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A History of Automotive-Powered Unlimiteds

By Fred Farley - H1 Unlimited Historian

As a whole, automotive power in the Unlimited Class has so far failed to achieve competitive results. Only one auto-powered boat (MISS CHRYSLER CREW in 1967) has ever won a race.

There were quite a few attempts at automotive power in the late 1960s and early `70s. But all that were fast enough to qualify eventually took backward steps to proven principles with the traditional Allison or Rolls-Royce Merlin arrangement.

In 1948, Al D'Eath brought MISS GROSSE POINTE to the Detroit Memorial Regatta, powered by a pair of Fageol bus engines. The boat came to an untimely end when it hit the Belle Isle Bridge. D'Eath used both hands to operate the twin throttles and had to steer with his feet.

In the early 1950s, the minimum length for Unlimiteds was only 20 feet--although the vast majority consistently measured in the 28-foot range. A couple of Limited boats tried to sneak into the Unlimited ranks because they met the letter--if not the spirit--of the rules. These included CHESAPEAKE Cat in 1951 and LET'S FACE IT in 1956.

In 1957, the 25-foot minimum was imposed. That pretty much ended 7- Litre Class boats trying to pass themselves off as Unlimiteds. There was one exception. A Packard-powered 7-Litre named WHIZSKI tried (and failed) to qualify for the 1957 Gold Cup. It only measured 20 feet 10 inches long. So the owner extended the tailfin 4 feet 2 inches to reach 25 feet. The following year, the rule was re-written to specify that the boats had to measure 25 feet from bow to transom excluding appendages.

In 1956, a boat called MISS SKYWAY showed up at the Seattle Seafair Regatta. It was powered by twin side-by-side V-8 Corvette engines and used a system of V-belts rather than a gearbox to transfer the power to the propeller shaft. "The Rubberband Boat" as it was called could only do about 40 miles per hour on the straightaway. The following year, it was re-fitted with a single Allison and a gearbox and, in 1958, managed to qualify for a race.

The first serious attempt at automotive power in the Unlimited Class was Bill Sterett's MISS CHRYSLER CREW in 1966-67, designed by Henry Lauterbach. It used a pair of 426 cubic inch supercharged Chrysler hemis, mounted in tandem. The team had an inventory of six engines-- two in the boat, two in the trailer, and two at the factory. After each race, they would rotate. And it nearly bankrupted Chrysler's marine division.

The C-CREW managed to win the 1967 UIM World Championship Race at Detroit on extremely rough water. By all accounts, Sterett was the only one with the guts to go fast that day. The boat was flying so high, opposing drivers could see the underside of MISS CHRYSLER CREW's hull as it sailed past them.

Chrysler dropped sponsorship after 1967. The boat re-appeared in 1969- 70 as MISS OWENSBORO. It ran better and faster with an Allison engine borrowed from MY GYPSY.

Inspired by the C-CREW's success, a home-made twin-Ford-powered boat called THE DUTCHMAN appeared in 1967. It was a complete failure with a fast lap of only 71 miles per hour on a 3-mile course.

Two very serious experiments with automotive power occurred in 1970. These were Dave Heerensperger's PRIDE OF PAY `n PAK, designed by Ron Jones, Sr., and Bob Fendler's ATLAS VAN LINES, designed by Jim Lucero. Both used twin Chrysler hemis.

Fendler's boat barely got off the launching pad and was converted to a single-Allison in mid-season.

Heerensperger's craft made it through the season but was just too heavy for the twin V-8s. Its best finish was a fifth-place in the 1970 Detroit race with Ron Larsen driving. If today's propeller technology had been available in 1970, the PAK might have done better. But that's speculation.

PRIDE OF PAY `n PAK was re-powered with a single Rolls-Royce Merlin in 1971 and became a front-runner.

In 1975, a boat called LAUTERBACH SPECIAL debuted with an Allison engine. The hull raced under a variety names and was converted to automotive power in 1979. It initially tried a single big-block Chevy but was quickly converted to two Chevys. It was fast enough to qualify but was strictly an "also-ran." It had no chance against the aircraft engine boats of that era and was retired after 1983.

The twin-Ford-powered MISS O'NEIL & KNUDSEN, owned by Walt Knudsen, showed up at San Diego every year from 1976 to 1982. The home-built labor of love had very flat sponsons and never came close to qualifying speeds.

In 1977, a single-Chevy-powered craft named CHARLIE'S GIRL, owned by Bob Murphy and designed by Don Sooy, made the scene. It failed and was later re-fitted with an Allison. It eventually became a display hull for Bill Wurster's team.

In 1980, the twin-Cosworth-powered ARONOW/HALTER SPECIAL (later known as ARONOW UNLIMITED) qualified for the Madison Regatta with a fast lap of 113 MPH. This was 12 MPH off the pace set by the Merlin-powered ATLAS VAN LINES.

The ARONOW was the first tunnel hull to appear in the Unlimited Class. It used a pair of Chryslers in 1981 and '82 but was plagued with mechanical difficulties. In 1983, it used four Johnson Outboard motors and placed second in the UIM World Championship Race at Houston, Texas.

MISS MERCRUISER, owned and driven by John Prevost, was an avowed experiment to see if a light-weight/single Chevy-powered craft could be a viable Unlimited. It wasn't. The Ed Karelsen-designed craft showed up for two races in 1986 but could only run lap speeds in he 80 to 90 MPH range.

Prevost later toyed with the idea of putting four V-8 engines in a larger than usual Unlimited hull. But the project was abandoned before the boat was ever put in the water. Mike Hanson built the hull, which was eventually acquired by Mike Jones and converted to turbine power.

Builder Jon Staudacher turned out no fewer than four automotive powered Unlimiteds in the late 1980s, most of them intended for Jerry Schoenith's short-lived Automotive Thunderboat Association circuit. They had names like ELIMINATOR, GOLDEN THUNDER, DOUBLE TROUBLE, and TED NUGENT'S FREE-FOR-ALL. A couple of them later showed up on the Unlimited circuit but were strictly "also-rans."

Alan Vordemeier's MISS STROH LIGHT (U-9) arrived in 1988 with twin Fords amid a flurry of publicity. Driver Wheeler Baker confidently predicted that, with the power-to-weight ratio being what it was, the boat would be a strong contender. It wasn't. The Staudacher hull failed to perform and only finished one race. Brian Keogh later acquired it. The U-9's best finish was a sixth place at Miami in 1989 with Ron Snyder driving. In 1991 at Honolulu, it recorded a qualifying lap of 120 MPH with Jack Schafer, Jr., in the cockpit. This was more than 40 MPH off the pace of the fastest turbine boat.

In 1991, the Unlimited Racing Commission tried to start a "UR" category for "Unlimited Reciprocating" boats. But only one team seriously accepted the challenge. This was THE EDGE (UR-5), owned by the Ruttkauskas brothers. The twin Chevy-powered craft was the former Allison-powered MISS RENAULT of 1983. The UR-5 ran for one season, achieved mediocre results, and was never heard from again.

The last automotive-powered boat to attend an Unlimited race was Brian Keogh's U-9 in 1993. It showed up at the Tri-Cities and failed to qualify.



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