Into the calm, chill waters of Saginaw Bay, Mich. this week will be launched one of the most powerful and impractical speedboats ever built. Driven by an F-84 jet fighter engine, its bright, white hull (above) combines the unlovely shape of a lobster with the wallowing weight of a walrus. There is a fair chance that the freakish craft, to be christened Miss Stars and Stripes II, will founder in its own bow wave the first time it hits 20 mph, and a good chance that at higher speeds it won't stay in the water at all, but will fly—briefly. If none of these misfortunes overtakes it, Miss Stars and Stripes II, however, may well achieve the dual purpose for which she was built: breaking the world water-speed record of 260.35 mph held by Donald Campbell of England and satisfying the long-thwarted competitive ambition of its owner, Robert B. Evans of Detroit.
Robert Beverley Evans ("with an ey in Beverley, please; it is often misspelled") is an intriguing new figure in a sport that attracts intriguing figures. Fifty-five years old, he has a head full of reddish hair, a face with a thousand freckles, a quick, fresh smile and eyes as cool and blue as Lake Michigan. He has made millions of dollars—as did his father before him—and his personality is no more modest than his means.
He considers himself, with some justification, an ingenious inventor. "I must have had a thousand ideas of ways to do things better," he says. "They just come to me. One hit me the other day like a ton of bricks. I forget it now. But I guess I hold 15 to 20 actual patents—no, if there's one thing I can't stand it is an overstatement. Let's say 10 to 15 patents." Among them are a fishing lure that snaps concealed hooks into the outside of a fish after it bites and a boat so unsinkable that "you could get lost in the middle of Lake Superior with a hole in the bottom and you might starve, but you won't drown."
He made his money, however, not with inventions, but in the world of business and finance. Starting with a sandwich-and-raccoon-coat concession at the University of Michigan—"Father thought a rich man's son should be poor and gave me no money"—he now owns three companies outright. "I enjoy taking sick companies and making them well," he says. "It is a pleasure to see the lines of worry vanish from the employees' faces." He is also vice-president of the Evans Products Company, a $100-million-a-year plywood-products firm which his father, Colonel E. S. Evans, founded in 1915.
It was the colonel, in fact, who set the first and only world speed record held by the Evans family to date. In 1926 he went around the world a la Phileas Fogg—by steamship, ricksha, airplane, etc.—in 28 days 14 hours and 36 minutes, beating the old record by a week. He returned to denounce the American airline industry as woefully behind the times, and to warn: " Russia is in the hands of visionaries. That country is worthy of American study."
Son Robert has done his best to follow in the astute and adventurous tradition of the colonel. "I was lucky, for the good Lord imbued me with no sense of fear," Evans says. And fearlessly, one presumes, he took up gliding and speed-boating, nearly killing himself at each. "I have always needed an exciting sporting sideline," he says. "You may say that I am not a vegetable."
He learned his gliding in Switzerland in 1929 and came back to be the self-styled "first glider pilot in the U.S." (The fact that one John Joseph Montgomery was gliding in California 45 years before abashed Evans not at all.)
Once he was almost killed when his glider crashed into an oak tree in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Later he nearly drowned crash-landing into a bay on Cape Cod. And finally he almost died of humiliation the day old Henry Ford arranged for him to give a demonstration of gliding at a Detroit airport. At the take-off, he sheared the wings off the glider, which collapsed in a heap, leaving Evans sitting in a pile of splinters and nails, like a Wright brother gone wrong.
Turning to speedboats in 1932, Evans got the idea of attaching small, winglike appendages below the water line of a Chris-Craft he owned. He was delighted when the boat's hull lifted clear of the surface and sped down the Detroit River on its steel water wings. Characteristically, Evans assumed he had discovered the hydrofoil, only to learn Alexander Graham Bell was among those who had beaten him to it. "The only thing new was my enthusiasm," he recalls.
In 1936, still fired with enthusiasm, he bolted a set of hydrofoils onto a cigar-shaped craft named Miss US III and set out to break the old water-speed record of 124 mph held by his Detroit neighbor, Gar Wood. He almost made it, too.