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Restoration of Miss Bardahl


Dixon Smith gives someone a ride in Miss Bardahl.  Gleason Racing Photography

 

By Craig Fjarlie

Dixon Smith grew up in Seattle. He became involved with Unlimited hydroplanes as a child in 1956, when his father, Burns Smith, was a crewmember on Miss Seattle. Dixon and his brother, David, were allowed in the shop where they swept the floors and helped with minor chores. All three went on to work on other boats. Dixon became a crewmember on the Green Dragon Miss Bardahl, built in 1962 and driven by Ron Musson, while he was a student at the University of Washington.

Smith’s major was physics; he also earned a degree in mathematics. He put his education to good use, doing research in the engineering library. He found information that would contribute to solving problems that often plagued the Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines used in Unlimiteds at that time. He was instrumental in developing the use of nitrous oxide as a performance aid in acceleration. He also did work to improve reliability. When Miss Bardahl was retired from competition at the conclusion of the 1965 season, the boat had finished 57 consecutive heats without an engine failure. “As I used to tell people, the biggest thing you have to learn in racing is you have to finish to win,” Smith says. “If you don’t finish, you don’t win.”

The Bardahl corporation campaigned other boats and the 1962 hull sat in a corner of the warehouse. Eventually it was sent to a Bardahl facility near Boston, where it would be put on display as an advertising tool. A few years later Bardahl closed the eastern factory. The manager of the plant was instructed to return products to the main office in Seattle and sell everything else. Smith’s understanding is that the manager set the boat outside with a sign on it: “For Sale, Make an Offer.” Someone bought the boat for about $1,500.

“It went through at least three people,” Smith explains. “Somebody got it, did something with it, thought they could make a race boat with it but obviously didn’t have the resources or the knowledge. Sold it to somebody else. It ended up somewhere in New England in some guy’s backyard with no deck on it. Big blue tarp over it, sitting outside. The big blue tarp blew away and it sat outside one winter in New Hampshire with no deck on it.”

Smith credits Jon Osterberg with helping recover the boat. “Jon is the guy who found it,” Smith says. “The story of him chasing that down is just amazing. He arranged, after some serious negotiation, that the guy who owned it would give it to Bob Williams, who was going to have a museum in Tacoma. This was about 1996 or ‘97. An agreement was made that this guy would give the boat to this museum in trade for some kind of paperwork; he made a charitable contribution of ‘X’ number of dollars, he can take that off his taxes. It came out here, no deck on it. It stopped in Tri-Cities at the race. There’s a picture of it sitting in the pits with no deck on it, looking terrible.”

Before long, Bob Williams’ dream of developing a hydroplane museum came to an end when he ran short of money. “There was an agreement made that what is now the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum would get the assets, but they also had to incur the debt,” Smith remembers. “Joe Frauenheim, Curt Erickson, Ken Muscatel, and maybe someone else were involved in the transfer from museum to museum. The Bardahl was sold to Erickson and the money that he paid for it is part of the money that went to pay off some of the debts. It was kind of a loan, but it was actually sold to Erickson with a first right of refusal for buying it back. Somewhere along the line I found out about the thing, and I talked to Erickson a couple of times. At this point I had acquired a whole bunch of Rolls-Merlin equipment from a sale. Dwight Thorne and I bought out Jeff Neff’s Second Wind engines. Dwight got the airworthy stuff and I got the boatworthy stuff and some junk. So, I talked to Erickson and suggested he restore the boat. I’d put together hardware, engine, gear box, all the rest of the stuff that was needed for the boat. We’d have some kind of handshake partnership and get this thing running again. Erickson is a really good boat restorer.”

Erickson’s woodworking skills notwithstanding, more than a year passed and nothing was done to the boat. Finally, Smith met with Erickson and suggested he should buy the boat from him. Erickson wanted to think about the offer. “About a week later I get a phone call and Erickson says, ‘I think you need to own the Green Dragon.’ We talked about it and came up with a reasonable price to agree on, so I basically bought the boat,” Smith recalls. The first thing Smith needed to do was locate a place to keep the boat during the restoration process and recruit people to help with the work. “I went through several people and finally ended up with Mike Hanson. I only knew Mike as a driver at the time. I didn’t know he’d been through full shipwright apprentice school. He had also built a bunch of boats. At the time, he was working for Mike Jones on his racing equipment. Jones was paying Hanson and his brother, Larry, to work on the race boat and go racing. The other six months of the year he would lay them off so they could go on unemployment.” Smith made an agreement with Jones to spread the work around if he could keep Miss Bardahl in the shop. Smith told Jones, “‘I’ll pay you a shop rate per day when it’s being worked on.’ My brother, myself, and Skip Schott would go there and work two days a week, the other three days they’d work on Jones’ racing equipment. Come summertime it just got shoved in the corner and nothing happened while they went racing. It took three or four years to do that. So, that’s how the boat got restored. There is probably 20-to-25 per cent of the original boat. I was hoping for 40-to-50 per cent, but we just kept tearing it apart until we got to something good, and it went a lot further than I expected.”

The engine is primarily a Dash 7 model Rolls-Merlin, with a few Dash 9 model parts. “It’s kind of a mishmash of parts,” Smith admits. “There was not much Dash 9 stuff left,

because most of it had been used up and blown up. There was still some stuff that was really good, like weighted crankshafts and ground camshafts. It’s probably about 90 per cent of what a really hot, good race engine would be.”

Smith is conscientious in keeping the restored Miss Bardahl in good condition. “The boat right now is probably in better shape, by far, than it was at the end of its racing career,” he states. “It was pretty tired when it quit racing. We’ve run it on the Vintage circuit. People ask me how fast the boat will go. I’ve seen 150 on the speedo a couple of times. It would go faster than that, but I won’t. It has a really good, stout engine and we spend serious time keeping it in good shape. We’ve run the boat a couple hundred times doing exhibitions and giving rides, and so far, it is always driven back to the dock under its own power. It has not come back being towed by a rope.” Smith knows things can go wrong. “One of these days something will happen, we’re going to be towed in, but so far, the boat has behaved, worked well, and every time it has gone out it has come back under its own power.”


Smith’s son, Ryan, is in the Miss Bardahl driver’s seat in this photo. Gleason Racing Photography

At the moment, Smith is undecided whether he will run Miss Bardahl in 2024. He has other commitments and may need to take the year off. If he does run the boat, it most likely will be only at Mahogany and Merlot on Lake Chelan, the first weekend of October. When it does run again, it will generate the sound and look of one of the great Unlimited hydroplanes from the 1960s.

Take a look at the team’s website: https://www.missbardahl.com

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