“Thunderbird” grounded, in need of engine overhaul
June 4, 2014
Damaged engines and low water levels at Lake Tahoe are keeping the historic "Thunderbird" wooden speedboat stuck inside its granite boathouse at Thunderbird Lodge on the mountain lake's East Shore.
Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society is trying to raise $250,000 to repair its twin Allison aircraft engines in time for summer 2015, when the impressive boat, made of Honduran mahogany with stainless steel roof paneling and glimmering chrome trim, turns 75 years old.
The two 1,100 horsepower Allison engines — a type of engine used in World War II fighter planes — started making unusual noises on the Thunderbird's final cruise last summer.
Oil testing found high concentrations of metal and indicated what boat mechanics would find when they looked inside the engines: Scored cylinder walls, pitted crankshaft bearings and fragmented piston rings.
"If there's a silver lining in this catastrophe it's that we had a drought this year and the "Thunderbird" is trapped in its boathouse because of the lack of water anyway," said Bill Watson, chief executive and curator for Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, a nonprofit that operates the lodge and boat.
Fortunately, the preservation society has two spare Allison engines for the "Thunderbird," one of Lake Tahoe's most famous boats. But the V-12 aircraft engines have been packed away in rust-preventative Cosmoline for more than seven decades and need to be completely diassembled, inspected and rebuilt, as well as reconfigured to be installed in the boat.
The "Thunderbird" was custom built in 1939 for the eccentric real estate magnate George Whittell Jr., who built his extravagant Thunderbird Lodge between Glenbrook and Sand Harbor. The boat launched on Lake Tahoe in July 1940. Its unique design was inspired by Whittell's appreciation for his five Duesenberg automobiles and Douglas DC-2 airplane.
Casino owner Bill Harrah bought the boat in 1962 after it had spent two decades in storage.
Harrah loved fast boats and replaced the "Thunderbird's" original engines with the two Allison aircraft engines, boosting its top speed from 45 to 70 miles per hour. He used the boat to entertain the celebrities, entertainers and politicians who frequented his casino in Stateline, Nev., including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby and Presidents Ford and Clinton.
"Harrah called her his 70-mile-per-hour cocktail lounge," Watson said.
Harrah bought the two spare Allison engines for the Thunderbird. They were going to be shipped from St. Louis to the Pacific Theater in May 1943 to be installed in a P-38 Lightning fighter plane. But the tide of World War II changed and the engines were never shipped, allowing Harrah to buy them.
"They then went to an aircraft broker where they sat until that man was in his 80s and he finally put them up for sale on eBay. We intervened and he agreed to sell them for less than half of his asking price," Watson said.
It will cost about $250,000 to prepare the spare Allison engines and install them in the "Thunderbird" and to rebuild the damaged engines for future spares, Watson said.
A family in Pleasanton, California has agreed to donate $50,000 for the preservation society's overhaul of the engines if that amount can be matched by Labor Day. Another family in Incline Village has offered $25,000 if it can be matched.
"We are plodding along toward the $250,000. Our goal is to have it by September," Watson said.
That would allow the engines to be overhauled and installed in time to get the "Thunderbird" — a piece of living history and link to Tahoe's Gilded Age — back on the water next summer, when it turns 75.
"Contributions of any amount are appreciated," Watson said. "We love the school groups who collect pennies and nickels and contribute $50 as much as we appreciate the $50,000 gifts."