Cream Puff – The Saga of the Craziest 1960s Marathon Boat in History

If you’re wondering why HOT ROD is featuring a boat, here’s two reasons for starters: 1) It’s powered by a 1600 lb-ft of torque 12-cylinder Allison monster, and 2) HOT ROD Magazine sponsored this for four years when it competed in 1960s marathon racing.

Now that we’ve got your attention, we’ll let Cream Puff owner and restorer John Fell, from Yorba Linda, California, start this off, “I raced crackerboxes for 10 years and said I’d never build another dang boat, and then I thought, ‘Wait, nobody is driving an Allison-engine boat down the river, and there I was into another boat project.” This was back in the early 1990s. If that sounds cockeyed, understand that John’s body and brains have been pounded from racing boats a bit too much. Or maybe it’s just boat-owner logic. “My buddy Mike Leach was looking for the Super Cinders marathon boat, and that triggered me to look for Cream Puff from the early 1960s period of California marathon boats because it had a lot more press, won a lot more races, and had this Allison for power.”

Allison. As in 1710 ci Allison-powered World War II P-38, P-40, and early P-51 Mustang fighter planes. They used to dump these war surplus 12-cylinder monsters in boats, drag cars, and land speed racers in the 1950s because they were cheap, exotic, powerful, intimidating, and aircraft mechanics were still around who knew how to make them run. And when you look at that gleaming hunk of metal and aluminum—don’t you also want one for your next project?

Cream Puff was built in 1961 for the unlimited class of inland lakes marathon racing, which was so popular in California in the 1950s and 1960s, happening at Salton Sea, Parker Dam in Arizona, Clear Lake above Santa Rosa, California, and Lake Berryessa located between Santa Rosa and Sacramento in northern California.

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The Salton City 500 was billed as the Indianapolis 500 of endurance boat racing, and it was a sledgehammer on boats. Says John, “Can you imagine trying to drive one of these things for 500 miles—you’d be peeing blood for a week!” Then he adds, “It was the 1960s, people were nuts back then.” 189 boats entered the race in 1964, but incredibly only seven finished after over seven hours of running the four-mile course. Blown engines, damaged hulls, fried V-drives, and an infinite amount of mishaps were common. It attracted all the speed crazies, as well as an estimated 50,000 spectators. Names like Mickey Thompson, Parnelli Jones, AJ Foyt, drag racer Tommy Ivo, and other Indycar drivers got seat time in these floating, flying missiles. Even astronauts Gordon Cooper and Gus Grissom, and actor Lon Chaney Jr. piloted them.

Rudy Ramos was the “son” part of Rayson-Craft, along with his father Raymond. They owned an aluminum casting plant in Gardena, California, and in the back of the shop Rudy built Rayson-Craft pleasure boats and an occasional race boat. At its peak in the 1960s Rayson-Craft cranked out over 250 boats per year. But Rudy’s pleasure was racing in marathon boat races, and after winning the 1961 Salton City 500 with an 18-foot Rayson-Craft flat bottom powered by a Keith Black 392ci Chrysler Hemi, with co-driver and money buddy Ed Olson, he knew bigger was better when it came to marathons. Boat racers ran Allison engines in unlimited hydroplane divisions successfully in the 1950s, so it was a natural place to seek more torque and horsepower.

Ramos created this 20-foot V-bottom to handle both an Allison and the Salton Sea, and fashioned his V-drive with the help of Casale Engineering’s Ernie Casale, the innovator of V-drives then and even today. Casale fashioned this massive 300-pound, 18-degree split-case gearbox. The V-drive plate it attaches to is ¾-inch thick steel. The propshaft is a stout 1-1/4-inches, and the whole assembly is water jacketed for cooling, utilizing a separate dry-sump oiling system.

HOT ROD Magazine sponsored it, featured it in our February 1965 issue, and ran a monthly boat racing column fueled by staffer Eric Rickman’s interest in all things boat-related.

Problems plagued Cream Puff during its early gestation through 1963, because of its habit of wandering on the water. Hull and boat racing technology was in its infancy, and even today boat racers continually tweak and modify their boats as evolution continues. With traditional V-bottom boats the hull is V’d, incorporating lifting strafes that channel water back against the water’s surface, lifting the boat. Less hull in the water means less drag, so you go faster. Additionally, fins located toward the back help to keep the boat straight. Since the 1050-pound craft had none of these advances, the hull skidded on the water, unable to go straight. It was essentially uncontrollable.

Over two years Ramos experimented to find fixes. First skin fins, or skags were attached toward the cavitation plates that settle the boat and help it point straight. Then he ran one-inch square aluminum stringers along the chine, stabilizing the boat, with the added benefit of keeping water out of the interior as water was pushed away rather than its earlier tendency of curling water up into the boat at speed.

Once Ramos worked out the demons Cream Puff dominated the water, easily winning the 1964 Lake Berryessa Six-Hour marathon in April, running 10mph faster than the competition, and at half-throttle.

“Can you imagine trying to drive one of these things for 500 miles—you’d be peeing blood for a week!” John Fell

When the Salton City 500 with its $6600 first-place purse came around Veterans Day weekend 1964, Ramos was 20mph faster than the competition and finished 1-1/2-hours ahead of the second-place finisher. The longer hull and Allison engine combo pushed the art of marathon racing beyond everyone’s expectations. For good measure in 1965 Ramos and Olson repeated the win in Cream Puff, but soon after the American Power Boat Association outlawed anything Allison, necessitating Ramos’ switch to twin, front-to-back 427 Ford FE engines for the next couple of years.

By then hull designs were changing and engine performance was ratcheting upward with big block Chevys and 426 Hemis appearing when there hadn’t been any, and so Cream Puff eventually got dumped behind a trade school in Gardena, forgotten for 25 years until John dragged it home in 1991. Says John, “Rudy knew I was looking for it and had the gearbox, or V-drive, which was the key to doing this. I paid Rudy a few grand for the V-drive and got the boat for free. He also had a few other bits and pieces so that was a good start.”

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But there were silver linings. Though the hull is wood constructed, a four-ounce fiberglass skin protected it. And the mahogany wood deck was buried in fiberglass too. Says John, “It was in remarkable condition. All we did was sand the fiberglass then lay down another thin fiberglass matte.” It was also built like Noah’s Ark. The bottom keel is two-inches thick, with four full-length stringers supporting a 5/8-inch thick floor. It would have had to sink, been cut up with a chainsaw, or buried to destroy it. Besides critters there were some steering bits and motor plates for the FE’s remaining. And, of course John had that V-drive, and so all that was left to do was round up an Allison aircraft engine, convert it to Weber carbs, restore the hull, and it would be rooster tails and Margaritas frolicking on the gleaming mahogany deck at the river, right?

John contacted HOT ROD staffer Gray Baskerville, who kindly sought out photos of Cream Puff for reference from the HOT ROD archives. Then he started scrounging for parts and the elusive Allison engine. Says John, “I didn’t have any money, so I was trading and gathering for over five years before I started restoring it. I was buying junk Webers from VW guys and trading aluminum castings for parts.”

By the early 1990s the likelihood of finding one of these WWII artifacts was like finding the lost city of Atlantis. Continues John, “I didn’t know anything about Allison engines, but an engine is an engine, right? I tracked down the original from Cream Puff, but it was tied up in some probate deal in Seattle—Seattle was a major center for these unlimited boat racers. Eventually I found two engines in Mesa, Arizona, from a guy restoring P-51’s, so I bought those two for $3000. I tore one down and thought, ‘Man, I’m in way over my head. There were a bunch of special tools I would need that only the WWII mechanics had—they don’t remake old aircraft tools.”

Allison engines are in some ways like motorcycle engines—just a whole lot larger. These single-overhead behemoths have a crankcase that splits lengthwise down the crankshaft. The cylinders are in a cylinder block with six cylinders each that’s close to five-feet long, with six-inch bore spacing and 5-1/2-inch bores. The fork and blade connecting rods are over 16-inches long, and travel in six-inch strokes. There are four canted, sodium-filled valves per cylinder, and the cast rocker arms have huge rollers that are a work of art. The cam, heads, and cylinders are one unit like an Offenhauser Indycar engine. And there’s dual everything—ignition, magneto, batteries and distributor. The dry-sump lubricating system alone incorporates an 18-gallon tank. They were made to stay in the air and not kill our boys while being shot at.

Says John, “To load that up you’ve got the pistons on the crank, and you drop that into the case upside down, then you roll the whole thing over. Now you’ve got to get the block over the pistons, and they are all at different heights, and you’ve got to compress the rings, too. Basically everything is screwed up about assembling them.”

He says the weak link for these monsters is the electronics, “The plug gap is only .019 because if it gets any bigger it won’t spark.”

Among John’s many Allison discoveries was where and how the components were made. For the war effort all civilian manufacturing ceased, and different companies were tasked with producing components, or assembling whole planes, tanks, and more. General Motor’s assembly plant in Indianapolis assembled the engines. Castings with the Maytag washing machine logo were made for the intake and exhaust manifold plumbing. The cranks, cast with Cadillac script, worked like a centrifuge, with cups containing traps in the throws to collect metallic parts. So all of the oil is filtered through a centrifuge at all times, in addition to in-line filters. Amazing, and it gives a glimpse as to how these planes stayed in the air, even after catastrophic damage in some cases.

There was a time when Allisons were virtually worthless. In the 1960s McBride Scrap Metal in Long Beach, California, had over 600 engines. Japanese metal brokers would purchase them, load them onto boats, and while heading back to Japan would tear them apart for their silver bearings. During the war copper and brass was needed for artillery shell casings, so things like wiring and bearings were made from silver. Once the silver had been scavenged the scrappers would toss the rest overboard. Yikes!

Soon John got lucky with his engine-building dilemma, because he found Bob Patterson. Patterson was in his 70s at the time, and is still alive and kicking. And he knows Allisons, having built possibly hundreds of them for his offshore racing addiction. Why so many? He’s getting twice as much horsepower out of these old engines than they were designed for, and so they tend to break. Frequently. He even has a dyno at his Van Nuys shop set up for these monsters. Says John, “I gave him $10,000 to build the engine, and it was a Hell of a deal.”

A deal? Just consider dialing-in the six 48mm Webers. Says John, “I’ll bet we did over 30 dyno pulls to synch them with all the jets, emulsifiers, chokes and air bleeds—it took four or five weeks. Once they’re dialed-in they’re great, but it was challenging, especially when it’s something no one has ever done—there was no baseline. It was a lot of guessing and trial and error.”

So how does the engine perform? Says John, “It should make 1200 hp at 13000 feet—that’s how they rated them. My engine only makes 850 hp, but it makes 1600 ft lb of torque at 2500 rpm. To make that work you need to spin the prop at 7000-8000 rpm. The gear ratio is 2.76:1—basically almost a 3:1 prop shaft ratio. The gearbox has it’s own dry sump oiling system and spray bars on the gears, and with water-jacketed cooling it’s a pretty sophisticated gear box for the day—especially for a boat.”

Among the few new parts needed were forged pistons Arias Pistons made to increase compression. He also needed a new crank, which he found new-old-stock for $900. “No one could make that for under 20-grand today,” he says. The exhaust is from a P-38 Lightening because all of the other Allison aircraft applications had exhaust similar to zoomies. Because Lightenings were turbocharged, feeding to the supercharger, their exhausts ran down and back, which was perfect for Ramos’ needs.

A front-mounted centrifugal supercharger originally fed a huge Stromberg carb, but racing rules only allowed naturally aspirated engines, so Patterson plated off the supercharger opening. Now John needed an intake manifold for six Webers to feed 95- gallons of fuel an hour. Where do you find one of those? He says, “I just happen to have a foundry, so I made them.”

That’s another thing about John. His grandfather started Buddy Bar Casting in South Gate, California. Buddy Bar does aluminum sand casting, and for decades did all of the Ford Cobra aluminum castings as well as Edelbrock’s before they went in-house in the late-1980s. So the unobtanium intake manifold was no problem. He says, “That’s how Rudy made them, because at one time his father and my grandfather were sort of in competition.” The intake is actually 12 individual castings arranged on the heads for the slight off-center port arrangement. “At one point Ramos made an intake for four 4-bbl carbs to run on this thing. It didn’t perform well so they decided to run Webers, and it performed better.” That’s how it raced.

Though John only had to clean up the V-drive, the limitation for its new life as a ski boat was no in-and-out box arrangement—it was either in Drive or you turned the engine off. So he had Tom Bentley in Auburn, California, fashion a “whirlaway” ratcheting system at the snout of the drive acting as a prop release.

“When I brought it home my wife screamed, ‘You have STUPID stamped on your forehead!’” John Fell

John was cutting and grinding parts he made by hand because he couldn’t afford a mill, making new engine mounting plates, mounting brackets on the stringers, and the shaft log. He moved the V-drive rearward, and slightly shimmed the engine to improve the drive angle, but other than those two deviations and the whirlaway, Cream Puff is identical to its 1964 configuration.

With the fabrication and major mechanical components completed, Swede in Orange, California, performed the bodywork, paint and lettering. It’s been so long that John can’t remember who did the upholstery. Cream Puff finally hit the water in 1999.

The sweet spot for the boat is around 80-85mph. While it’s capable of more, once past 90mph it wants to launch out of the water and start porpoising from the 18-degree drive angle. As the boat thrusts up the prop does too, lessening forward drive, slowing the boat until the prop settles down into the water again and drives forward, repeating the process over and over until speed is reduced. Back in the day racers experimented with drive angles before concluding that outdrives parallel to the water surface were the best.

Since its completion the Fell family; John, wife Carrie, son Jake, and daughter Molly, enjoy the boat for skiing and cruising at their 2nd home at Lake Nacimiento, California. But now John has some other boats he’s playing with, so Cream Puff may be looking for a new home. It seems that after all of this time John just can’t control the need for another boat project. Maybe Carrie Fell was right?

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The cockpit is faithfully restored with switches to the left of the steering wheel for turning on the magnetos and the starter, while the knobs you see on the right of the wheel are for turning on the fuel pump, and the large one for turning on the bilge pump which was usually open for the duration of racing.

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A smiling Miss Salton Sea is flanked by the 1964 Salton City 500 winners trophy with winners Ed Olson on left, who supported the racing effort and co-drove with Rudy Ramos on the right, who owned Rayson-Craft and built the 20-foot V-bottom winner.

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Cream Puff at speed during the running of the 1964 Salton City 500, a 500-mile race fashioned by the Holly Development company developing property around the lake to draw attention and prestige to the largest lake in California. The first Salton City 500 race was held in 1961, and the last in 1966.

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From February 1964 a rare shot showing the early four-carb setup that was abandoned for the six-Weber configuration ultimately found to work better. Ramos’ boats were christened “Phfft” while co-driver Ed Olson’s were named “Cream Puff” to tie into his Orange County bakery.

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Ramos before the 1964 Salton City 500 race started. Note the crowded shoreline, with upwards of 50,000 spectators enjoying the mid-70s temperatures of November. Also note the carb shield that helps keeping water out of the Webers.

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Everything is massive including the drive shaft under the chrome shield that came out of a semi-truck. The entire restoration took eight years of nights and occasional weekends.

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The exhaust utilizes slip joints with flairs that once heated up expand and seal quite well. The manifolds came from WWII P-38 Lightenings because they were the only application of the Allison in aircraft that used twin turbochargers, which these originally tied into. All other applications used straight pipes like zoomies.

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The original Casale V-drive was the key for owner John Fell restoring Cream Puff, because it’s a complicated piece and would be too costly to reproduce factoring in the other aspects of restoring the boat. John Fell’s deal with the original builder Rudy Ramos was to purchase the V-drive, which then included the location of the derelict remains of Cream Puff available for the taking.

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Flanking each side of the engine are 60-gallon fuel tanks John had Imco Products in Chandler, Arizona, make the aluminum tanks that replicate the originals. Photographer Alex Wong captured the contemporary images of Cream Puff at its home on Lake Nacimiento, California.

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