April 6, 2017

Scooter Too – Henry J. Kaiser’s monster speedboat

Innovation, determination, and resilience carried on in Henry J. Kaiser's passion for racing and designing speed boats.

Henry J. Kaiser at wheel of Scooter Too, 1955.

What has 24 cylinders and goes 180 miles an hour?

One of Henry J. Kaiser’s hydroplanes, of course.

The industrialist founder of Kaiser Permanente and his son Edgar loved racing boats at Lake Tahoe, and in 1955 hired famed water speed artist Bartlett “Bart” Carter (a Kaiser employee) to build something extra special. At the boat’s heart was a veritable beast of a power plant — a 24-cylinder Allison V-3420 capable of putting out a staggering 2,885 horsepower. For comparison, muscle cars of the 1970s pumped out between 400-500 horsepower; the triple-expansion steam engines that powered Kaiser's World War II Liberty ships put out 2,500 horsepower. Kaiser’s new water rocket was named the Scooter Too.

Scooter Too engine, Allison 3420 cubic inch 24 cylinders.  Auburn, Calif.; Gary Larkins photo.
Scooter Too engine, Allison 3420 cubic inch 24 cylinders.  Auburn, Calif.; Gary Larkins photo.

Scooter Too engine, Allison 3420 cubic inch 24 cylinders. Auburn, Calif.; Gary Larkins photo.

After World War II, many kinds of military airplane engines were readily available at a bargain, but this was special. It was an experimental design built by General Motors, a Frankensteinian jam-up of a two Allison V-1710 12-cylinder engines with a common crankcase. The 12-cylinder, water-cooled engine had been used in American fighter aircraft such as the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the initial versions of the North American P-51 Mustang.

Only 150 of the V-3420s were built, as aircraft power became more effectively produced by jet engines. Kaiser dropped one of them into the 28-foot-long U-10 Scooter Too (the “U” stands for “unlimited,” a racing class with fewer restrictions than standard hydroplane racing).

This boat began as Henry J. Kaiser’s Scooter, powered by two powerful Cadillac engines and described as a “real plush boat.” But when Scooter was smoked by a “little kid with a B-class hydro” Henry resolved to amp it up. He added a larger engine, but the boat couldn’t handle it.  Famed driver Jack Regas (also a Kaiser employee, who’d worked for Kaiser Rock, Sand and Gravel) said this about her first race:

“After I won the 1954 Mile High Gold Cup, I brought the boat in and she sank. The Allison shook the seams all apart… So Mr. (Henry) Kaiser Sr. said, ’Don't worry about that, boys. We're going to build a new boat.’ So we built the Scooter Too.  We built it in the shop at Livermore, California.”

One challenge was linking the V-3420 powerplant to the single 13-inch propeller. The two engine output shafts aimed forward, fed a custom gearbox that tripled the rotation speed, whereupon the single drive shaft ran back under the engine and cockpit. The torque was enormous. After several shafts broke, Kaiser ordered one made out of titanium. And those 24 cylinders were very thirsty – on one of her first races she ran out of gas just shy of the finish line. They promptly added two lateral auxiliary tanks.

Scooter Too in Pasco, Wash., warehouse, circa 1960.
Scooter Too in Pasco, Wash., warehouse, circa 1960.

Alas, this beast never performed as hoped. She threw propellers, sank six times, was derisively nicknamed "the submarine," and never won a race.

Regas described her qualities in an interview with Thunderboat magazine:

“The Scooter Too had too much weight. The boat weighed close to 8000 lbs. I had that big engine and all the extra fuel I had to carry and gas is 8 pounds a gallon. It was just a heavy boat…The problem with the Scooter Too was that I was throwing props all the time — just too much power on and off the throttle too fast… But the Scooter Too was a good riding boat.”

The Kaisers sold her in 1957 to Stanley Adams and John Owsley for $4,500 and she was trailered to Pasco, Wash. The sale include numerous spare parts, including 72 pistons, 18 connecting rods, and an incomplete second engine.

She was raced as the U-10 but renamed Adios, and later still under a third owner as the U-26 Miss Moses Lake and the Miss Tri-Cities. She ended up with her engine gutted and ignominiously mounted on a pole at Columbia Park in Kennewick, Wash.

But rotting as a seagull perch was not to be her final fate.

Scooter Too rebuild, Auburn, Calif.; Gary Larkins photo.
Scooter Too rebuild, Auburn, Calif.; Gary Larkins photo.

This boat is being lovingly restored by Gary Larkins in Auburn, Calif. Gary’s not really a boat guy – he’s a renowned airplane salvage expert who’s traveled all over the world rescuing vintage planes from swamps and glaciers. But the Scooter Too has an aviation heritage beyond just the engine, and Gary embraced this project with all his passion. Aircraft components abound – Gary was amused to discover that the external oil tank was pulled from a P-51 Mustang.

What’s more, Gary appreciated Henry J. Kaiser’s spirit of innovation. He commented on a recent blog post about Kaiser’s foray into postwar civil aviation: “It doesn't surprise me though, that he would tackle the aviation industry, he was fearless and always pushed the very limits of everything he did. Thus we have the Scooter Too which was as large a piston engine as anyone has ever put in a race boat.”

Gary Larkins in his workshop.
Gary Larkins in his workshop.

Gary was drawn into the project by his neighbor Richard Carter, son of the original builder and young pit crew member of the Scooter Too. Gary bought the gutless hulk, found another Allison V-3420 engine, and is in the final stages of restoring her to her midcentury glory. Gary wryly comments, “The original goal was to just preserve it but that has grown to restoring it, if I live long enough. LOL.”

Open frame of Scooter Too under restoration, auxiliary fuel tank in foreground and gearbox in center.
Open frame of Scooter Too under restoration, auxiliary fuel tank in foreground and gearbox in center.

She’s been displayed at Lake Tahoe’s South Shore Boat Show, and is seeking a museum for permanent display.

Henry J. Kaiser and his son Edgar would have been proud of Gary’s efforts.