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My Sweetie John Francis

U-17 My Sweetie John Francis at Lake Chelan in October 2022 by Craig Fjarlie. 

Vintage boat profile by Craig Fjarlie

Dr. Ken Muscatel, a clinical psychologist from Seattle, has been involved with boat racing most of his life. He has competed in several inboard classes and in Unlimited Hydroplanes. Now, retired as an active race driver, he has a collection of vintage boats. One that always attracts attention is U-17 My Sweetie John Francis, a boat that once belonged to Horace Dodge, Jr.

Dodge began competing for the APBA Gold Cup in 1925 with a boat called Solar Plexus. The boat carried a new name, Delphine IV in 1932, when Bill Horn drove it to victory. Dodge won the Gold Cup again in 1936 when Kaye Don drove his boat, Impshi, to first place.

All forms of motorsports were halted during World War II. Dodge returned to racing in 1949 with two boats, Lotus II and Delphine X. Winner of the Gold Cup was My Sweetie, owned by Ed Gregory and Ed Schoenherr and driven by Bill Cantrell. A few weeks later, Dodge purchased the boat.

In 1950, a new type of Unlimited hydroplane was introduced. Slo-mo-shun IV, designed by Ted Jones and built by Anchor Jensen, was a 3-point, air suspension, prop-riding hydroplane. The 3-point style had been tried in the past, but early versions of the design were tail draggers. Slo-mo literally flew over the water. While step hulls such as My Sweetie and Miss Pepsi were still competitive, especially in rough conditions, their days were numbered.

Dodge stayed with step hulls. Les Staudacher began construction of My Sweetie John Francis in late 1953, based on a design by John Hacker. The boat was named for Dodge’s son and entered a few races in 1954. “By the time John Francis was built, it was obsolete,” Muscatel admits. It was unable to qualify for the Gold Cup in Seattle. Later in the year, Bob Grattan drove the boat to fifth place in the Silver Cup on the Detroit River. That was the craft’s final appearance in competition.

In the shop: My Sweetie John Francis in 1954. Photo by Bob Carver.

My Sweetie John Francis in 1954, the only year it was entered in competition. Photo by Bob Carver.

Muscatel describes how he came to own My Sweetie John Francis. He believes it was 1983 when he saw that boat at Jafco Marine in Buffalo, New York. “Joe Fraunheim’s brother, Jack, and his brother, Tom, ran Jafco Marine. I have a photo of John Francis on its trailer at Jafco Marine in the early ‘80s,” he recalls. “As a matter of fact, they also had Miss America X there. All these boats were there. They didn’t have any engines in them, of course. I was there in October. We were going to go for a ride and then the weather turned bad. Jafco was a big marine player, big dealer of pleasure boats. Joe loved Ventnors, and that’s how we connected, through our love of old race boats. I fell in love with the Sweetie then.”

The John Francis went through a few hands before Muscatel finally was able to acquire it. “The boat went to a guy in Florida. Eventually it was bought by Tom Mittler. I followed it over the years and all of a sudden it became available. An owner died and I got it from his estate.”

The boat on the crane slings shows the location of the propeller. This was in 2014 when Ken first brought the U-17 out to run it.
Photo by Lon Erickson.

The boat was in good condition when Muscatel bought it. “Doug Morin’s dad worked for Staudacher. Doug’s dad was one of the major guys who built My Sweetie John Francis. Doug replaced the bottom on the boat,” Muscatel explains. “And it’s not that heavy.” With an Allison engine, fueled and ready to run, the boat weighs about 4,600 pounds.

Muscatel has driven the boat at several exhibition events and describes how it handles. “It’s a pretty fast boat,” he says. “I can tell you, they turn really well. They banked so much better than the Unlimiteds of the time. They banked through the corner. They had twin rudders, too. They weren’t deep rudders; they didn’t have to be. With an Allison engine, My Sweetie John Francis would go about 110, 115, which is plenty fast, but it’s not 150.” The rudders are original equipment, as is the propeller. “Everything’s original,” Muscatel emphasizes. “I have a prop that was one of the original props. I think Joe Frauenheim had another prop for it, but it runs fine with the prop it has.”

This shows the twin rudders on the U-17 transom.
Photo by Craig Fjarlie.

Like other step hulls of its day, John Francis uses a vee-drive gearbox. “What made those boats different, really different, is the shaft angle is at 11-½ or 12 degrees,” Muscatel notes. “Normally, you’re talking about 4-½ or 5 degrees. By 12 degrees, you lift. The prop was basically two-thirds back, under the cockpit of the boat. What’s different about that, and was revolutionary about that, is it picked the boat up off the water. The boat would get up and lift off the water. Then the prop couldn’t carry it and boom, it just falls back in the water and then rebounds and starts lifting up. That’s the stepping. The boat, as a result, was pretty fast.”

Close-up of the cockpit by Craig Fjarlie.

Because of the vee-drive gearbox, the Allison engine is mounted in the boat backwards from the way they were mounted in 3-point hulls. That means the supercharger sits right in front of the cockpit. When World War II aircraft engines were being adapted for use in Unlimited hydroplanes, one of the major causes of mechanical breakdowns was a blown supercharger. When asked if the position of the supercharger in the My Sweetie John Francis is a cause for concern, Muscatel demurs. “I’ve never thought about it, honestly,” he admits. “It could blow up. I suppose it could. I’ve had a supercharger blow up when I ran Miss Burien in Seattle at Seafair. It was one of those large Hydroplane and Race Boat Museum exhibitions. I remember running down the front straightaway and I was going pretty good. Then all of a sudden, bang! Something went zipping by my head. Turned out it was a part of the supercharger. It can happen. Being right there where it could hurt you? Sure. I don’t think they ran it as hard. You really have to run those things. I mean, that’s a big backfire. I don’t think anybody ever had a close call with that, but it never happens until it happens, right?”

Muscatel did have one incident with the John Francis at Lake Tahoe in 2015, when the boat sank. “The back of the engine is where the gearbox close-couples right onto the engine, and it’s a vee-drive. How do you hook the prop shaft?” He answers his own question. “Underneath the boat, just aft of the first step, there’s a panel. It’s a compartment. This part of the bottom that you take off, it drops out. That’s how you unbolt the motor from the prop shaft. How else could you do it? That means, of course, it creates a weak spot and a leak spot. When the guys were helping me get the boat ready for Tahoe, they didn’t seal it properly, so the boat was leaking. But we had a pump, and it would be okay. I had a charger on the battery just so it would be continuously juiced up. Somebody unplugged the battery charger. So the boat sank, about four feet. It got the motor wet. We got it out. Cost me $8,000 to raise the boat. We tried to fire the motor off. We had it a little fired off, but I had to take it out. Dane Sorensen took it apart, cleaned everything, put it back together. Took the banks off, got all the water out of the oil. Now, of course, it doesn’t leak at all. It could be in the water for days and it’s okay.”

My Sweetie John Francis fires up at Lake Chelan in October 2022 as owner Dr. Ken Muscatel (in orange shirt) looks on with crew.
Photo by Craig Fjarlie. 

Muscatel has a large collection of vintage boats. When asked if he would consider selling parts of his collection, he knows it is something he will have to do eventually. “Everything is for sale,” he allows. “There’s a guy who is interested in John Francis, but we’ll see. I’m trying to unload gradually so it won’t become somebody else’s burden.” In the meantime, Muscatel regularly brings various representatives of his collection to vintage events, where people can appreciate the work and care required to maintain them in running condition. Those who have seen My Sweetie John Francis always stand in awe of the beautiful vintage hydroplane that once belonged to Horace Dodge, Jr.

The U-17 looking beautiful and fast at Lake Chelan, October 2022, by Craig Fjarlie. 

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