1933 : The Year of the Dodge Navy

The Great Depression of the 1930s had a profound effect on American life in general and on Gold Cup hydroplane racing in particular. One man who helped to keep the APBA Gold Cup Class alive during that time of economic uncertainty was Horace Elgin Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family.

Following the retirement from competition of the great Gar Wood, Dodge was power boat racing's most prominent advocate-- especially in Detroit. The 1933 Gold Cup on the Detroit River is a case in point. No fewer than five of Dodge's Delphine boats were entered in the race, which is remembered as the year of the "Dodge Navy." Indeed, four of Horace's entries were among the seven actual starters.

Dodge's enthusiasm for the sport is unquestioned. During a career that spanned from the 1920s to the 1950s, Horace expended millions of dollars--and built literally dozens of boats--in pursuit of victory on the water. Unfortunately, Dodge's skills as a team manager left something to be desired.

The late Walter Kade, who achieved fame after World War II as an Unlimited hydroplane pilot, was employed by Dodge during the 1930s as a crew member. Kade had vivid recollections of the "Dodge Navy" of 1933. In a 1966 interview with this writer, Walt related how Horace brought a huge fleet of boats to the race...but not enough crew people to maintain all of them. As a result, the overall quality of the team suffered.

Dodge's Delphine IV was the defending Gold Cup champion, having won the 1932 race at Montauk, Long Island, with Bill Horn as driver and Charlie Grafflin as riding mechanic. This entitled Dodge to defend his title in 1933 on home waters under the auspices of the Detroit Yacht Club. The Motor City had last hosted the Gold Cup in 1924.

In truth, Delphine IV was an aging former displacement craft, built in 1925, which had been transformed into a hydroplane configuration by the addition of "steps" or "shingles" to the underside. Horace had essentially given up on Delphine IV and had relinquished possession of her to Horn and Grafflin--although Dodge still retained legal ownership.

Horn and Grafflin ran Delphine IV on their own in 1932. They were independent of the primary Dodge team, which concentrated on Delphine V. As things developed, Delphine IV's best lap speed in the 1932 Gold Cup (60.000) was eight miles per hour faster than Delphine V's best. Delphine IV went on to post two firsts and one second-place finish to secure the overall victory, while Delphine V with Horace Dodge driving failed to finish.

In mounting his 1933 Gold Cup defense, Dodge went all out. He built three new boats (Delphine VII, Delphine VIII, and Delphine IX). He also brought Impshi, an old displacement craft, out of mothballs, added shingles to her underside, and renamed her Delphine VI. These, together with Delphine IV, constituted the "Dodge Navy."

Delphine VII was designed by George Crouch and built by the Horace E. Dodge Boat And Plane Corporation for Mrs. Delphine Dodge Baker, Horace's sister and the first woman to ever drive in Gold Cup competition. Delphine VIII and Delphine IX were English-built by Fred Cooper and powered with 24-cylinder Duesenberg motors, which cost a figure reported to be in the five digits.

Delphine VII followed the example of Delphine IV and relied on a 621 cubic inch Packard engine, while Delphine VI utilized a Miller Gold Cup motor. Also entered in the race were Hotsy Totsy, the 1930 and 1931 Gold Cup winner with Vic Kliesrath driving, from South Bend, Indiana, and El Lagarto, another shingled old-timer, owned by George Reis, from Lake George, New York.

El Lagarto had made a lackluster debut in the 1922 Gold Cup as Miss Mary II, owned by E.L. Grimm. Reis had acquired her in 1925 and run her as a pleasure boat and in local races on Lake George. In 1930, Reis bought a new single-step hydroplane named El Lagartito, which was trounced by Hotsy Totsy in the 1930 Gold Cup at Red Bank, New Jersey. George was fascinated by Hotsy Totsy's conversion from a monoplane to a multiple-step hydroplane.

The following year, Reis applied a series of five transverse steps to the riding surface of El Lagarto and trotted her out as a trial horse for El Lagartito. With George in the "Tito" and crew chief Anderson "Dick" Bowers at the wheel of El Lagarto, the two squared off in the middle of the lake for a comparison of speed. There wasn't any. The old boat ran away from her younger sibling.

Reiss retired El Lagartito on the spot. He never campaigned her again. From that day forward, Reis and Bowers concentrated all of their efforts on El Lagarto...and a racing legend was born.

At the 1931 Gold Cup on Lake Montauk, the presence of Reis's older boat was the source of considerable amusement to the racing fraternity. El Lagarto indeed looked out of place alongside such new challengers as Californian, Miss Philadelphia, Miss Syndicate III, and Scotty Too. But no one was laughing when El Lagarto (also known as "The Lizard") led the field for ten of the twelve laps in Heat One.

She might have won if not for a valve that stuck in its glide, snapped, and was sucked into the engine. Between the 1931 and 1932 Gold Cups, El Lagarto captured both the National Sweepstakes Trophy and the President's Cup in late-season 1931.

At the 1932 Gold Cup, the old "Lizard" ran well but was decisively beaten by Delphine IV, which completed the 90 miles 45 seconds faster than El Lagarto. For the 1932 President's Cup at Washington, D.C., Reis and Bowers varied the thickness of El Lagarto's after-shingle, making it thinner. This, according to Yachting Magazine columnist Mel Crook, caused the boat to jump higher out of the water. And the more she jumped, the faster she went.

From then on, El Lagarto was known as "The Leaping Lizard Of Lake George." In the President's Cup, she beat Delphine IV by 300 yards in Heat One. But then, while warming up for Heat Two, El Lagarto's crankshaft snapped.

For the 1933 Gold Cup, new pistons were installed to boost the Packard's compression ratio. Reis and Bowers also replaced the standard crankshaft with a new Winfield, which added another 250 rpm to the engine's top end. Defending champion Horace Dodge had no desire to relinquish the Gold Cup to an eleven- year-old ex-monoplane resurrected from obscurity. But that's exactly what happened. El Lagarto led the first heat from start to finish at a record-breaking 60.866, the fastest speed since the cubic inch displacement limitation of 1922. Delphine IV trailed by ten seconds at the finish.

Heat Two was a thriller with Horn and Delphine IV leading around the first turn and part way down the backstretch. Then El Lagarto thundered by and was never headed. Reis went on to beat Horn by five seconds and Delphine Dodge Baker in Delphine VII by 28 seconds.

With two victories to his credit, all George Reis had to do was finish third or better in Heat Three. He settled for a leisurely second behind a hard-charging Bill Horn who led from start to finish and averaged 60.206 for the 30 miles. This was fast but not fast enough to eclipse El Lagarto's record set in Heat One.

For the fourth year in a row, the Gold Cup had been captured by a rebuilt former displacement craft. Once again, the new step hydroplanes, built after the rule change of 1928 which allowed boats with steps or shingles, had been put to shame.

It was indeed a disappointing day for the "Dodge Navy." Only two of Horace's boats (Delphine IV and Delphine VII) lasted the 90 miles. Engine troubles kept Delphine IX far astern of the leaders, while Delphine VI broke a crankshaft. And Delphine VIII missed the show entirely.

In defeating the "Dodge Navy," El Lagarto became the first boat to win a Gold Cup race eleven years after its competition debut. (The only champion to duplicate this feat is Miss Madison, which likewise was eleven years old when she won in 1971.) Following El Lagarto's win, the Gold Cup went to Upstate New York, where it remained for the next three years.

"The Leaping Lizard" repeated as champion on homewaters in 1934 and 1935. She thus became the first three-time consecutive Gold Cup winner, a record that stood unchallenged for thirty years.

Undaunted, Horace Dodge renewed his quest for boat racing's Holy Grail the following year. He took second in 1934 with Horn and Delphine IV, but failed to finish in 1935 with two boats (Delphine IV and Impshi). Dodge's persistence finally paid off when he and driver Kaye Don won the 1936 race at Lake George with Impshi.

The year of the "Dodge Navy" is remembered with a special fondness. Motorboating Magazine described El Lagarto's victory in glowing terms: "Reis won on his merits in spite of handicaps. His own ingenuity and careful testing and preparedness were responsible for his success."

The 1933 Gold Cup served as a much-needed diversion for Depression-weary race fans. In spite of the economic instability of the times, big-time boat racing continued to thrive and provide spectacular entertainment.