Nevada County auto mechanic goes seaworthy with an antique spin |

Nevada County auto mechanic goes seaworthy with an antique spin

Ray Hugenberger of Ray’s Auto rebuilt a lifeboat from the U.S.S. San Francisco at his Grass Valley home. Hugenberger plans to launch the antique 18-foot lifeboat at Rollins Lake a week from Saturday.
John Hart/ | The Union

When the U.S. Navy scrapped its first battleship with the name U.S.S. San Francisco in 1939, no one ever thought that 75 years later, one of its lifeboats would be restored to a stunning new grandeur by a 65-year-old auto mechanic named Ray in Nevada County.

“It was just something different than cars,” said Ray Hugenberger, proprietor since 1985 of antique-styled Ray’s Auto in unincorporated Grass Valley. “I’ve been working on cars a long time.”

After five months and more than 300 hours of detailed restoration work and metal parts fabrication, Hugenberger, who is known to drive around town in his 1930 Model A tow truck, plans to launch the antique 18-foot lifeboat at Rollins Lake a week from Saturday.

It is likely one of the only remnants of the original circa-1890 U.S.S. San Francisco, the first of three U.S. Navy battleships to bear that name.

“(The boat) was just something different than cars. I’ve been working on cars a long time.”
Ray Hugenberger

“Then I’m going to take it (to) Tahoe,” Hugenberger said. “I’m just going to play around with it.”

The lifeboat, or ship-to-shore vessel, was just a shallow metal shell with a tiller and not much else when Hugenberger obtained it earlier this year from a high school friend in the Bay Area.

It is pictured in old photos and drawings of the U.S.S. San Francisco as being tied in midship, ready for deployment in an emergency.

Hugenberger, assisted by an assortment of friends and bystanders, raised the sides, added a Model A transmission and a marine engine from a friend in Nevada County and fabricated himself a steering wheel, helm and rudder. The steering column is topped off with an off-the-shelf antique brass compass.

“I made the sides higher so that people sitting in the seats would have something to lean on,” he said.

Hugenberger painted the outside white, and then fabricated metal poles to hold a white wooden canopy, which he also made.

“It looks like the African Queen,” said one of the workers, after the canopy was installed on Thursday.

Jack Perry, a former U.S. Navy sailor, was hired by Hugenberger three weeks ago to add some finishing touches.

“I think it was (originally called) a port motor whaleboat,” Perry said.

Hugenberger said he still needs to add the upholstered seat cushions and a replica logo from the U.S.S. San Francisco that a friend is making.

He is especially fond of an antique folding metal anchor — likely more than 100 years old — that he installed on the ship as its actual anchor.

“Whoever thought of this had his act together,” said Hugenberger, demonstrating how the anchor folds into itself when not in use.

Other touches added by Hugenberger, whose 5-acre shop is a virtual movie set of 1920 gas pumps and old car battery store signs, include a fabricated metal exhaust pipe that peeks above the canopy.

“I sometimes got up at 6 a.m. and worked on it,” he said of the boat, steadying himself as the ship wobbled on its keel in the tow truck’s berth. “I feel like I’m in the water.”

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email or call 530-477-4239.

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