When boys are younger, they might content themselves with drawing moustaches on their sister’s toy dolls. Or maybe pulling the legs off.
When they’re aged mid-40s and mid-70s, this only changes form. It now becomes about how fast they can get said doll to go in a small, nitromethane-powered bus with the wheels and running gear from a remote-control buggy.
This is exactly what Richard Hale and his dad Brian Hale have done.
The Canberra duo have spent the past four months tinkering on the same vintage-style yellow Barbie bus you might have drooled over in the toy store as a kid. And today, it’s finally ready for a highly scientific speed test at the Mawson District Playing Fields.
The brief was laid out decades ago as jokes about how it would be fun to add an engine and a remote control to Richard’s sister’s Barbie bus.
“Dad used to always say, ‘I’m going to radio control that [bus] one day’,” Richard reminisces.
“It never happened back then.”
That’s not the only answer to the ‘why?’ question, though.
Brian worked as a technician at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station (Honeysuckle Creek) near Tharwa, a place instrumental in NASA’s Apollo moon missions before the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex opened near Tidbinbilla in 1965. In other words, he’s a keen handyman.
When his dad was diagnosed with dementia, however, Richard decided to make the Barbie bus happen so they could spend more quality time together.
Richard also has some technical experience – “mucking around with cars” – and after tracking down a second-hand bus on Facebook Marketplace, the pair set about ripping out the plastic seats and replacing them with the nitromethane-powered engine and other mechanical innards from a remote-control buggy.
“We started in my backyard and garage, and it’s been quite an effort to do it,” Brian adds.
“I had to make several drive shaft components on a lathe and use some metal couplings to join them together to fit within the bus’s longer wheelbase,” Richard says.
All the while, they record every section of the build for their YouTube channel, ‘dad_dickie‘. Richard’s mum Lenore says it “keeps them busy for hours”.
But today is the moment of truth. Richard mounts a phone inside the bus with duct tape and powers up its GPS tracking app to reveal just how fast this Barbie can fly.
“Barbie was sitting there with nothing but a bathing suit on – in this weather, you can imagine what that would do to her – so we got her a change of clothes,” Brian adds.
It’s not a simple thing to get going. Richard starts the ignition with a hand-held spark plug while tugging on the pull cord as if it were not a Barbie bus but a small lawn mower. And once it does spit and splutter into life, there’s only a few minutes before the fuel tank runs dry.
But that’s enough time to send it hurtling down a dirt patch like the proverbial scalded cat. There is a rollover and a wheel came off at one point, and some dusty doughnuts are thrown in for good measure, but eventually, the phone records a top speed of 52 km/h.
In other words, Barbie would get a ticket if she went through a school zone.
Despite living in Canberra, Richard’s sister has yet to be able to see any of this in person. But there will be plenty more opportunities because Barbie’s need for speed is not stopping here – Richard and Brian see this as the beginning of a grand plan for bigger and better remote-controlled Barbie buses.
“We’re looking for someone to sponsor a buggy so we can build a faster one with proper, four-wheel-drive tyres,” Richard says.
Go for it, we say. After all, what’s more fun than sending your sister’s toy doll nigh into another dimension with a roaring nitro engine? A jump, perhaps? From Evel KENievel?