American industrialist Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, developed and manufactured the first automobile that many middle class Americans could afford. In doing so, Ford converted the automobile from an expensive curiosity into a practical conveyance that would profoundly impact the landscape of the twentieth century. His introduction of the Model T automobile revolutionized transportation and American industry. From 1908 to 1927 the Ford Motor Company produced more than 15 million copies of the Model T.
Ford entered the aviation business during World War I, building Liberty engines. After the war, Ford returned to auto manufacturing until 1925, when Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company. Ford’s most successful aircraft was the Ford 4AT Trimotor, often called the “Tin Goose” because of its corrugated metal construction. The Trimotor first flew on June 11, 1926, and was the first successful U.S. passenger airliner, accommodating about 12 passengers in a rather uncomfortable fashion. By the late 1920’s the Ford Aircraft Division was reputedly the “largest manufacturer of commercial airplanes in the world.”
Henry Ford’s many accomplishments during the 1920’s are heavily documented, however his involvement with wooden speedboats is not that well known – until now. While he was busy building cars and aircraft, Henry Ford decided to order a custom made 1924 33′ Hacker from legendary designer / builder John Hacker. Today, Henry Ford’s wooden speedboat has a remarkable history, and she is now being brought back to life by Tim & Brian Robinson at Robinson Restoration in California.
Here’s Part 1 of the “EVANGELINE” story – Texx
EVANGELINE – Part 1: A Little Background
by Brian Robinson
First off, this story comes about two years late to my good friend Texx, to whom I showed this boat underway with the restoration while he was in Southern California in June of 2012. At that time we started to discuss doing something for Woody Boater.
This is not about just any old boat. Its early ownership and history is truly fascinating, so I will break it up into a couple parts. As I write this, the restoration is about 2/3rds completed, which will hopefully be finished in time to debut at the 2015 Tahoe Concours d’Elegance, then on to the ACBS International show in Gull Lake, Minnesota.
Although I recall hearing about the “33-foot Hacker in Garden Grove” when my family got heavily involved in the wooden boat hobby in the early 1990s, neither my father Tim nor I, ever actually saw it in person. It wasn’t until 2008, when my good friend Dave Wright invited me to come along with him to take a look at the boat with brothers, Dave and Karl Elles who owned it. Dave Wright had got to know the Elles brothers over the years of rebuilding Liberty V-12s because the brothers had accumulated literally tons of Liberty parts to have as spares for their own engines.
Dave and the Elles brothers had started talking about finally finishing the boat project they started twenty years prior. I am a Hacker enthusiast and had restored a few of them so I brought along a binder full of original photos and documents I had accumulated. The boat was stored in the upstairs mezzanine of their caster factory in Garden Grove, California. Within moments of seeing the aft deck and transom uncovered, I was having déjà vu… “I’ve seen this before,” I exclaimed, “but where?”
After Dave Wright and I combed over the boat for an hour, I went to the car, grabbed my Hacker binder, and headed back inside. As I thumbed through my binder, I pulled out a Xerox of a photo I copied on a whim while at the Mariners’ Museum a few years prior (there were a handful of photos in the John L. Hacker Collection that I kept copies of simply as ‘boat porn.’ This was back when you could walk up to the copier yourself at the museum and copy anything you could get your hands on for a nickel.) Anyway, as the four of us sat around that table staring at the photograph, that was the ‘ah ha’ moment for this boat.
The Elles brothers had long speculated that they had “the Ford boat” as we call it, but never knew exactly what it looked like originally. They had copies of the letters written from John Hacker to Phillip Schaeffer of Buffalo, NY in December of 1924 for the purpose of Hacker trying to sell Schaeffer the second 33-foot runabout hull, often referencing the first 33-footer custom built for Henry Ford and powered by a Liberty V-12, which had been delivered earlier that spring. John Hacker referred to “the Ford job” as “the prettiest boat ever turned out.” (The second 33’ Hacker with a more conservative standard Dolphin deck was successfully sold to Mr. Schaeffer upon completion with a smaller Hall-Scott LM-6 engine in 1925. It still exists and is now in the collection of Lee Anderson in Nisswa, Minnesota known as “Rebel”.)
In the Hacker correspondence letters, the Ford boat was referenced as being used as a “dispatch boat” for the Ford’s 224-foot steam yacht, the Sialia. Henry Ford was quoted by John Hacker in these letters as commenting “It is a wonderful sea boat.” Hacker went on to say: “We might also state that this boat has more flare forward than any boat we have built up to this time in as much as Mr. Ford insisted in this, and that it has an exceptional tumble-home aft. It is really the most beautiful boat we have ever turned out.”
With the Liberty power it was clocked at 49 mph in 1924 – faster than many race boats of its day. It was also believed to have been used as a chase boat for a short time for the Ford fleet of Sweepstakes race boats which it shares many of its design cues with – the Nine Ninety Nine, Goldfish, Woodfish, and Grayhound Jr – all of which were also Hacker designed and built, no doubt with a great deal of Edsel Ford’s design influence. It was Edsel who was heavily into boat racing, but after the Nine Ninety Nine caught fire and nearly killed the two drivers (including Raymond Dahlinger… more on him later) during the August 1924 Gold Cup Races on the Detroit River, the Fords pulled out of boat racing completely.
Following the Fords disastrous 1924 Gold Cup race, Henry decided to gift his custom 33’ Hacker runabout to his long-time mistress, Evangeline Coté Dahlinger, wife of Henry’s chauffer, first-rate mechanic, and racing driver, Raymond Dahlinger. It was a marriage that Henry himself arranged. Henry even reportedly proposed to Evangeline for Ray.
Lavish gifts to Evangeline over their 35-year affair included (but not limited to) a 150-acre Dearborn parcel with a 38-room mansion and boathouse on the Rouge River with secret passageways to her personal bedroom, a vacation home on Lake Huron, and a Curtiss Seagull flying boat (Evangeline was the first female to carry a pilots license in the state of Michigan.) Evangeline Dahlinger was hired by Ford in 1910 as a stenographer when she was just 17. She quickly rose to become Henry Ford’s personal secretary and handled personal correspondence for Clara Ford, Henry’s wife. Ford family historian David Lewis considered Evangeline Dahlinger to be one of the ten most influential persons to the Fords.
In this 1926 Harmsworth Race photo, miraculously found by my friend Mark Mason, it is interesting to note that the then two-year-old boat already had a few modifications from the 1924 factory photo. A sleek aluminum aft windshield was added, the engine hatch opening was enlarged and butterflied, and the hatches were sheathed in aluminum. Also, it appears that a new forward windshield design was under construction. This was all likely done in-house at Ford Motor Co. where a lot of experimental aluminum fabrication was being done at the time.
Following the Harmsworth Race in 1926, the Dahlingers kept the boat for several years. It was sold and wound up in upstate New York by the early 1950s where it was named Hedonist. By the mid-1950s, a Long Island, New York boat broker named Benton Minton had it. From there it sold in 1960 to famed Lake Winnipesaukee collector George Johnson. Still unrestored, our pal Al Schinnerer bought it and brought it out to Southern California in 1982.
Thankfully, like many historically important boats, the flush-copper-riveted hull survived the decades in remarkable condition, without serious modification or accidents. In 1987, when Al and his son Brett parted ways in the restoration business, it was purchased by the Elles brothers under a restoration contract with Brett. The project was never finished, however, and when the former Liberty engine started making unpleasant sounds on the test stand, the brothers decided they had poured enough money into the boat, and it was literally shelved in 1989. And that brings us up to 2008…
That is all I will get into for now, but I will leave you with a couple photos of Evangeline as she sits today with a few coats of build varnish and the rub rail on for a test fit. I will cover more details of the preservation-restoration, the research, the current ownership, and of course the 1,650ci Ford-built Capitol Liberty V-12 engine in a future installment.
Stay tuned to Woody Boater for Part 2 of the EVANGELINE story, as Henry Ford’s 90 year old Hacker gets closer to her historic re-launch in 2015.
Special thanks to the Rosenfeld Collection – Mystic Seaport for providing the historic photo from the 1926 Harmsworth Race on the Detroit River.