Bob Bailey works in his Dingley Island machine shop. (SAM LEMONICK PHOTO)
Bob Bailey retired a couple years ago, but you’d never know it standing in his Dingley Island workshop.
He’s currently building or repairing a dozen or more engines for customers and friends across the Northeast and all the way down to Florida. One engine belongs to a 2016 pickup truck, another to a racing lobster boat, a third to a 1906 Maxwell, the defunct car company that would become Chrysler.
It doesn’t make much difference to him how old an engine is. “I don’t care whether it’s a 1910 or 1999,” Bailey says. He figures he’s probably worked on just about every kind of engine at one point or another.
His shop and towering barn are crammed with engines, cars, motorcycles, and enormous machine shop lathes, drills, and other equipment. Bailey has loved cars since he was a kid growing up in Topsham in the early 1960s, when he and a friend would cobble together unpowered carts from a local junkyard.
Not long after he got his driver’s license, Bailey bought his first antique car, a Ford Model A pickup truck. He’s been collecting and restoring them ever since. In addition to a 1906 and a 1909 Maxwell, Bailey and his wife, Elizabeth, currently own a 1913 and a 1915 Ford Model T and a 1941 DeSoto sedan.
Antique cars are Bailey’s passion, but he made a name for himself in the world of race cars. Bailey was inducted into the Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2019 for his work building race car engines. He wound down his Hi-Torque Engines business when he retired, but he still builds for some of his racing clients.
His engines have powered winning stock cars in NASCAR and other racing leagues, including at the famed Daytona International Speedway in Florida. Bailey’s Hall of Fame class also included legendary Maine NASCAR driver Ricky Craven, who started his racing career in cars Bailey helped to build.
Bailey says his success building engines stems from his attention to detail. Not every shop takes the same care to make sure each piece in an engine fits snugly and squarely, he says.
That precision comes across when Bailey describes some of the work he’s doing on different engines. He mostly talks in terms of thousandths of inches, about the thickness of a strand of hair.
One engine has a few holes that need to be opened up slightly. A difference of just one-thousandth of an inch too big or too small can be the difference between parts that turn smoothly and parts that seize. Another engine part isn’t quite flat on top, so Bailey will grind off about five-thousandths of an inch. The flatter surface will mean a better fit with other parts, which will help squeeze a little more power out of the car.
Even if Bailey knows how to make cars fast, his own automotive interests remain more sedate. For the last 20 years or so he has focused on collecting and restoring cars built before 1915, in what’s known as the Brass Era. He’s also worked on cars for other collectors, some of which have won awards at prestigious shows like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California.
Working on cars from the beginning of the last century isn’t always straightforward. Cars like his Maxwells aren’t just old, they’re rare; the company only made about 200 of the 1906 model he owns, and Bailey says fewer than a dozen exist today.
“Once in a while you can find parts,” he says of old engines, “but a lot of them you have to make.” Bailey also hunts flea markets and antique car meets for parts, whether it’s something he needs right now or something he’ll stash away for the day he needs it.
What he can’t make himself he can sometimes buy from other antique car enthusiasts. On the floor of his shop sits a brand-new crankcase for a 1910 Buick engine, reproduced this year by someone he knows in Massachusetts. Bailey himself owns molds to cast new metal parts for his Maxwells.
It’s not all work for Bailey. When he’s not in the shop or searching for a part, Bailey and his wife join other Brass Era owners on multiple-day driving tours.
Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.