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The Unsinkable Ralph Henke 

A rolling battleship is the next project for the man who brought us the world's largest motor home. Even after 60 years and a heart transplant, the ideas just keep coming.

Wednesday, Jun 16 1999
When I was a boy I used to read all about Edison, and the Wright brothers, Mr. Ford. They were my heroes. Rags to riches. That's not just the name of a book. That's what this country was all about.

-- Automotive pioneer Preston Tucker, as played by Jeff Bridges in the 1988 film Tucker

Ralph Henke works his way through a plate of ravioli at Dago Mary's restaurant in the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. He's talking about one of his favorite movies, Francis Ford Coppola's film about auto designer Preston Tucker, who challenged the Big Three auto manufacturers in 1948 with his revolutionary ideas, and was ultimately driven out of the business. Henke knows about Tucker's streamlined "Torpedo" car. He rode in one when he was 14 years old.

Henke also knows about having ideas. He's had a few himself over the years. A bodyman by trade, a genius at pounding out fenders and restoring cars to showroom quality, his fertile mind has dreamed up a file cabinet full of inventions.

Much like Tucker's automobile, which introduced America to disc brakes and seat belts, Henke's inspirations seem both eccentric and logical. And as with Tucker, a few have defied the odds and actually gotten built.

Henke designed and assembled the world's largest motor home, for instance. And a 40-foot replica of a Viking ship. And a unique style of bumper cars for kids.

But most of Henke's ideas have never seen the light of day. The world's fastest car, with no brakes or steering wheel. The battling Spanish galleon ships. The 40-foot-tall mechanical ape. The Moto Polo game, in which cars push around a big ball and try to score goals. The Venda Flare road flare dispenser for Highway Patrol cars. The Alert You fire alarm, which would have used firecrackers to warn people when a blaze broke out.

All these projects, for various reasons, remain unfinished.
Henke's gnarled hands navigate his fork delicately around the plate. He's 66 years old, a smiling, energetic survivor of three marriages, six children, and more health problems than the average person could imagine, including 10 heart attacks. He's worked on cars his entire life, and keeps photos of his favorites in his wallet.

But dreams are what drive him, what propel his steady stream of conversation, what keep him scheming and sketching and asking, "What if?" He may not be rich and famous, but like Preston Tucker, his wealth is measured by the yardstick of imagination. His children are grown and gone, for the most part. His immediate family is deceased. He stays with his sister-in-law in South San Francisco. In a sense, life for him is the purest it's been in years. Now, more than ever, he has the time to think, and ponder the mechanics of yet more inventions.

Henke is onto another eccentric idea, one he's convinced will work. He wants to build a 70-foot-long replica of the USS Missouri, with working cannons. As he envisions it, the giant battleship will be able to drive down the highway under its own power, stopping at shopping malls so children can ride in it, shoot the big guns, and learn a little history to boot.

Henke has rented a portion of an acre-sized warehouse at Hunters Point to design and build his version of the Mighty Mo. Despite a heart transplant five years ago, and recent surgery to remove a lump from his hand, he's active, animated, brimming with excitement. Another idea, a shop, and some tools. Ralph's back in the saddle. This is where he feels most familiar, doing what he knows best. All he needs is a few investors, and he might get this damn thing built.

We invented the free enterprise system, where anybody, no matter who he was, where he came from, what class he belonged to, if he came up with a better idea about anything, there's no limit to how far he could go.

-- Tucker

On Nov. 26, 1971, Vikings invaded the town of Visalia, 200 miles southeast of San Francisco. No raping or pillaging during this invasion, though. Citizens watched, open-mouthed, as a 40-foot-long replica of a Viking ship sailed under its own power into the parking lot of the Visalia Fair Shopping Center.

Fully equipped with lighting and special effects, including a fire-breathing dragon on its bow, the boat delivered an important payload -- Santa Claus. Throughout the holiday season, children piled into the ship for 2-mile-per-hour rides around the lot.

This Viking invasion came from the restless mind of Ralph Henke. He says he got the idea after observing the success of a Visalia car salesman who obtained a dead whale in 1967, named it Little Irvy, and drove it around the country in a big freezer truck, charging kids 50 cents to look at it. (Thirty-two years after debuting the whale to the public at Fisherman's Wharf, the original owner, Jerry "Tyrone" Malone, is still carting around the frozen carcass to this day.)

"They made a ton of money with that thing," remembers Henke. "Thirty-seven thousand dollars in three days. Cash. But it was starting to decay. It smelled like tuna."

Henke built his Viking ship in 21 days, from a simple sketch. He thought it beat Little Irvy by a mile. It didn't smell, and was fully insured for $1 million. Kids paid $1 for a ride. He drove it to several malls in the area, then sold it with an agreement that the new owner couldn't operate the ship south of Bakersfield or north of Fresno. Henke wanted to keep his options open, in case he decided to build another ship.

But that year, Henke hit upon the idea that would prove to be his most famous, the one that would get him in the Guinness Book of World Records, the one that would consume his life for several years and eventually drive him to a heart attack.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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