Hydro Hot Rod: Hustler Vintage Race Boat

Words Karlee Sangster Photography Luke Ray

It’s a story that starts like many others. Cruising on eBay, falling in love with a machine way out of your price range, obsessing over it, researching and finally finding a way to make it yours.

Mario Bonnici (Marz to his friends) was on the lookout for an early ski boat when he stumbled across a wooden hulled ‘60s example. The asking price was above and beyond his means, but Marz knew she was something special.  He couldn’t get her out of his mind. “American day was on at Flemington in Victoria, and the Classic Wooden Power Boat Association were there displaying some of their boats,” he recalls. “It was then when I met a guy named Leigh. I started talking to him about the boats there and I mentioned Hustler. He says to me “You mean Mandy?” and I said yes, he said “If you’re gonna get a woody, get that one!” He then started telling me about her history, and the more I heard, the more I had to get her.”

The history goes like this:

Mandy was built by the Lewis Brothers in Sydney in the early ‘60s, the boat was commissioned by Keith Hooper, who owned the Dorf taps company. Everyone who worked at the company was mad about powerboat racing, and the story goes that when it was time to race, the production line would stop, and Mandy would be worked on.

With a special order hull built with New Zealand mahogany, special width planks and extra ribbing for strength, the boat had a stroked 327 Corvette small block with a GM 671 blower, 6 Strombergs and ran on methanol. At the time, on the dyno it exceeded 550 horsepower. Legend has it that they had to stop at that because the dyno wouldn’t take any more! The next motor was worse. They put it on the same dyno with a Lotus Cortina engine, and as they were warming it up, the dyno exploded, unfortunately killing the operator, so the horsepower was never discovered, but it was believed to be around 650 hp.

Mandy was known as the fastest boat in her unlimited class. No one could catch her. She broke many Australian speed records, the first being 76 mph in 1961 with a 283 small block. Keith raced Mandy for a few years until 1964, when out of the water exhausts were banned due to noise levels on Albert Park Lake.

Keith sold Mandy and she wound up in Sydney and was renamed “Hustler.”  She raced under the name for many years, until a trucking magnate just out of Ballarat brought her back to Melbourne. By this stage, she had a 272 Ford Y-block with a 2 barrel Holley and was wearing an unfortunate coat of canary yellow with red lettering. The new owner began a rebuild. The deck needed replacing, so he had it redone with inlays. Rumour has it that someone walked into the shop where she was being redecked and recognized the boat as Mandy. “From then on, everyone started busting his ass, telling him  “You gotta restore it back as Mandy!” remembers Marz. “He eventually got sick of this and decided after spending shit loads of cash, to just finish it off and get rid of it.”  That’s how she ended up on eBay.

After learning of all of this, Marz was even more determined to get hold of her, despite his financial restrictions. Leigh had convinced him to offer to pay the boat off over time, so Marz steeled himself for the phonecall. “I rang the number and asked if the boat is still for sale,” he recalls. Which it sort of was, and sort of wasn’t. The seller had a deposit from another buyer who was taking his time in making the necessary arrangements. “I left him my number and I said “I hope to hear back from you soon.” Many weeks went by and I lost hope of getting her. One night, Tony [Peake] and I were at a hot rod club function, when a mate of mine starts showing us pics of the stuff he’d seen and bought in the states on his last trip. Amongst the pics was a photo of a ‘50s woody, which I showed to Tony.”

Here is where the forces of love and nostalgia set in. Tony had a common story. He had owned a boat similar years ago and had always regretted selling it. Marz shared what had been happening with the Hustler and asked Tony to go halves in the boat if it was still available. Tony was sold.

“Ok, so Tony and I go down to see the boat, a deal was done and she was on her way to my workshop” remembers Marz. “As soon as she was back at the shop, the first thing was to fire her up. We found all the plumbing was wrong for the water cooling, so we decided to tear it all out and refit her.”

Whoever had restored her last had different tastes to the Marz and Tony. “Mandy was fitted out with a lot of new parts. She had the latest set of VDO marine gauges, big braided water and fuel lines, and a crappy new wooden steering wheel. All this crap and many more parts were tossed into the dumpster and the hunt was on to get the right parts,” says Marz.

The pair spent every spare minute trolling through eBay and other boat gear sites. Only the best would do. Marz remembers buying four sets of EH Holden accessory gauge clusters to get the best full set. “The Stewart Warner speedo and tach are new old stock from the States, and boy was there a bidding frenzy at 3 o’clock in the morning for them! And the cost? Well let’s not go there!” Marz laughs. “We had to have them. All the plumbing was redone in the correct Dorf chrome. The tri power setup was fully detailed and the genuine Y-block T-bird valve covers had Moon oil breathers fitted.

For that original look we painted the Y-block red and polished and chromed just about everything we could. The wiring was redone and then it came to the exhaust. Because of the outlets being out of the water, a lot of home work went into the design, because of the way the motor sat. I found one of the original mechanics that worked on her and he showed us what to do. After that, my mate Rockin’ Ronny came down and helped me silver solder the two and a half inch all copper exhaust in 43 degree heat!”

After 12 long months, the boat was ready for a test run. Marz remembers fondly. “It was 10 degrees out of the water and I reckon 3 degrees in, but the adrenalin we both had that day kept us warm. We got her in the water and fired her up, and water started gushing in. We hit the switch of the bilge pump to get rid of the water and within a couple of hours the leaks settled down to a trickle. While I had the tri power off the bench, I spent hours setting up the linkages to work progressively. That idea went out the door as we found she loved more fuel. So for the first time in 10 years she was back in action. We had some issues over the first couple of outings with her, (including one at Naggambie we don’t like to talk about,) but since then when the weather is good and the time is right. We’ll go and wet her up and take her for a run and find something new to do on her. Our future plans are to build a new trailer as per the original one, but that’s another story.”

Marz would like to thank:

Rockin Ronny for helping with the plumbing and exhaust, Richie for the rewire, Nick at Boss Trimming for the interior, Nicky my ex-partner for the support, Janet Peake for supporting Tony and I through the project and Leigh for anything he has helped us out with with regards to information, history and parts.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 13.