The Gentlemen's Club

  • Shaun Tolson

Long before auto racing captured the public’s interest, there was boat racing. And the most coveted of all racing victories was the American Power Boat Association’s Challenge Cup, better known as the Gold Cup. First awarded in 1904, the Gold Cup became the benchmark by which Americans with a history of yachting—and a surplus of disposable income—measured their abilities. “The boats that were first raced in the early years of the 20th century . . . they were wet, mostly cranky, and somewhat slow,” says Emmett Smith, the curator of watercraft at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, N.Y. “They were a product of the Gilded Age and the age of innovation.”

That all changed in 1915 when Christopher Columbus Smith, the founder of the mahogany powerboat manufacturer Chris-Craft, built Miss Detroit, a hydroplaning boat that reached 60 mph and claimed the winner’s trophy that year. For the traditionalists hoping that the sport would soon return to its less harrowing, more genteel past, things were about to get worse. After earning his fortune designing and patenting a hydraulic lift used in the unloading of coal trucks, Garfield Wood had the means to invest in his first passion: speedboat racing. He bought Miss Detroit in 1916 and subsequently purchased the yard that had built her, Chris Smith and Sons Boat Co. With Wood at the helm, an aircraft engine providing the power, and Chris Smith designing vessels that boasted revolutionary designs and innovative technology—like stepped hulls, which displaced water more efficiently and allowed boats to plane higher and reach faster top speeds—the Gold Cup races became less of a competition and more of a shellacking. As Mark Mason, the owner of New England Boat and Motor (www.newenglandboatandmotor.com), says of Gar Wood’s Gold Cup racers during the late teens and early 1920s, “They were fire-breathing dragons that no one could compete with because he was spending $1 million on his boats.”

Needless to say, most Gold Cup racers were not pleased. “They were interested in it as boaters with a history in sailing yachts,” Smith says of those competitors, who represented second and third generations of Gilded Age families. “[But with Gar Wood] it became more about speed and power and less about opulence and wealth. These boats were extremely loud, very expensive, very dangerous, and not much fun for the more gentlemanly racers.”

In their protests of Wood and his raucous speedboats that had altered the Gold Cup landscape, the stymied participants accused him of not being a gentleman. As a way of retaliation, Wood competed in his next race wearing a top hat and tailcoat. His speedboat hadn’t changed, and his tongue-in-cheek attempt at being a “gentleman” was not well received. It also didn’t help that, while making a mockery of his competitors’ dispositions, he continued to win every race that he entered.

Finally, the APBA issued a rule change, which later became known as the “gentlemen’s” Gold Cup rules. With the new rules in place, the size of a boat’s engine was limited to 621 cubic inches and steps were banned from all hull constructions. According to Smith, for eight or nine years Gold Cup competitors raced in boats that remained elegant in their design, as well as fun, practical, and fast, especially considering the new limitations. Yet, for as much as the rules forced competitors to focus on designs and construction methods through use of privately hired naval architects and boatyards (the way the sport originally existed), the era lacked longevity. “The gentlemen’s Gold Cup rules were an attempt to return to an earlier time,” Smith says, “but it didn’t really return.”

And how could it? Asking all aspiring boat racers to ignore the advancements that could bring greater speed was akin to asking all aspiring aviators to overlook the Wright brothers’ accomplishments and simply believe that manned flight was impossible. However, even though the gentlemen’s Gold Cup era was short-lived, it produced a small collective of stylish and high-performing mahogany racers. It couldn’t have been predicted at the time, but more than 70 years later those restricted racers have proved to be the most desirable vintage wooden boats among serious collectors.

Doug Elmore knew years ago that the few vintage mahogany racing boats that he saw every summer on the waters of Lake Tahoe were special. He didn’t need a restoration expert or a boating historian to explain it to him; he just knew. “You could just tell that they were great boats,” he says. “To me, they were the ultimate boats.”

Elmore, an avid and longtime boater, has owned many a craft throughout his life, but the carrot that dangled in front of him for years was always to have a gentlemen’s Gold Cup racer. When an acquaintance came into the possession of a Canadian boat with a Gold Cup past, Elmore instantly offered to share ownership. The boat, Rainbow III, was designed by John Hacker and competed in the 1923 Gold Cup. According to Elmore, it won the first two 30-mile heats of the race, but a rudder malfunction during the third heat kept the boat’s owner, Commodore Harry Greening, from challenging for the lead. Nevertheless, Greening was confident that as long as he finished, he would win the cup. Upon crossing the finish line, however, Greening learned that it was total elapsed time of the race that determined the winner, not the average placements over the three heats. Rainbow III would not win a Gold Cup, but Greening proved that, when he piloted the boat at its full potential, few of his challengers could keep up.

Years after Elmore teamed up to co-own the boat, he went the extra mile to buy out his partner. He made the decision partly because it was always his dream to add a vintage racer of this caliber to his collection (he currently owns nine boats, though he says it’s a much smaller collection than it used to be). Elmore also took sole possession of the boat because he understood what was required to maintain it, especially in an area like Lake Tahoe, where humidity levels are never as high as in the areas where these boats originally were built and raced.

Currently, Rainbow III is in the care of Doug Morin, the owner of Morin Boats (www.morinboats.com), who is working to restore the craft’s bottom framing and planking. To date, he says that it’s the most complicated restoration job that he has undertaken, which is influenced in no small way by the fact that all of the boat’s original wood has survived.

Morin does more than just restore vintage racers or build contemporary mahogany runabouts in the classic style; he also serves as a broker for classic mahogany racers and cruisers. Boating enthusiasts looking to own a significant vessel like Rainbow III can improve their chances by starting a search through Morin. However, the restoration expert, now in his 32nd year of operation, says that because so few were built, the percentage that has survived is low. “There weren’t that many to begin with, so how many really are out there?” he asks. “I won’t say you’ll never find any more, but the odds aren’t good. Very seldom will you see one of the really desirable ones. It’s very tough to find even a rough, ugly one that’s real. If it has some history and is pretty good-looking, it doesn’t last too long on the market.”

The scarcity of gentlemen’s Gold Cup racers, and the demand that they now generate, is a familiar subject to Mason at New England Boat and Motor. Mason grew up not far from Detroit, which was the hotbed for speedboat racing during the early 20th century. As a teenager, his first love was antique automobiles, and he was friendly with a local antique car collector who took him under his wing and shared some collecting advice. “An antique speedboat of any kind is just an antique car floating on the water,” Mason recalls being told.

That revelation led him on the quest for an antique speedboat of his own. Eventually, he found one—Sister Syn, a 36-foot craft built by Horace Dodge, which competed in 150-mile international races known as sweepstakes during the early 1930s. Mason bought the dilapidated hull for $200 around 1969 and slowly worked on restoring it. To do so effectively and accurately, he met with many of the craftsmen who had worked alongside Dodge and other noteworthy boatbuilders and designers of the 1920s and ’30s. What he learned was that the Gold Cup–era boats from the 1920s were equally elegant but more manageable than raceboats from the 1930s.  And so Mason’s quest continued, this time for a gentlemen’s Gold Cup boat. He eventually found one among the scrap heaps of a Quebec City junkyard and paid $2,500 to bring it home.

Besides being turned on to antique raceboats by his collecting mentor, Mason also remembers being told that the ultimate trophy for a collector is a boat that was designed by the very best designers, built by the greatest boatyards, and owned by the most prominent American millionaire sportsmen during the 1920s. Mason had found all of those things in that Canadian junkyard. The boat that Mason had bought was Baby Bootlegger, a 28-footer designed by George Crouch and built for Caleb Bragg, an auto racer of the early 1900s who piloted the boat to Gold Cup victories in 1924 and 1925. After restoring the boat and owning it for 25 years, Mason finally sold it in 2001 for more than $1 million, which set a new benchmark for the value of these raceboats. When asked why he would ever part with such a rare and valuable boat, Mason explains that the boat’s value had outgrown his own capabilities to properly protect it. “When you own something that some people think is worth a lot of money, and you can’t insure it for what people think that it’s worth, you have to question why you own it,” he says. “You begin to realize that when somebody makes you an offer, it might be time to sell.”

Mason parted with the boat, but he’s still experiencing the same type of nostalgic ride that Baby Bootlegger had offered. Decades before, when Mason was searching for a Gold Cup racer, he found and bought many of George Crouch’s original drawings and line designs for those raceboats. Today, by following those plans, Mason is building historic re-creations of those vessels. Starting at $400,000, each craft built by New England Boat and Motor includes new components fashioned to the exact specifications from the 1920s. Mason also has partnered with an engine builder to create detuned Chevy big-blocks that produce the same horsepower and performance capabilities that the original boats’ aircraft engines could achieve. As he explains, many boaters are intimidated by the prospect of operating a vintage speedboat with its original, antique motor. As a compromise, these modern, detuned Chevy engines provide customers with the identical horsepower, but they also offer greater peace of mind. However, for customers who are not intimidated by the use of antique airplane engines, Mason can equip his boats with authentic Hispano-Suiza power plants from the 1920s. “My goal is to [create boats that] run at speeds that they achieved during their time in that championship era,” he says.

They may not be the original, one-of-a-kind boats, but with so few of those authentic racers left—and considering that any notable example will fetch more than $1 million if and when it reaches the market—Mason’s historic re-creations are giving nostalgic boaters a true-to-life taste of the past. As one of the lucky few to own a genuine Gold Cup racer, Doug Elmore says there’s nothing quite like it. “You feel like you’re just sitting on the water,” he says. “You can tell what it was built for, even when you’re going less than 50 mph. You really feel the water when you’re driving.

“It’s just a different sensation,” he adds. “It’s thrilling.”

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