Gar Wood: Inventor of the Hydraulic Dump Bed
Up, Up, and Aweigh!
Few people remember that Gar Wood, the man who put motor trucks to work 100 years ago when he patented and produced the hydraulic hoist for dump bodies, was also the first to exceed 100 mph on water. The genius inventor developed not only the hoist but also an assortment of truck bodies. In doing so, Wood amassed a fortune, and it allowed him to pursue his love of boat racing. His victories and records made him internationally famous in the first era of sports celebrities. And as an indirect consequence, he became the father of the recreational marine industry.
But it all started with trucks.
Wood was born in 1880 in Iowa and raised to the age of 10 on Lake Osakis, Minnesota. His father operated a ferry, one later described by the Detroit Free Press as “a clumsy, wood-burning steamboat named the Manitoba.” He studied engineering basics at Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago and later messed around with boats while working as an electrical engineer, selling Ford cars, and teaching automotive engineering in St. Paul, Minnesota.
One day in 1911, Wood went on an errand to buy parts for a lightning rod he had invented when he noticed a truck driver unloading 5 tons of coal. Cranking the dump body high enough to make the coal slide out was a brutal, 30-minute ordeal.
“Why isn’t there some mechanical contrivance operated by the engine to do all that work for him?” Wood asked. The question of developing a foolproof mechanism with pushbutton simplicity occupied his thoughts. “Then I remembered the hydraulic cylinder on the old Manitoba, which my father had used in reversing his engines.”
Wood searched through product literature and catalogs for a high-capacity pump. Then he told his wife, Murlen, “I’ve got a new idea: a mechanical device for dumping trucks. Shall I put money into it?” Murlen never regretted giving the go-ahead to risk their $200 in savings.
Wood found a Pierce-Arrow truck dealer named Grant Waldref to back him if the prototype worked. He put it on a coal truck and demonstrated its effectiveness for the truck’s owner and others who had just come from a party. They climbed into the dump body, and Wood started the hoist. “It shot up too fast and rolled a dozen well-dressed gentlemen unceremoniously onto the floor,” he later recalled.
Naturally, there was instant demand.
Patent number 1165825, filed on October 21, 1912, and awarded on December 28, 1915, states, “The object of this invention is to provide a simple and effective apparatus for tilting the body of an automobile truck for the purpose of quickly dumping the contents of the body.”
Describing the drawing of the mechanism, it continues, “The cylinder E and its connecting pipes together with the gear pump are adapted to be filled with heavy oil or glycerin and oil through the port 3-3 at the top of the cylinder E, a small space being left in the top of the cylinder for the expansion of the liquid.”
Wood and Waldref launched Wood Hydraulic Hoist Company, but they parted in 1913 and Wood moved to Detroit. Waldref eventually renamed the company and continued producing hoists. In the meantime, Wood set up a new company, Wood Hydraulic Hoist and Body, in a leased building near the Detroit River. Advertising soon boasted of supremacy, the claim ending rhetorically, “Ninety percent of the truck makers in this country list Wood bodies as standard equipment—why?”
As the website coachbuilt.com reports, the company outfitted Pierce-Arrow and Packard trucks for Allied armies fighting in the Great War. Wood found a larger Detroit production plant and established local installation centers nationwide. Besides the original, vertical hoist that mounted behind the driver seat, there was an underbody hoist for longer chassis. Output included a range of dump bodies as well as refuse and asphalt bodies. A gravity-operated, self-dumping body was made just for 1-ton Ford trucks. Ultimately, the company offered wreckers, tankers, and buses. And Wood continued to refine his basic products and to patent the new creations.
As his wealth grew, Wood turned the operation over to his eight brothers and concentrated on boat racing, purchasing the Gold Cup racer Miss Detroit and basing his efforts in Algonac, Michigan. (He would have a home here; one in northern Michigan, a 46-room mansion with an enormous pipe organ in Detroit; another on Florida’s Fisher Island, which he owned; and a fifth in Hawaii.) Not only did he buy Miss Detroit, but he also acquired Chris Smith’s boatyard, which had built her.
Working with Smith, Wood won the Gold Cup—American powerboat racing’s most prestigious title—every year from 1917 through 1921. And at the helm of Miss America, he shockingly won the British International Trophy for Motorboats (a.k.a. the Harmsworth Trophy) in 1920 and 1921, earning international acclaim and eventually the nickname The Gray Fox of Algonac. He would win the Harmsworth seven more times.
Wood experimented with aircraft engines in his boats and cornered the market on war surplus Liberty V-12s, which would prove enormously useful. After his fifth Gold Cup, the American Power Boat Association changed the rules. His new racer, a 33-foot “gentleman’s runabout” called Baby Gar, incorporated the sophisticated hull design of its predecessors but added comforts for skipper and crew. Soon, he was in the boatbuilding business, and dozens of sportsmen (Wrigley, Vanderbilt, Marshall Field) owned Gar Wood boats.
When Chris Smith and his sons became disenchanted, they started their own company to manufacture smaller and less expensive Chris-Craft runabouts. America’s recreational marine industry was on its feet.
Wood’s challenges continued until 1933, when he retired from racing. In 1920, he had built Gar Jr. II, a 50-foot cruiser powered by two Liberty engines. The next year, matching train against boat, he famously raced this cruiser against the Havana Special up the Atlantic coast from Miami to New York, winning by a narrow margin after 47 hours and 23 minutes. (The margin of victory varies in printed sources between 12 and 21 minutes.) In 1931, he pushed Miss America IX to 102.256 mph, becoming the first man to go faster than 100 mph on water. The next year, in Miss America X—called a “madman’s dream” for it’s four 1,800hp Liberty engines—he surpassed 2 miles per minute, reaching 124.860 mph.
During World War II Wood was asked about the PT boats then seeing action in the Pacific Theater. “I guess it was Miss America X that was the mother of them,” Wood said.
After Wood stopped racing, he became known for piloting amphibious planes. In addition to his single-engine Fairchild, in 1937 he picked up a twin-engine Grumman with all the latest aeronautical aids for $70,000. When staying at his Florida home, he liked to dash over to the Bahamas in his twin-hull yacht.
A few days before the city of Detroit was set to publicly honor Wood in 1971, he passed away at age 90. He held dozens of patents, set many records, and had a fortune of $50 million—but it all started with hydraulic hoists and dump bodies for trucks.