Add it to your oil. Add it to your gas.
A tour of Bardahl Manufacturing Corporation: The smallest, oldest big company in Seattle
Seattleites: have you ever wondered what that giant neon advertising sign was about in Ballard? It looks like something you’d find on old Route 66. What does it advertise, exactly?
I always thought that sign on the warehouse in Ballard, visible from the Ballard Bridge in Seattle, said “Add Bardahl Oil.” But the O in Oil is cut off at the bottom as if it was made to form a different letter. What’s up with that?
Recently I got the chance to tour “Bardahl Oil” which is really Bardahl Manufacturing Corp., the plant upon which this neon sign stands. And I found out what the sign really says, at least after dark. It’s not what I thought. Neither was the company underneath it.
Walking into the Bardahl Manufacturing plant in Seattle reveals that it’s composed of a main warehouse onto which other warehouse sections have been added. If you look up, you’ll see trusses holding up the roof with an amazing ceiling of wood behind, resembling a wood floor or perhaps a lapstrake-built boat.
While thinking of boats as I stared upward, I was conducted into a warehouse section they called the “boat shop,” where I met COO Eric Nicolaysen Bardahl, grandson of Ole Bardahl, and Mary Davis, vice president. They explained how one Ole Bardahl emigrated in 1922 from the Trondheim area in Norway and began building houses as a carpenter. Within 15 years, Bardahl became a millionaire as a general contractor and decided to try something new in 1940 by buying a company that made motor oil and soap. Recognizing that he needed to know more, he took college courses to decide how he could capitalize on either of these products, oil or soap.
Ole chose oil, but instead of manufacturing that directly, he was more interested in improving the lubricating efficiency of motor oil through additives. And so the Bardahl line of oil additives was born, which then expanded into gas additives and hundreds of other products. I was told that Bardahl Manufacturing now makes every lubricant and fluid you can imagine for a car, from the cooling system up front to the grease on the rear axle in the back. “Ole Bardahl was a diverse man with a lot of drive,” said Davis. No kidding.
But in the beginning it was oil additives, which I suspect were hard sells to the average person who didn’t care much about increasing the efficiency of their drive to the grocery store. But motor sport racing—that’s a whole different story, where every fraction of a percent of efficiency could make the difference between winning and losing.
So Ole Bardahl began marketing and testing his products on race cars, sponsoring a car at Indianapolis. But what really launched the Bardahl name was hydroplane racing.
In 1951, when the American Power Boat Association Gold Cup was run in the waters of Seattle’s Lake Washington for the first time, Seattle saw Stan Sayres’s Slo-Mo-Shun IV win the gold cup three years in a row. That was enough to convince Ole to put the Bardahl name on a hydroplane and assemble a winning team by 1957.
Win they did. Between 1967 and 1969, the Miss Bardahl won five gold cups and six national championships. For a great telling of the Miss Bardahl hydroplane story (there were actually four incarnations, or “hulls” as they say) read “Ole Bardahl to Motorsports Hall of Fame” at h1unlimited.com/2014/01/motorsports-hall-of-fame-to-induct-ole-bardahl.
Eric told me that the company, now a corporation, has a network of distributors in 90 countries across the globe, producing over 1,000 different kinds of motor products. As we started walking through the plant, he pointed out the many floor-to-ceiling stacks of “oil cans”—those classic quart cans—containing any of some 250-plus products that the Seattle factory currently produces.
He said their treatments/additives known as Bardahl B1, B2, and No Smoke are probably the best selling of all their products. But in his overseas plants, particularly in France, many other products are manufactured. And Bardahl products are regularly used in new French cars too, like all Peugeots and Renaults, and can be found in German, Scandinavian, and Japanese cars rolling off the assembly lines today. It’s probably fair to say that Bardahl products are more popular abroad than in the United States.
The Bardahl name has also become associated with other kinds of racing, as Ole Bardahl sponsored entrants in airplane, salt-flat, motorcycle, snowmobile, funny car, and drag racing. Ole’s daughter Evelyn Bardahl McNeil, who now serves as the chairman of the board, was the first woman to ever crew a hydroplane team (Miss Bardahl, 1967). That team that won the Gold Cup twice while she was crew boss.
Our tour was also hosted by Al Young, a world champion drag racer who was sponsored by Bardahl over most of his 25-year racing career. The winning car he drove, a green 1970 Dodge Challenger, is now at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. Young shared with me a photo showing his car in the museum, next to the Slo-Mo-Shun IV hydroplane, which is also there—a fitting pair.
Young was originally a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools in wide-ranging subjects, from American Government to Chinese Cooking to Auto Shop. He must have been one heck of a teacher, for his enthusiasm bubbled over even as I talked with him. He showed me around his current hot rod, which he was clearly proud of in a non-pretentious way. In a video Young showed on the tour, called Race: The Al Young Story (please look this up online—it’s inspiring), I learned that he was the first Asian American World Champion racecar driver and met a lot of challenges along the way, not the least of which was prejudice.
But when Evelyn, and then Ole, met Young in 1976, they must have seen that with his charming personality, coupled with his grit and determination to do his very best (and bring home wins), he would make a great ambassador for the company. As Young said, “You couldn’t tell Ole Bardahl anything. If he decided to support somebody, then he would do it.” Even if it wasn’t politically or socially correct at the time.
Young never could have pursued his dream of racing on just his teacher’s salary, so Bardahl sponsorship was the break he needed to develop his skills to eventually win several American and national hot rod championships over the years. In fact, Young was inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Hall of Fame in 2018. And though he’s now in his 70s, Young is still drag racing, working on his muscle cars, and talking excitedly about racing, Bardahl, and the good life to anyone who will listen.
Our tour finished near an operating production line; a noisy track of jostling quart cans being filled with some Bardahl additive. I marveled at the old brass and steel machinery that was still ushering cans around the line smoothly after some 60 years of operation. Dennis Amos, the plant manager, told us with a smile, “That’s because the line has always been well lubricated—with Bardahl products. And our forklifts? They’ve been going over 30 years for the same reason. Bardahl lubrication.”
I drove by the plant in late evening that day and finally saw what the sign was about. The neon tubes spelling most of the words you see at night are all but invisible during the day. It flashes three phrases: Add Bardahl. Add it to your oil. Add it to your gas. Bardahl was founded on additives, not oil.
But now I know, and so do you, that Bardahl Manufacturing is much, much more than some additives Ole formulated in the 1940s. The company’s history is inextricably woven with the history of Seattle and motor sports, and this relatively small plant an company, where it all started, is one of the unsung historical gems of Seattle.
Special thanks to Shin Yu Pai of Atlas Obscura for including this Norwegian-American journalist on the tour.
To learn more about Atlas Obscura and their programs and events, visit www.atlasobscura.com/things-to-do/seattle-washington#events.
Eric Stavney is a graduate of the UW Scandinavian Studies Department and cohosts the Scandinavian Hour on KKNW 1150AM, Saturdays at 9 a.m. Pacific at 1150kknw.com/listen.
This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617. This article was revised from the original by the editor.