Keith’s Blog: A 36-cylinder, 5,400-hp Cruise

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I was flipping through a boating magazine last year, looking for new ways to squander my wealth. I came across a small article noting that the only functioning PT boat in the world was based in Portland, and that its supporters were offering rides on the boat in exchange for a modest donation.

I did a little research  and found that PT-658 was in fact one of the final PT boats delivered, “fitted with all of the latest armaments and design modifications as a result of previous battlefield experience.”

My only knowledge of PT boats came from watching the movies PT 109 and They Were Expendable.

I sent a check to Save the PT Boat. On the home page is this quote from 18th century sailor John Paul Jones: “Give me a fast ship for I intend to go in harms way.”

A few months later, I got a call that the boat was ready for its fall outing. I asked ACC Corvette guru Michael Pierce to accompany me.

The attraction was simple. PT-658 is a lot like an historic Grand Prix racer that’s the only one left in the world in its configuration. Imagine you had a chance to take it for a ride. How you could resist?

As we watched PT-658 approach, coming up the Willamette River in the brisk fall morning, I thought about WWII and how the shipyards of Oregon had bustled with activity. Those who lived in that era become fewer every day, and in some ways the diminutive boat was a living tribute to them.

After we boarded, the docents explained that PT boats were, for their tonnage, the most heavily armed ships in the Navy. They were also incredibly fast. Powered by three supercharged Packard V12s, the captain had 1,800 horsepower from each engine, or 5,400 hp in all. We were told that one of the first things the engine-room guys did was remove the governors, enabling the boats to hit 70 mph – especially useful when running for cover after a close-in torpedo launch.

Pierce and I got to man the 40-mm Bofors cannon; One manually-operated crank spun the gun 360 degrees, while the other raised and lowered the cannon. No need for an LA Fitness membership for these guys.

I went into the engine room, which was spotless. Then it was time to take my turn in at the helm. Although we were only going 15 mph, I have to say it was a rush, imagining piloting one of these fragile weapons-platforms in the South Pacific. And the captain was likely a young man from somewhere in America’s heartland who had never been overseas before.

War machines are purpose-built to destroy things. Every part of this boat had a function; there were no unused areas. One reason the survival rate for military equipment is so low is that once a conflict has ended, the machines have no recreational use. A Colorado Grand for WWII Sherman tanks is highly unlikely.

Pierce spent some time as captain, and then it was back to the dock. Our travel in time back 68 years had ended.

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Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

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