“Bob Smith, or ‘Dad,’
The last time I saw Bob Smith was at the Annapolis Boat Show, just a few short years ago. He was perched on a stool in his American Diesel booth, behind a table that was decorated with Ford Lehman diesel engine parts—pistons, valves, water pumps, exhaust elbows—that had failed due to corrosion, poor maintenance, or abuse. Bob saw me coming, looked me in the eye, and with a straight face said, “Well, it looks like they’ll let anybody in here.” Then he’d smile, stand up, and come forward with an extended hand and a solid grip that said, “Welcome, friend.”
Robert Frederick Smith, or “Diesel Bob” as some called him, made the journey to Fiddler’s Green in January of this year, leaving behind a legion of boat owners who, whether they knew it or not, were able to take to the water and cruise efficiently because of his untiring efforts.
I first met him when I joined the PassageMaker magazine staff and began attending TrawlerFest events all around the United States. He was already well-known in the distance-cruising community as the owner of American Diesel in Kilmarnock, Virginia, and as a big supporter of the Marine Trawler Owner’s Association (MTOA). Rob Dorfmeyer— PassageMaker’s then publisher and TrawlerFest’s general manager—held him in the highest regard.
“Bob Smith, or ‘Dad,’ as I used to refer to him, and introduce him to attendees at the many TrawlerFest events at which he presented, had a following of which legends are made,” said Dorfmeyer. “His two-day, six-hour TrawlerFest University classes were highly sought after, always the first to sell out.”
“He encouraged boaters of all degrees of experience, regardless of the diesel brand they owned, to learn the principles and practices of maintaining and using diesel engines in a hands-on classroom environment that included disassembly and reassembly of a working engine,” Dorfmeyer recalled. “At the completion of each class, the students rolled the engine outside the classroom and watched as Bob hooked up fuel and electrical sources. Graduation was always accompanied by a smooth-running engine.
“Over the last few years of working as a yacht broker, I have called Bob many times while on my side in a bilge, describing an engine’s characteristics and condition,” Dorfmeyer explained. “If I had a question—any question at all—I could count on Bob walking me through almost every nut, bolt, and component on that specific engine. In many ways, he would help most anyone who owned a boat, or was interested in purchasing a boat, powered by Ford Lehman diesels.”
Bob Smith was born and raised in New Jersey and, like most of us who are imbued with the water gene, grew up operating and enjoying boats of all kinds. He was a toolmaker’s apprentice for Bell Labs, attended night school at Rutgers University, served seven years in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves, and stood up for his community as a volunteer fireman for more than 20 years.
Joining with Roger Lehman in 1959, Bob helped to engineer the now ubiquitous Lehman-marinized Ford-UK diesel engines. It would be hard for me to estimate the number of boats built and powered by these reliable, fuel-efficient diesels, but they must number in the thousands. When Bob purchased Hale Marine, a marine engine distributor, and eventually moved it to Kilmarnock, Virginia, in 1981, American Diesel was launched. They supplied replacement parts for Ford Lehman diesels up to 140-hp.
“Bob will remain well-known to the entire boating community, young and old alike, for his unceasing efforts to educate owners through lectures and articles, about the proper care and consideration necessary for long diesel service life,” Dorfmeyer said. “The legacy that he leaves behind for the Ford Lehman diesel brand, for owners of those engines around the world, and for the American Diesel Company (americandieselcorp.com) is a credit to his name and his hard work. His very capable and diesel-experienced son, Brian, will carry on the good work that would make his father proud.”
As for me, I will never forget him. From his handshake to his quick quips, he was an original. I wish Brian, and Bob’s loving wife of 50 years, Gail Dockery Smith, both of whom were often found in the American Diesel booth, peace and prosperity in the years to come. Fair winds and following seas, my friend.
–John Wooldridge with Rob Dorfmeyer
More on Bob Smith
It saddens me to report that Bob Smith passed away on January 31 at a hospital in Stuart, Florida.
Bob was member #24 of the Marine Trawler Owners Association (MTOA), and has been well-known to the entire boating community for many decades. He was the owner of American Diesel in Kilmarnock, Virginia, and was known as the developer of the Ford Lehman marine engine. He was a regular exhibitor at TrawlerFest and boat shows, where he always promoted MTOA and brought in hundreds of members over the years.
Bob was among the members who joined in 1990, the year of our founding. He gave countless presentations at rendezvous on the care and maintenance of diesel engines and would answer any question on the subject. He was a regular contributor to the MTOA magazine, leaving us a wealth of reference information. When the first formal Board of Directors was formed in 1993, Bob served as Deputy Director of Engineering.
Bob was elected President of MTOA at the Annual Meeting in 1996 and occupied the position of Director of Propulsion Engineering at the time of his death.
Bob received the Superior Service Award for his work on the newsletter, rendezvous, and membership support. A few years ago he became one of the very few to receive the Life Achievement Award, which is given for highly distinguished service or achievement of lasting significance for MTOA over an extended period. In addition to that, he was also awarded PassageMaker magazine and TrawlerFest’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Farewell, Bob… We’ll miss you.
Peter K. Colket
Old School Bob
I was very sad to learn of the passing of Bob Smith. I first met Bob when I visited the Lehman facility in the company of John Newton in the mid-1960s. At the time, I was working at American Marine in Hong Kong and this was my first visit to the U.S. We used large numbers of Lehman engines in our boats and they were standard in the Grand Banks when they were introduced in 1963. I had been expecting a huge factory and was surprised to find a modest warehouse in which Lehman engines were being assembled by a handful of people using engines from Ford of Dagenham in the U.K., heat exchangers from Sendure, pumps from Jabsco, custom exhaust manifolds and other components from different sources. I remember thinking at the time what a neat idea it was simply to buy parts from all these different vendors and just assemble them into a product with your name on it. It was a lesson I never forgot.
The last time I met Bob was at a TrawlerFest in Anacortes a few years back when we exchanged the kind of news that old geezers exchange. I thought then that this was another great idea: to provide know-how and parts to owners of the literally hundreds of Lehman engines which are out there. A truly invaluable service which has allowed boaters with these simple and reliable diesels to keep on boating.
Bob was from the old school and he will be missed.
Founder, Fleming Yachts
Bob told it like it was
I first met Bob Smith in 1974 when he was selling Ford Lehman Engines to Grand Banks Yachts. He put the name Lehman on the map for the boating industry. The thing that I remember the most about Bob was his willingness to help in any manner that he could, from selling a water pump for an old engine or an order for 20 new engines, he would put the same energy and enthusiasm toward both.
In later years most of my encounters with Bob were at various GB Rendezvous all over the country. After our first rendezvous where we would make presentations I had a standing request that I would never follow Bob with a presentation or speech as he was too hard of an act to follow.
One of the attributes that I always enjoyed about Bob was his candor to “tell it like it was” to anybody.
Former Sales Manager, Grand Banks Yachts