Chris-Craft fiberglass boats

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A Lovely article about classic Chris Craft fiberglass boats and productions

 

The Birth of the Chris-Craft fiberglass empire

 

published: Classic Boating Magazine | September/October 2011

 

 

By Paul Pletcher


Above:
1969 31' Commander Sedan
Top Right: 1970 55' Commander
Lower Right: 1970 31'Commander
Sedan
Left: 1970 38' Commander

 

 

 

 

See full text below, or click on images to view actual article.

 

 

 

After eight decades of wood boat production, Chris-Craft began L using the new material called "fiberglass" in a limited manner, like the aft deck tail fin on the 106 wood Cobra hulls built in 1955. In 1957, Chris-Craft built 266 15' fiberglass out- board Lake 'n' Sea models, eventually dubbed "Leak and Sink" by the gen- eral public, due to delamination of the fiberglass and wood components. Fiberglass was used the following year as a sheathing material and upper deck cladding for the 92 beautiful Silver Arrow wood hulls built in 1958 and 1959. While the Cobra fin proved to be quite a positive event, the Lake 'n' Sea project was so problematic Chris-Craft eventually sold the company they ac- quired to build that product, and the beautiful Silver Arrow hull experi- enced swelling issues between the wood substrate and exterior fiberglass.

 

Chris-Craft was experiencing a rather bumpy learning curve with the new material. In the meantime, General Motors Corporation was in full pro- duction of a new fiberglass sports car called the Corvette during this same time frame, and many boat manufac- turers were also experimenting with this new material. Quality standards and construction techniques varied widely, while one manufacturer after another realized sooner or later, in one way or another, that immersion of this new material into water had potential consequences. After contacting Chris-Craft with an inquiry about potential collabora- tion in building a fiberglass cruiser and receiving a less than positive response, Hatteras Yachts made the decision to forge ahead on their own. In 1962, they began building a 41' double cabin fiberglass motor yacht. This undoubt- edly became a topic of great interest in the Chris-Craft board room. During this time frame, numerous other man- ufacturers were building smaller fiber- glass runabouts, and Chris-Craft was almost totally invested in wood con- struction at the time. Most of their ex- perience to date with fiberglass seemed to be laced with problems. Despite the rough start into the new construction medium, the indus- try trend toward fiberglass boat build- ing was unstoppable. The Smith family eventually elected to sell the company rather than spend the money required to tool up for an en- tirely new manufacturing process. Their timing could not have been bet- ter for the company.

 

In I960, Chris-Craft was sold to National Automotive Fibers, Inc., (NAFI). Almost immediately, the new management began a master plan strategy to modernize, and part of the plan was to acquire the Thompson Boat Company of New York (not to be confused with Thompson Boats of Pestigo, Wisconsin) as the location to launch the full scale transition from wood to fiberglass. Thompson had a manufacturing plant in Cortland, New York, which produced fine wood runabouts, and Thompson also had a nicely developed dealer network. Thompson had valuable experience with outdrive manufacturers, installa- tion, and performance features. This location was a good distribution point for the Finger Lakes, Great Lakes, and the heartland. In January of 1962, Chris-Craft acquired Thompson and expanded the operation by construct- ing a new building next to the existing facility for the purposes of starting fiberglass boat production. After op- erating under the name "Thompson by Chris-Craft" for a short time, the Thompson name was eventually phased out and the facility was re- named the Corsair Division of Chris- Craft, as production turned from wood to full scale production of a new line of sport boats.

 

A simultaneous second phase of the corporate transformation began with the establishment of a fiber and resin research and development facil- ity in Pompano Beach, Florida. In 1962, Pompano Beach began early development of a 35' Sail Yacht (production commencing in 1963) and 38' Motor Cruiser (1964). Soon thereafter, in con- cert with developments at Pompano Beach and Cortland, New York, a transformation also began at the Chris- Craft Roamer plant in Holland, Michigan, to build larger fiberglass boats. Chris-Craft's first fiberglass cruiser (the 38' Commander Express) was built in secret and shipped to the 1964 New York Boat Show under wraps. The unveiling created an immediate sensation and rocked the boating world, as Chris-Craft re-introduced the Commander name.

 

The reverberations are still being felt 47 years later. The new fiberglass medium allowed shapes like the pointed transom, side foils that hide integrated exhaust ports and deck drains and also serve as a side bumper, and the rakish flair of the bow. In order to achieve those exotic hull shapes, the initial 38' Commander had a 3-piece hull: the entire bottom from the waterline down was one piece, and the port and starboard sides made up the two other pieces, which were joined at the centerline of the bow and transom, and also bonded to the bottom. Without the three piece hull design, the convex shapes of the 38' Commander would not have been able to be pulled from a single mold. While the thought of a 3- piece hull may have alarmed some, Chris-Craft purposely designed and constructed this boat with a huge safety margin, and few (if any) structural issues have ever been reported. The new management at Chris Craft knew the company reputation was on the line; they did their homework well and used only the very finest polyester resins and hand laid fiberglass roving, and, as a result, the early Commanders were significantly over-engineered. The 1967 sales brochure proclaims the fact that the 38' Commander hull was structurally designed to withstand three times the stress of running full speed in a six foot sea. Forty-seven years later, those hulls are still so strong and good looking, they have been used as candidates for restorations costing some owners hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a testament to the structural integrity of the hollow fiberglass box beam design, the overall thickness of the hand laid roving, the high quality resins and gel- coats, and the beautifully proportioned shape of the Commander hull. When the new fiberglass line was introduced, Chris-Craft marketing materials explained: "In order to produce fiberglass boats equal in quality and performance to the other Chris-Craft fleets, it was necessary for Chris-Craft to develop a whole new technology for fiberglass boat-building. New gelcoats and resins with greater resistance to cracking, fading and crazing were produced. New production methods were found."

 

Since there were many horror stories in the early days of fiberglass boat production, from back yard experi- mentation to manufacturers who simply did not spend the time and money to fully research the suitability of their products in the marine environment, Chris-Craft knew they had to overcome a potentially negative public opinion. The owner of Trojan Boats (known for very fine wood construction), for instance, publically denounced fiberglass construction, resisted tooling up for the new medium, and eventually saw the demise of his company after everyone else had invested in fiberglass. Chris-Craft preemptive marketing material of the day explained: "Many boatmen are surprised to learn that an inferior fiberglass laminate may absorb as much as 10% of it's weight in water, which can cause as much as 50% loss of strength. In many cases, the sizing used to hold resin and fiberglass together is too absorbent. And sometimes poor gelcoat is at fault. For this reason, Chris-Craft specifies non-porous gelcoats, inspected for microscopic pinholes with high-power 3-dimensional microscopes. Chris-Craft also chooses sizings (resins) with high resistance to moisture.

 

Read the full "Chris-Craft " story in the September/October 2011 issue of Classic Boating.

 

Learn more about Chris-Craft boat models

Article published in Classic Boating Magazine

March/April 2007


Photos by Norm
and Jim Wangard

 

Click on the article's images to see it at large size.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 , 9;

 

Founded in 1853, tourist friendly Pentwater is an historic village on the western shore of Michigan with a charming main street of hundred-year-old shops and restaurants with creaky wooden floors. Pentwater's tree-lined streets show off charming Victorian homes and cottages framed by beautiful gardens. Almost everything in Pentwater-population 966-is within walking distance of the marinas, retail district, public beach, village green and the annual classic boat show. At the bottom of the village green where children play and aspiring musicians perform is the Pentwater Yacht Club, host to the annual boat show.

 

On December 22, 1937, hull #35359 was shipped from the Chris-Craft plant in Algonac, Michigan, to the National Motor Boat and Sportsman's Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. According to the hull card, Model 804 was shipped to the east coast on a "show cradle" and was one of at least 7 Chris-Craft boats that were sent east. Following that event, a Chris-Craft dealership owned the 2Y Deluxe Utility and used the boat extensively for demonstrations and as a ride boat on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. In May of 1941, a family living on Greenwood Lake NY/NJ purchased her and she remained in active use on that lake until 1982 when she was placed in storage. My wife and I knew nothing of the history of the boat prior to 1998 when we first became aware of this boat. Initially, we were only interested in helping the current owners, who live out of state, sell a boat that had fallen on hard times. She was in need of a major interior restoration because the original seating and motor box had been modified. Replacement of the bottom, the transom and the Ford Interceptor engine were also needed. Her hull and decks were in remarkably good shape and all of her hardware was complete with the exception of two gauges. I contacted the owners by phone and, to my surprise, discovered that back in 1941, this boat was literally a next-door neighbor to our family's 1938 Morin Craft, Lndy Phyllis II, which was built on Greenwood Lake. In those early years, these two boats passed each other on the water each boating season with some regularity. Since both boats shared common water for so many years, it seemed very appropriate for us to reunite these two 1938 mahogany sisters of Greenwood Lake. In April of 1998, we became the third owners of this boat.

 

A complete restoration including installation of a Chris-Craft model "M" engine was done over a two-year period by Russ Arrand at the Cadillac Boat Shop in our home state of Michigan. Mona is truly a utility boat that we use for all occasions. She has always been well received wherever we take her whether it is for a boat show or for hauling people around at a family or friends outing. She's even been on the St. John's River cruise in Florida!

 

Chris-Craft made only nineteen 16' Hydroplanes from 1941-42 and only 4 or 5 are still around. The step hull racer's rarity and size appealed to Ron Rokop and he built his own from scratch over 2V4 years working daily Monday through Friday. His first scratch boat project, Ron did it as a retirement hobby, which made it fun and there was no completion deadline. Plans, which only show side outline and plan views, came from the Mariners' Museum Chris-Craft Collection. Lofting the lines was no problem for the former GM engineer; whether a car or boat, the principles are the same. All Ron needed was long paper and long flexible sticks. All detail and frames had to be developed. Frame measurements were also taken from a 17' barrelstern and a proof of concept model was made. Bugsy was built to the same scantlings published in the ChrisCraft sales literature with mahogany frames and oak chines. Hullside planking is continuous length. The flexible yet watertight bottom was built per the Danenberg school with each plank coated with water barrier and bedded in 5200. The biggest challenge to the whole project was finding correct hardware. To this end, a 1941 16" Chris-Craft, sharing many of the same pieces, was acquired. A triple carb 131 hp KBL moves the 16' hydro plenty fast. The stepped hull runs flat and really lightens up on plane.

 

Dave Semelbauer spent three years of spare time restoring his gray 1959 19' Lyman. He took everything off and used the old wood as patterns for the new mahogany plywood strakes applied without bedding compound.

 

Wanting to be sure the original Gray Marine 6 was sound, Dave procured new pistons and crank from a parts dealer in New Jersey, which was a bit ironic because Continental Motors were made in his hometown of Muskegon. Amish upholsterers in the farming community of Holton did impeccable canvas and upholstery work for half the going rate, using regular pneumatic sewing machines powered by propane generators.

Tim Adamski's 1967 Chris-Craft 17' Cavalier Ski Boat with standard 185hp 283 V-8 has a top speed of 43mph. The rakish 6-passenger hull of 3/8" 5-ply marine plywood was available with optional fiberglass covered bottom. Available in red or blue hullsides, 106 Ski Boats were built from 1967-1968.

 

The Norwegian word for launch is snekke. Frode Maaseidvaag's 23' Norwegian launch was built by Svege in 1964, not far from his hometown on the west coast of Norway. The snekke is a very common style built in Norway with lines and construction technique very similar to the the Viking ships. The round bilged lapstrake hull is planked in Norwegian Pine and copper riveted. The launch was ordered for cruising in the states and arrived in Cape Cod in 1965, powered by a Norwegianbuilt Sabb 1 cylinder lOhp diesel with variable pitch propeller. Later, it became a fishing boat in Hyannis off Cape Cod, but the owner could not earn a living by fishing and it remained there until Frode bought in 1986. It would be five years before Frode would able to get it in the water. An extensive rebuild was needed. The importer who brought it into the states gave the boat to his grandson who proceeded to destroy it. Frode replanked the hull in Atlantic white cedar and the original decks, blackened from linseed oil, were sanded down to clean wood. Nokken derives its name from the fairy tale of the Norwegian fresh water troll.

 

 

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