By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon
Sixty years ago, a new race boat was lowered into the waters of the St Clair River. It was destined to do something that had never been done before, and hasn’t been done again since.
Miss Supertest III was designed and built with one thing in mind: to win the Harmsworth Cup, an award given to the winner of an international challenge race. The Harmsworth is a contest between nations, set up in 1903 and run whenever a country is prepared to challenge for the prize. It attracts the fastest boats and the best drivers each country can produce. In 1959 no Canadian boat had ever won the Harmsworth, although many had tried. Miss Supertest III would not just win it, but would win it three years in a row. By the time Miss Supertest III retired, so did the Cup: it would be 16 years before anyone challenged for it again.
The boat was built in London Ontario; it raced in Sarnia, Detroit, and on the St Lawrence River in Picton. But it’s a story that begins and ends, as so many boating stories do, on the Muskoka Lakes.
Miss Supertest III Has Deep Muskoka Roots
Murray Walker is a longtime Muskoka cottager, and the current owner of Miss Supertest III. In the small and collegial world of wooden boat fans, Murray is well-known as a collector. And like most collectors, he has a few specific passions: in his case, they include Canadian history, and race boats.
“The second wooden boat I bought was a race boat,” he says. It was Clarie II, a 35-footer from 1920 that had competed in Great Lakes Gold Cup races and was later retired to the owner’s cottage on Lake Simcoe. Murray had admired it as a child, and when he had a chance to buy it as a 30-year-old he couldn’t resist. One boat led to another, and then to a fleet. “The problem was that whenever I bought a new boat, I couldn’t bear to get rid of the old boat,” he chuckles.
Some of his boats are occasionally on display at the Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst; others are kept in his private boathouse, or other secure locations.
Miss Supertest III is his latest acquisition, and in many ways, it is the pride of his collection. He bought it to form the centrepiece of a Canadian RaceBoat Hall of Fame, which he is involved in establishing – in Muskoka, if the right property can be found. And he bought it to ensure that it stays in Canada.
“I believe very strongly that we need to preserve and celebrate these Canadian stories,” he says.
A Never-ending Story
And the Miss Supertest story is nothing short of amazing. Even sitting on a trailer, the boat exudes power and speed. Its 30 feet of gleaming mahogany was powered by a Rolls Royce Griffon V12 airplane engine. The engine and supercharger alone are eight feet long, pushing out 2,900 hp that could propel her across the water at well over 200 mph.
At full speed the boat would rise up out of the water entirely: the only parts touching the water were two palm-sized patches of metal near the front, 14 inches of rudder, and half the propeller that whipped the water at 11,000 revolutions a minute, throwing up a wall of spray 30 feet high and 300 feet long.
As the name implies, Miss Supertest III was the third boat to bear the name of a petroleum company. The first Miss Supertest was built at the Greavette boatworks in Gravenhurst, where it was named Miss Canada IV.
The Miss Canada boats were owned by the Wilson family, and were the Canadian standard-bearers in international racing in the late 1930s through the 1940s. Miss Canada IV, built in 1949, was also designed with the Harmsworth Trophy in mind.
It was an incredibly fast boat, one that set a world speed record of 143 mph. But it was also unlucky, suffering mechanical failures in race after race. In its first Harmsworth competition, it bent a prop then limped around the course and finished last; the next year the hull was damaged, and it didn’t finish. When it tried again to set a new speed record it was travelling at well over 200 mph when a bearing retainer failed, and it came to a halt a few hundred yards short of the measured finish line.
That was par for the course when racing high-performance boats, says Murray. They were experimental, constantly pushing the boundaries of what a boat could do.
“When Miss Supertest III came along, they built an amazingly fast boat, but they also knew that you didn’t have to drive the boat as fast as it could go in order to win the race.”
The Quest for Racing Supremacy
In 1951 the Wilsons decided to retire from racing, and sold their boats, Miss Canada III and IV. American buyers were eager to snap them up, but – like Murray Walker a half century later – the Wilsons wanted to keep the boats in Canada. So they sold them to another Canadian father-son team, Gordon and Jim Thompson.
The Miss Canada name was not included in the sale, so the Thompsons decided to name their boats after their company, Supertest Petroleum. Miss Canada III was a fabulous boat – some say the finest race boat ever built in Muskoka – but by 1951 technology had outpaced it. So it was retired, and its younger sister, Miss Canada IV, was renamed Miss Supertest.
For the next ten years, the Thompsons poured their time and money into a quest for boat racing supremacy. They built a second Miss Supertest, which set a world speed record (with Huntsville Ontario native Art Asbury at the wheel), but still the Harmsworth trophy remained elusive.
Then, in 1959, they unveiled their third and last Miss Supertest. Jim Thompson wasn’t just the co-owner of Miss Supertest III, he was also the designer. He had never designed a race boat before but he had spent years studying them, even going so far as to film every boat race and study the films, something nobody else seems to have done before.
“He was a very clever engineer, and he had the means to make it happen,” says Murray.
The driver was equally talented, a former mechanic named Bob Hayward.
“Bob understood engines as well as driving. They tore that engine down and rebuilt it so many times, and he understood it the way no other driver had.”
The team knew how long each part would last before it failed, and they replaced it before it did; they designed new kinds of propellers and experimented with different metals, keeping their designs hidden from other race teams. They consulted with the Wilsons, as well as with Harry Greening, a legendary driver / owner who had won countless trophies and broken speed records in the 1920s, including some set not far from his Lake Muskoka cottage.
The Big Pay Off
In August 1959, the Thompsons’ passion, time, and money paid off. On the Detroit River, Bob Hayward and Miss Supertest III won two out of three heats to claim the Harmsworth Cup, the first time the cup had left the US since 1920. The next year, and again in 1961, Miss Supertest III won the trophy. Only one other driver had won the Harmsworth more than once, but nobody before or since has won it three times in the same boat.
For many years, Miss Supertest III was arguably the most famous boat in Canada. It was featured on the front pages of newspapers, and on the cover of Macleans. It was paraded down Yonge Street and shown at the CNE.
But just a few months after its last win, driver Bob Hayward was killed in a boat race. He was at the wheel of Miss Supertest II – the older boat was still incredibly fast and had been entered in a race in Detroit – and it flipped in a turn, killing him instantly.
The Thompsons had been contemplating retiring from racing, and Hayward’s death confirmed that decision. Miss Supertest III was cleaned up, preserved, and put in storage. When the Ontario Science Centreopened in 1967, she was put on permanent display and remained there for nearly 40 years.
The RaceBoat Hall of Fame
When Murray heard a few years ago that Jim Thompson – then in his early 90s – would consider selling the boat, he got in touch and outlined his plans to establish a RaceBoat Hall of Fame. Thompson agreed to sell, and the boat changed hands.
Murray is still looking for the perfect property for the hall of fame. When he finds it, he has the boats ready to show: among those in his collection are a replica of Little Miss Canada II which he had built in 1984, as well as Harry Greening’s Rainbow IX which he bought in 1991. Rainbow and Little Miss Canada are both operating boats, but Miss Supertest III will never run again.
“I know I would kill myself if I was ever to try and drive it,” Murray says with a rueful smile. “It’s not the kind of boat you just hop in and go.”
Until the hall of fame is established, Miss Supertest will be seen at limited showings, including at events such as the Antique and Classic Boat Show in Gravenhurst, and locations including Port Sandfield Marina and at Rideau Ferry.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to repatriate a few great Canadian boats,” say Murray. “I’m the caretaker of them, just helping to keep these great stories alive.”
Andrew Wagner-Chazalon is Editor and CEO at Dockside Publishing. For more great happenings in Muskoka and area, be sure to pick up the 2019 edition of Lakeside magazine, covering the Muskoka Lakes, Lake of Bays, Huntsville, Bracebridge, and Gravenhurst. Visit their website at www.docksidepublishing.com.