Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Wood, Gar

Garfield Arthur "Gar" Wood was a Detroit area inventor, businessman, and a builder and driver of racing motorboats. While some of his inventions were revolutionary and are still used today, he is best known for his love of motorboats, breaking the world water speed record five times. He is also credited with devising the small, swift PT (patrol torpedo) boats of the U.S. Navy in World War II. 

Named for the president and vice president elected in the year of his birth (James Garfield and Chester Arthur) Wood was born on December 4, 1880 in Mapleton, Iowa, the first of 13 children. His interest in boating was a product of environment, as his father owned and operated a ferryboat on Lake Osakis, Minnesota. Wood gained mechanical skills from working with his father, and his love for speed from the races that sometimes occurred among the ferryboats.

Working as a pilot on the inspection boat gave Wood his first chance to indulge his inventive nature. With the goal of making the boat move faster, Wood invented the first down-draft carburetor. His next invention resulted from working as a lightning rod dealer. In order to demonstrate the ability and importance of lightning rods to potential buyers, Wood invented an induction-coil device that simulated lightning. 

Following his education at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, Wood was employed as a marine engine mechanic, and began to create a number of inventions that brought him significant profit. His first major invention, patented in 1912 in Minneapolis, was the hydraulic lift, used today on dump trucks. Moving to Detroit, Wood and his eight brothers created Wood Hoist Co., later known as Gar Wood Industries. Among all of his inventions, the most significant was the Gar Wood Load Packer, created in 1938, which employed hydraulics in garbage trucks to compact the trash, still used by garbage trucks today. 

With the newfound wealth from his inventions, Wood was able to return to his childhood love of boating. He bought his first racing motorboat, “Miss Detroit,” built by Algonac’s Chris Smith, after it won the 1915 Gold Cup race in New York. Wood raced it on the Detroit River in 1916 but didn’t win. However, Wood became a financial backer of Smith’s company Christ-Craft, kicking off a series of successes. 

Smith built several more winning boats for Wood until Wood decided to form his own company in 1929, a boat division of Gar Wood Industries, in Marysville, Michigan, which built the Miss Americas. Wood won five Gold Cups, nine Harmsworth trophies and broke five world speed records, the fastest 124.86 in 1932. Perhaps as important, is the series of recreational boats Wood built, the “Baby Gar,” that set a standard for luxury, fine boat building. 

The accomplishments Wood made on the open sea are those for which he is most remembered, especially in the city of Detroit. In the 1940s Wood retired to Fisher Island in Florida. There, he continued to tinker with new ideas until his death on June 19, 1971. The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, N.Y. holds the Gar Wood Archive, available online at New York Heritage Digital Collections.



Gar Wood with two boats in which he set records, 1928 - 2009.004.174

Gar Wood (right) and Kaye Don in their racing overalls, 1932 - 2010.052.002

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