Bill Horn Remembered
The years between the World Wars are remembered as power boat racing’s Amateur Heyday.
A lot of new ideas were tried then with some being more successful than others. And some of the sport’s most revered personalities made their claims to fame. One of these was William McKinley Horn, the 1932 Gold Cup and President’s Cup-winning driver of Delphine IV.
After time out for World War II, Bill Horn helped to get boat racing back on track by serving as President of the American Power Boat Association.
Horn worked for Horace Elgin Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family. Bill served as secretary and treasurer of the Horace E. Dodge Boat and Plane Corporation, headquartered in Newport News, Virginia. Located on a 100-acre site at the latter location, the firm was reputed to be the largest pleasure boat building facility in the world.
The great boat racing experiment of the 1920s was the introduction of “Gentlemen’s Runabouts” into the APBA Gold Cup ranks to improve competition and to put the race into the range of more pocketbooks than had previously been the case. Hydroplane hulls were outlawed as were power plants larger than 625 cubic inches in piston displacement. Thus was formed the Gold Cup Class, which would hold sway from 1922 to 1941.
Horace Dodge was an enthusiastic proponent of the “Gentlemen’s Runabout” concept. He built a large number of boats along those lines, including a craft named Solar Plexus that was to become a racing legend with Bill Horn as driver.
Solar Plexus was built in 1925. Horn made his Gold Cup Class debut with her in 1926. He finished seventh in the Gold Cup at Greenwich, Connecticut, and fourth in the President’s Cup at Annapolis, Maryland.
Horn and Solar Plexus scored their first victory together in 1927. They won all three 30-mile heats of the DYC Development Trophy, sponsored by the Detroit Yacht Club. Bill outran the formidable Harry Greening and Rainbow VI, which finished second.
By the late 1920s, it became obvious that the “Gentlemen’s Runabout” experiment had failed. Costs continued to spiral upwards. And the competing boats were definitely not the desired “Gentlemen’s Runabouts” that would be useful for something besides racing. They were nothing but simon-pure racers.
No Gold Cup race was run in 1928 and hydroplane hulls were re-admitted in 1929. The year off was to allow contestants time to rebuild their boats in compliance with the new regulation. Although, in truth, only three owners (Richard Hoyt, Vic Kliesrath, and Horace Dodge) from the “Gentlemen’s Runabout” era returned to race hydroplanes in the Gold Cup.
The hydroplanes made an inauspicious return in 1929. Hoyt's Imp, the race winner that year, actually ran slower than had the 1927 Gold Cup winner, which was a vee-bottom monoplane.
The Stock Market crash of 1929 plunged the country into the Great Depression of the 1930s, which affected nearly every facet of American life. Gold Cup hydroplane racing, however, emerged largely unscathed during that troubled decade. In every year but one, a respectable field of competing boats showed up to keep the sport alive and reasonably healthy.
Bill Horn and Solar Plexus (now renamed Delphine IV) waited until 1931 to return to Gold Cup Class action. Horn and his riding mechanic Charlie Grafflin “shingled” the under-side of their boat to make a hydroplane out of her.
In initial trials, Delphine IV rode awfully rough and was nicknamed the “Leaping Lena.” Horn and Grafflin sought the expertise of Dodge engineer Walter Leveau who managed to calm the boat down considerably.
Two-thirds of the 1932 Gold Cup starting field at Lake Montauk, New York, consisted of “shingled” versions of earlier vee-bottom Gold Cuppers. The new hydroplanes, built after the rule change of 1928, had so far failed to make much of an impression.
Before the race, Dodge had essentially given up on Delphine IV and had relinquished possession of her to Horn and Grafflin, although Horace still retained legal ownership.
Dodge’s enthusiasm for the sport is unquestioned. During his long career, 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.
Horn and Grafflin operated Delphine IV independent of the primary Dodge team. Much to Horace’s chagrin, Delphine IV won the race, while Dodge’s highly touted Delphine V failed to finish.
Delphine IV ran first, first, and second in the three 30-mile heats; George Reis and El Lagarto finished second, second, and first. El Lagarto was another “shingled” old-timer.
All of the Gold Cup Class records for a 2-1/2-mile course were shattered in 1932--all of them by Delphine IV. These were for lap (60.002), heat (59.215), and race (57.775).
Delphine IV won the 1932 Gold Cup decisively, having completed the 90 miles 45 seconds faster than second-place El Lagarto.
A few weeks later, Horn and Delphine IV added the President’s Cup to the team’s trophy shelf. Reis and El Lagarto took second overall, while Delphine V again failed to finish.
Bill Horn and George Reis were fierce competitors but were also close personal friends. Bill always appreciated the fact that George (who was blind in his left eye) would never pass another driver on the left side.
As a result of Delphine IV’s Gold Cup victory, the cup returned to Detroit in 1933 for the first time since 1924. But the cup’s stay in the Motor City proved to be of short duration.
This was the year of the “Dodge Navy” with five of the ten entries belonging to Horace Dodge, Jr. Indeed, four of Horace’s entries were among the seven actual starters. Unfortunately, three of his boats were brand new and none were a match for El Lagarto (“The Lizard”).
In mounting his 1933 Gold Cup defense, Dodge went all out. He built 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."
Racing on a 5-mile course, Reis pushed El Lagarto to the fastest heat (60.866 miles per hour) since the cubic inch displacement limitation of 1922.
Defending champion 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. 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. El Lagarto then thundered by and was never headed. Reis went on to beat Horn by five seconds and Delphine Dodge Baker (Horace’s sister) 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 60.866 record set in Heat One.
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.
Following El Lagarto's win, the Gold Cup went to Upstate New York, where it remained for the next three years.
Horn and Delphine IV again finished second to Reis and El Lagarto in the 1934 Gold Cup--with a victory in Heat Three--but failed to finish in 1935. This proved to be Delphine IV’s final race.
In a 1936 interview with Yachting Magazine, Horn talked candidly about his philosophy of race driving.
According to Bill, there was “only one way to learn to drive a speed boat--get into one and drive her. You cannot become a seagoing chauffeur by reading books on the subject.
“The qualifications of a successful racing speed boat driver are, in general, those required of a participant in any dangerous sport. You must have keen perceptions, lightning reflexes, unfailing courage and, preferably, no nerves.
“If you are a fatalist, so much the better. You must give no thought while racing to what might happen should anything go wrong. There are too many other things on which to concentrate.
“Think of your boat, how to get the most out of her, how best to handle her in any situation that may arise, and let old Lady Luck take care of the rest. She will do pretty well by you if you do your part.
“No two racing boats behave alike. I proved the truth of this at Washington [D.C.] in the President's Cup race last September  when I spilled in Hotsy Totsy II. I had been out in her for only two brief runs before I drove that race. I was not familiar with her peculiarities, so when I bailed into that first turn and the boat began to slide on an even keel instead of banking as my old Delphine IV did, she got away from me and turned over. That would not have happened had I had the opportunity thoroughly to acquaint myself with her.
“I never knew anyone to get anywhere in motor boat racing who was afraid of his boat --did not have confidence in his ability to handle her. A boat might kill me but she never will lick me. That is why George Reis is so successful with El Lagarto. That old lizard is going to fly into a thousand pieces one of these days, but George never thinks of that. He gives his boat hell and pushes her for all she's worth when he has to. He is utterly fearless.
“The more you run one in tests and competition, the more you learn. You pick up something new every time out. So, if you really aspire to be a top-notch driver, you must keep on driving.”
Bill Horn kept on driving for a few more years following the retirement of Delphine IV. After the experience with Hotsy Totsy II, he took the wheel of Hotsy Totsy III at the 1937 Detroit Gold Cup and placed an overall third behind Clell Perry in Notre Dame and the Italian Count Theo Rossi in Alagi.
The final race of Horn’s career was not one of his favorites. His old boss Horace Dodge was anxious to try the new-fangled three-point hydroplane design (two sponsons and a propeller) that was becoming popular at the time. Dodge came up with a craft called Excuse Me that resembled a hump-backed ping-pong bat. She was supposed to be a trendsetter for a new line of racing hulls, to be produced by Dodge.
With Horn driving, Excuse Me wallowed along in last place at the 1938 Detroit Gold Cup and quite literally fell apart. She sank before completing a single heat.
Dodge was so soured by the Excuse Me experience that, for the balance of his career, Horace concentrated almost exclusively on step hydroplanes. The only other three-pointer to carry the Dodge colors into competition was the short-lived Hornet of 1951.
With the advent of World War II and gasoline rationing, competition for the Gold Cup, the President’s Cup, and most other major trophies was suspended for the duration. When racing resumed in 1946, Horn was there to help get things moving again.
Following his retirement, Bill stayed close to the sport that he loved. As late as 1979, he continued to make an annual appearance (in a wheelchair) at races of the Spirit Of Detroit Association. Race Chairman Jack Love always had a pit pass ready and waiting for him.
Horn was especially pleased when a full-sized replica of Delphine IV made an appearance at the 1979 Detroit race. Joining Bill was old friend Charlie Grafflin to help celebrate the occasion.
Like most elderly people, Horn experienced health issues. At one point, a very serious operation was required. His life hung in the balance. Bill’s doctor had been a youthful fan of Horn’s before World War II.
On the day of the surgery, the doctor had a heart-to-heart talk with him: “Mr. Horn, when you were out there racing on that river, you were my champion. Today, in the operating room, I’m going to be your champion. I’m going to bring you through this.”
And he did.
He gave a few more years of healthy living to one of racing’s all-time greats.