carefully watch that cantankerous piece of machinery.

The strut which supports the aft end of the propeller shaft was sometimes moved from its typical position forward of the propeller to aft of the propeller where it was incorporated into the rudder assembly. In this way there is no strut to interfere with the flow of water into the propeller.

In some cases, the rudder was moved up forward into the bow area. Some boats even had two rudders, one forward and one aft. All in an attempt to get these early hulls to turn better.

Albert Hickman developed the surface piercing propeller. In his arrangement, the propeller shaft came thru the hull at the bottom of the transom instead of thru the bottom of the hull at about midway between the engine and the transom. Locating the propeller in this fashion eliminated the drag which was produced by the propeller shaft and the shaft strut. The propellers were large in diameter because only half of them was in the water at any given time.

Fate is fickle. Some very good ideas were discarded because they were improperly applied. It would be another 45 years before race boat builders accidentaly found just how efficient a surface propeller could be.

Race Boat Engines 1910 To 1918

The most commonly used engines during this period were racing versions of the Sterling or Van Blerck marine engines. Both were huge, heavy and slow turning. The racing versions were called 'specials', and had light weight aluminum crank cases ane custom camshafts so that they could turn at higher RPM. The Van Blerck had a 5½" bore and a 6* stroke. Engines were built in two, four, six, or eight cylinder versions. In 1914, the eight cylinder version with a displacement of 1,140 cubic inches, and a weight of 1,275 pounds put out 180 horsepower at 1,600 RPM. Power ratings increased year by year as technology and fuel quality improved.

A modern (automotive derived) engine of similar power is the 262 V-6 which is rated at 200 Hp. at 4,400 RPM, and weighs about 700 pounds without the transmission. Compared to the 1914 engine, we now get 2.6 times the power per pound and 6.5 times the power per cubic inch.

Race boat engines were mounted in the open so that the mechanician could have easy access. On some of these engines, small cups with petcocks were attached to each cylinder. These were filled with fuel. When the pilot wanted to start the engine, the mechanician would open all of these petcocks to let fuel directly into the cylinders. The mechanician would adjust the spark advance and attend to the lubrication while the engine was running.

The early engines were notoriously cantankerous, hard to start, and unreliable when pushed under racing conditions. In the 1910 Harmsworth competition, six boats were entered, only four got started and only two finished. In the 1910 Gold Cup race, eight boats were entered, four ran and only one boat completed all three heats. The prize did not often go to the fastest boat.


There are few early records of straighaway speeds. Times and speeds were recorded for race laps or race heats, (several laps). Early race courses were set out over relatively long distances because those early, long narrow boats almost had to stop in order to negotiate a turn.

The 40' Dixie II (the best of the displacement type hulls) averaged 29 mph. for three laps of 10 miles each in 1908. In 1912, Tech Jr. (a 20' runabout) averaged 40.4 MPH. for six timed runs over a one mile course. (Three runs in each direction.) Baby Reliance managed to average 37.1 MPH. in the same trials.

In 1916 mile trials, the 20" stepped hulled Miss Minneapolis averaged 61 MPH. The second fastest boat that year was the 25'-6“ Miss Detroit at only 52.3 MPH. Both of these boats were powered by Sterling engines rated at 250 hp. These boats were capable of averaging 50 MPH around a 5 mi 1e course.

In the period between 1908 and 1916, heat speeds had increased about 20 MPH. with very little increase in power. The improvements in efficiency were mostly the result of advances in hull design. The transition from long, narrow, round bilged displacement hulls to hard chined, stepped planing hulls.


Old race boats are very rare. Many race boats were very lightly built, and did not survive much more than one racing season. (Dixie II had her hull replaced by a stronger one after one year. Hull designs tended to become obsolete quickly during this period of transition. Engines and running gear would be torn out of the old hull and installed into a new hull. There was little or no point in preserving a flimsy and stripped hull with an obsolete design.

Drives and Hulls

The Golden Age of Gold Cup Racing

Moriey S. Smith

Aircraft Engines

I have stated before, that the development of race boats was closely related to the development of gasoline engines. A number of new, light weight, and powerful, water cooled engines were developed for aircraft during the first world war. Engines such as Fiat, and Hispano-Suiza (Hisso) were built in the United States under license from European manufacturers.

Glenn Curtiss, who had an airplane factory in Hammondsport, (site of our antique boat shows) developed the OX-5. This was a 90 Hp. V-8 engine with 502.8 cubic inches of displacement. Thousands of these engines were built at Willys-Overland in Elmira. These engines were used to power the "Jenny" biplane trainer. After the war, ChrisCraft modified a number of OX-5 surplus engines for marine use.

Glenn Curtiss also built some large experimental V-12 engines, some of which found their way into race boats. These engines were called "Twin Sixes”. One 350 Hp. engine in particular was used by Curtiss in Miss Miami in 1917. In 1913 Gar Wood won the Gold Cup with this engine in Miss Detroit III. The excellent Glenn Curtiss museum in Hammondsport has numerous photos of V-12 engines in race boats, but they are unnamed and undated.

The most famous of the aircraft engines was the V-12 Liberty. The design of this engine was a colaboration between Col. Jesse Vincent of the Packard company and E.J. Hall of Hall-Scott. It had a 5" bore and a 7“ stroke for a displacement of 1,650 It was rated at about 400 Hp. at 1,800 Rpm. and weighed only 900 lb.. This is less than half the weight per cubic inch of the Sterling and Van Blerck marine engines, and 53% more power per cubic inch.

It was only logical that this light weight engine should be modified for use in race boats, especially since large numbers of surplus engines were available at very low cost after the war.

"Packed Power"

With the easy availability of these engines, there developed a trend toward installing multiple engines in large race boats. The international competitors in the 1920 Harmsworth Trophy race included Gar Wood's Miss America (26') with two Liberty V-12 engines of 450 Hp. each. Whip-O-Will Jr. with two American Bugatti engines; Miss Detroit V with two Liberties; Maple Leaf V (39') with four Sunbeam twelve cylinder engines; Maple leaf VI (39') with two Rolls Royce V-12 engines; Sunbeam-Despujols (23'-7”) with two Sunbeam engines at 350 Hp.; Tyreless V (at 39'-10"), with two 18 cylinder Green engines; and Miranda V (33') with a single Thornycroft V-12 engine.

Few owners wanted to invest in these large multi-engined race boats.

In the 1921 Gold Cup competition, only two boats started the first heat. Gar Wood in his twin Liberty engined Miss America was almost 18 MPH. faster than Miss Chicago with her single Liberty. It could hardly be called a boat race.

(Gar Wood continued to dominate the Harmsworth Trophy racing with successive Miss Americas, culminating in Miss America X in 1932 and 1933. The X had four modified, Liberty V-12 engines.)

The Golden Age

It was time to change some of the Gold Cup racing rules. The rules for the Gold Cup competition were changed for the 1922 race to require more practical boats of reasonable cost. This might be called the beginning of the Golden Age of Gold Cup racing.

The engines were to be 625 displacement or less. Col. Vincent took one bank of cylinders off of his Liberty V-12 (and reduced the stroke to 5¼") and produced a six cylinder engine for the Gold Cup. In 1923 he produced a special designed six cylinder (based on a dirigible engine) Packard Gold Cup engine of about 130 Hp. Hull length was 25' minimum, with a 5' beam. No Stepped hulls were allowed. The hulls were to be decked over and have seating for four people. The result was a race boat that had a practical use between races.

In 1922, John L. Hacker published plans in Motor Boating magazine for "Miss APBA", a 26'' runabout eligible for Gold Cup racing. There were seats for four aft. Many replicas have been built using these plans, including Miss Packard, Arab VI, and My Last Desire, (all of which have been at our boat shows.) When powered by more than about 300 Hp. these hulls become sensative to fore and aft weight distribution and propeller characteristics.

There were 13 competitors in the 1922 race which had to be exciting to watch. Packard-Chriscraft won with one lap at 42.4 mph. Arab VI (which has been seen at many of our shows) came in second.

As the designers tweaked their hull designs, and engine power increased slightly, the lap speeds slowly increased until they reached 54 mph. in 1926. One mile trial speeds were about 6 mph faster than the lap speeds.

There was competition between designers to see who could produce a boat with the most beautiful lines. These race boats were cared for and a surprising number survived to be restored. In some cases, replicas have been built. If you attend the Clayton Race Boat Regatta in August of this year, you will see a number of boats from this "Golden Age". Miss Columbia, Baby Bootlegger, Baby Horace, Rascal, and Rowdy are among the more famous.

The rules were changed for the 1923 race. Stepped hulls were allowed, and it was no longer necessary to have a seat for two passengers in addition to the two crew members. Surprisingly, the lap speeds of the early stepped hulls were not much better than those of the old monohulls. On the other hand, it was possible to add steps to an old and slow monohull and produce a competitive stepped race boat. Many boats changed shape and name after 1923. This makes the task of researching some old race boats quite difficult.

Miss Mary became El Lagato when 5 steps were added to her bottom. She had an unusually long (15 years) and successful racing carreer, (winning the Gold Cup in '33, '34, and 1935). Miss Columbia had her bottom "shingled". When 5 to 11 steps were installed, each step was only about ½" deep so that they looked like shingles. Solar Plexus became Delphine IV. Impshi was given a shingled bottom and renamed Delphine VI, and was later renamed Hornet. Hotsy-Totsy was given 5 steps. Packard Chriscraft II (the 1923 winner) was renamed Rainbow IX and became a sweepstakes racer.

Ethel Ruth IV and Scotty were among the most beautiful of the early-stepped hulls, although both handled poorly. Other poor performers included El Lagarto which was nicknamed "Leaping Lizard", while Delphine IV was nicknamed "Leaping Lena". Several boats suftered from capsizes during their racing carreers (Delphine VIII). On the other hand, the Miss Canadas II and III were noted as being "the sweetest running boats on the water". Miss Canada III is probably the most streamlined of all Gold Cup racers. She currently resides at the Clayton museum.

There is one case where a single name (without any suffixes) was given to many hulls. That was Herb Mendelson's series of Notre Dames.

Without seeing a photo, there is no way to tell which version is being mentioned.

This brings up the notorious 24 cylinder Duesenberg engine. This engine first appeared in Miss Syndicate in 1931, and bounced from one hull to another with each successive owner thinking that he could make it work. Notre Dame won the Gold Cup with a 500 hp. version of this engine in 1937. (The old Packard sixes were only producing about 250 Hp.).

As the designers learned how to design better stepped hulls, the lap speeds slowly increased from 52 mph in 1922 to about 61 mph. in 1933. El Legato also set a 1 mile record of 72.7 mph in 1935.

At about this time, the rules allowed supercharging and other engine modifications. Engine power increased to about 400 or 500 Hp. The immediate effect was a great increase in mechanical failures. Impshi won the 1936 Gold Cup, not because she was the fastest boat, but because she was the only boat still running at the end of the heat.

The engine modifications produced great increases in lap speeds, with Alagi winning the 1933 race with one lap at 73 mph. (almost 9 mph faster than the year before.) It holds true today that doubling the power will increase the speed by only about 10 mph., and a step can add 7 or 8 mph. That was about the end of the "Golden Age" because three point hydroplanes were coming into use. My Sin, a three pointer, won the 1939 race. The second world war produced a whole new group of powerful aircraft engine which changed the character of big boat racing once again.