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Brad Bean fell in love with Baby Doll from afar. It might have been a mistake.

It's been three years now, and Baby Doll has proved to be a high- maintenance girl. She's smashed Bean's dreams and dented his pocketbook.

"It's one of those perils-of-the-Internet things," Bean said last week.

Baby Doll isn't a Russian bride or a saucy young thing Bean met on Match.com. She is unforgettable. Well-built, broad of beam, with a checkered past. It's easy to see why Bean was intrigued.

Baby Doll is a 1969 Chris-Craft Constellation, the onetime flagship of the 127-year-old boat maker. She was built the last year the Constellations were crafted from wood.

She's a big old thing: 36 feet long and 12 feet across, with a berth for sleeping, a galley for cooking, even a toilet. At its stern, two inboard 327-cubicinch Chevy engines propel her through the water in stately style.

Well, they once did, anyway.

Baby Doll is moored on a trailer squeezed between a garage and a long-defunct, 1920s gas station at Corona and Columbia streets.

It's an odd dry dock for an expensive boat that once cruised Lake Michigan, first at the hands of a rich man, later piloted by a commercial fisherman and, finally, by a "hillbilly," as Bean characterizes her previous owner.

The hillbilly put Baby Doll up for auction on the Internet at the nadir of the high-tech bust.

Bean, who previously had owned and restored smaller wooden boats, stumbled onto the auction while looking for a larger boat. He and his father had decided they needed one for an adventure: boating down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bean said he tried to exercise due diligence before submitting his bid. He called the owner in Racine, Wis., who assured him the boat was seaworthy and sent him photographs that showed Baby Doll on the water.

He called the marina where it was moored and was told the old girl still was used all the time. He checked asking prices for Constellations and found they ran from $20,000 to $60,000 for the ones in good condition. There even appeared to be high demand for expensive parts, should he dismantle it.

Bean bid on Baby Doll and got her for what seemed like the paltry sum of $1,000.

Looking back, the mechanical engineer conceded with a rueful smile, the purchase price was "just the tip of the iceberg."

Bean still remembers the moment when, three months later, he and his father arrived in Racine to inspect the boat:

"I swear it was just one of those movie moments. We looked at it. We looked at each other. And we both said at the same time, 'What the hell are we going to do with this?'"

Baby Doll was a mess. The white paint was peeling. The hull's mahogany planks were cracked and filled with thick caulking. There was rot at the waterline and where the cabin meets the deck. The motors started but didn't run well. There was enough trash in the boat to fill a Dumpster.

The father-son dream of a cruise down the Big Muddy quickly went down the drain.

"After we saw it, I wouldn't put that thing in the water" Bean said. "It was going to end up at the bottom of a navigable waterway."

Bean was caught in a classic conundrum that faces every guy seduced by the lines or sound or feel of an old internal-combustion conveyance. How much money and time do you put into your dream before you cut and run? Or do you swallow hard, put on a brave face and hold fast, even as it eats you alive?

Bean took it like a man. He shrink-wrapped Baby Doll to try to prevent more rot. He hired a trucker to haul her to Colorado Springs for $3,000. He put her on blocks in the parking lot of the small commercial lot he and his wife own on Corona Street.

For better or worse, seaworthy or not, Baby Doll was part of the family.

Bean said his wife, a civil engineer who is a partner in the couple's engineering consulting firm, took the new addition well, even though she doesn't like boating.

"The first boat I bought, she didn't talk to me for three or four weeks," Bean said. "But on this one, she was sitting next to me when I hit the bid button, so I figured she had fair warning."

Neighborhood reaction was a little less sanguine.

Bean said he heard all kinds of comments from surprised bicyclists who came upon the looming hull of Baby Doll while using a nearby bike path.

One guy stopped and wanted to buy the boat to use as a snack shop. His business plan: serve food in plastic baskets shaped like a boat. Get it? Another guy wanted to buy it, haul it into the mountains and use it as a cabin.

Some neighbors, though, "just got crazy" and wanted it off the lot and out of their sight, Bean said.

After rejecting the purchase offers -- "I wasn't really ready" -- Bean dropped more money on Baby Doll by buying a trailer so he could move it a few feet and hide it between two of his buildings. Of course, he needed a tractor truck to move the boat 15 or 20 feet. He bought an old International to move Baby Doll a few feet, and then he bought another one. A guy can't have too many old tractor trucks, after all.

"It just keeps getting deeper and deeper," Bean conceded, flashing what appeared to be a sickly smile.

Baby Doll's saga isn't quite over. Sure, Bean's dad went off and bought a houseboat and plans an adventure on some river or another, sans son. ("It's not the first time he's done that to me," son noted.)

Bean's plan is to undertake a year or year-and-a-half restoration of Baby Doll and use it for a few years, maybe on Lake Powell.

Of course, he might entertain selling the boat if someone offers him either a "jillion dollars" or the amount he's sunk into the thing so far, whichever is greater.

"At this point, it's kind of a pride thing," Bean said. "You hate to bite it off and not chew it."

After showing off Baby Doll to a visitor recently, Bean walked by a fleet of four old Corvairs on his lot, part of a collection of eight that he owns.

What's up with collecting cars that consumer advocate Ralph Nader once called "unsafe at any speed"?

"Ah, that's a whole other story," Bean said. "We're not getting into that."

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0197 or mckeown@gazette.com

Copyright 2004
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.


 
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