When LOUD is not enough

March 19th, 2010 by James Ferris

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A couple of weeks ago we went back to Jim McNeilly’s waterfront shop on Lake Union in downtown Seattle; tucked downstairs right at the waters- edge; an appropriately old-world atmosphere for the initial run-up of our fresh 900 cubic inch Scripps V12 engine, vintage 1953. It was also the first time the newly restored instruments had been hooked up to an engine since sometime in the late 1960’s! Jim assured a cooling water supply by the expedient method of dropping a length of hose in the lake; gave the instruments a last check, and gave me the honor of pushing the start button. WOW!! 900 cubic inches exiting through a foot of straight pipes is enough to get your attention!

We ran the motor a bit to get some oil temperature, and confirm the readings on the new gauges, while Jim tuned and tweaked the carbs and the timing. The new gauges seemed to read in conformance with Jims’ calibrated test instruments; though of course without a load the engine was not ‘working’ and the temperature never got warm enough to have much effect on the temp gauge.

A not very good picture of our terrifically good Gauges.

A not very good picture of our terrifically good Gauges.

The original instruments were beautifully restored by Hartmut and Kevin at North Hollywood Speedometer, and this was the first time I had seen them in action. This is the only Riva that has ever been found with these unique instruments. One can only speculate that Carlo Riva had them made as prototypes and then decided not to use them in the later series production boats, quite likely due to cost issues; they are very large and very complex; the lettering is not just silk-screened; each letter and symbol is hand-etched on the back, then carefully filled with paint by brush. Truly ‘old-world’ Swiss craftsmanship! They are quite similar in style to the gauges found in Ferrari, Cisitalia, and Alfa Romeo GT cars of the early 1950’s by Veglia and Jaeger.

As an aside, we are finding this ‘one-of-a-kind’ issue repeatedly; methods, parts, and dimensions that are not duplicated in later series Rivas.

dashCalculating precise locations for the gauges and switches……..

Luckily we had the original (inoperative) gauges, and have a black and white photograph of the dash during her early days, so we were able to accurately locate the instruments in the dash. The original dash was seriously hacked about, and hidden behind a later mahogany panel, added when the superchargers were installed and numerous extra gauges added. We had to determine sizes, shapes and locations and prepare the new panel prior to the new decks going on, as the curved Plexiglas face with precisely sandblasted lines had to be shaped and bent to the exact dashboard curvature. Note our colorful photoshopped instruments; real but not that real…taped in position to determine correct placement of each instrument and switch.

researchCarlo Riva’s contributions.

Much of our research comes from some of the very early photographs Carlo Riva gave us many years ago. Of course, there are still missing pieces. I did finally get to speak with Tommy Sparks about the supercharger question. Martin Parker read our blog post and put me in touch via Tina van Curen, of Autobooks/Aerobooks in Burbank, CA. Unfortunately, Tommy did not remember doing the supercharger installation back in the late 1950s. However, he thought it must be a pretty cool set-up, and was quick to offer his help when/if I ever replicate the supercharger installation….(see how this supercharger issue just won’t go away……?). Neat experience to connect with 3 more really interesting people on our journey!

On the subject of research, it seems that either you come up with nothing, or you come up with too much, which often gives you your choice of viewpoints! I have been researching Perlita, including her Scripps engine, for over 20 years. In the early ’90’s I spoke with Pete Henkel, who purchased the Scripps Motor Company in 1955. I have spoken with 3 of Perlitas previous owners, as well as a mechanic who worked on the engine in the late 60’s.  About all I do know is, though the engine design was basically unchanged for 50 years, there seem not to have been many other hard and fast rules (although some claim to know the exact shade of gray paint they used). With all this, I can’t call myself a Scripps expert yet….

coilsResearching the coil issue.

For another example, there are some differing opinions about the ignition coils on the engine. Given the dual ignition (2 distributors, 24 spark plugs), you get 4 coils to make things hot! The question arises: what style of coil, and how mounted? Smooth canister or ribbed? Vertically mounted beside the distributors, or flat in plane with the heads? One is ‘pre-war’, the other is/may be ‘post-war’. Yet pre-war might have been delivered…….well into the 50’s according to some experts. Which style was correct into the ’50’s? What was shipped to Riva in 1952? By this time, Scripps was not selling many engines to runabout builders (no one was building runabouts big enough); the sales were virtually all to the Navy, the Coast Guard, and other countries, for military and patrol boat applications. I have in my spares collection a pair of exhaust manifolds with original red paint; specc’d that way by the Canadian Coast Guard; but “everyone knows that “all” the Scripps V12’s were painted gray”…….I don’t envy the researchers task…….

Since Perlita was never one to go by the rules (superchargers again), who is to really know all the details in what was really a prototype, where so many things do not meet the criteria of other “similar” boats? I could follow ‘the rules’, and yet be quite wrong as to what was original in Perlita… However, ‘the rules’ are the ones that prevail during judging…

tankDesignTanks  found in Perlita in 1990

Researching the gas tanks has been another challenge. We were always uncertain about the tanks as found. They were a different shape, crudely made (and that’s being charitable), and, it turns out, a different size. The next thing we discovered was that the boats dimensions did not accommodate either of the ‘standard’ sizes installed in the large Rivas. From a safety viewpoint, it would be permitted to use new replica tanks from a European supplier. However, neither of the available sizes actually fits into the boat. So now we must fabricate properly sized tanks in the style of what is assumed to be original. So, we know the space they fit into, and we know the shape and proportions of typical Riva tanks……


I never thought gas tanks could preoccupy me so…….

We know they were copper originally (and that the copper fell apart from vibration); and from numerous emails back and forth to Italy, and with Alan Weinstein (aka ‘The Riva Guru’), we could surmise they were painted, blue, like many ot the later tanks. Of course, that ignores the 2 other Riva’s we’ve owned which have polished stainless tanks…. Then, when we’re already in fabrication, it comes to light that some gas tanks in other early 1950’s Rivas were painted gray, to match the engine color. Interesting…….(put down that spray gun Chris…..)

Fabricating the tanks with the ‘X-shaped’ depressions on the ends of each tank was a challenge. We were all set to create a template and have Butch Dennison pound them out by hand. However, on an unrelated visit to my friend ‘Corvette Dave’ (because he is famous for his Corvette restorations), I found Dave was working on a new hot-rod for himself.

profile~  Dave’s  hot-rod ~

Voila, there was exactly the ‘profile’ on his bodywork that I needed for our tanks.  I headed straight off to see metalsmith Chris Odom at “extreme metal and paint”, who had made the dies and formed the sheet metal panels for Dave’s depression.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARich roughs out the first tank.

In nothing flat we had exactly what we needed!  A few dozen tries later we had a final design spec for the new tanks. Above Rich forming the depressions for the tank straps; next time the front panel. BTW: Chris does a nice mixture of modified rods and classic restoration work; a freshly painted 356 coupe and a rusty 190 SL in the shop now……

Does one follow what the knowledgeable researchers tell you is ‘correct’ for the builder and period, even though you are restoring a prototype which in many ways might be different from other boats of the same era and definitely from the production series that followed? What exactly is ‘original’; what the body of research says, or what was actually found…..? Only the judges know…….or do they……..?

proudParents~ PROUD parents ~

Comments or suggestions below, or please email me.


4 Responses to “When LOUD is not enough”

  1. CASUDI Says:

    When James was working in his shop with Chris last week, I received an email from Mariella and Piero in Italy (Piero Gibellini is the Riva Historian who has written several books on Riva, including one on the Tritone series), and has been invaluable in helping us with research.

    Mariella wrote back about the gas tank color: “….Piero agrees with you that it was gray like the Scripps engine. Carlo Riva only started painting the tanks blue when he began installing the Chris Carft engines, which were always blue….”.

    Also attached was a copy of the schematic which Riva received from the Scripps Motor Company when he purchased the engines (see above under coils), and coincidentally this was the same schematic Pete Henkel had provided James in 1990 during their discussions about what motors were shipped to Riva in the early ’50’s, and what motor was “original” in Perlita. More ammo for the coils discussion……

    It’s exciting (but challenging) to get the information we need at the 11th hour! CASUDI

  2. Brian Driggs Says:

    Wow. I am eager to hear the Scripps in action. 900ci V12 with straight pipes? Yes please.

    This project is really awesome. Makes me want to plan a trip to Tahoe (never been) for the express purpose of seeing Perlita Too in person!

  3. Peter Tremulis Says:

    New to your site today. Superb! A Scripps 12 is legendary in any vintage boat of the era, but in a Riva, so much the better. My Uncle Alex was a an automobile designer and stylist and his dedication to perfection in his craft is mirrored again here with your team’s drive to “get it right”. As to the question of supercharging or not, I recommend installing the superchargers at the outset. The hot rodding of the engine is an integral part of the story of Perdita Too and should remain an integral component of your restoration. History cannot be denied in this instance. My Uncle was not one to worry about the what the Judges say, witness his designs of the 1948 Tucker Torpedo in his search for timeless speed and beauty!

    I look forward to future updates as a new subscriber.


  4. James Ferris Says:

    Peter, thanks very much for your comment (and my apologies for the tardy reply…thanks to the blog software).

    Yes, I am an admirer of your Uncle Alex from way back; between studying architecture and later marketing design, I studied Automotive Design, aspiring (probably unrealistically) to storm Detroit…..Figures like Tremulis, Loewy, and Porsche were ‘legend’ to design students.

    You are so right about the superchargers, and if I were doing this just for myself that’s the way it would be done. I fully agree this is an intrinsic part of her history. This is how famous race cars, modified after leaving the factory, are viewed at venues like Pebble Beach. Alas, the classic wooden boat arena is only just coming into its own, currently with a very defined focus on “original as leaving the factory”, not original as her owner may have used/modified her. Perlita is a very important historical boat and I allowed myself to be persuaded to the viewpoint of the judges. I might also note that engine-builder Jim McNeilly is very much a purist, and superchargers are not his bag. There is of course nothing to stop me or some future owner from adding the superchargers at a later date, and I have the 2 McCullochs restored, stored in my barn for just that event.

    On a side note (marketing-orientation), I am really interested to know how you found my blog?

    Best regards,