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100 Years of Wooden Glory - Chris Craft

September 6th 2007 09:49
100 Years of Wooden Glory - Chris Craft
1930's Triple Cockpit 22'


The story of Chris-Craft is more than just the story of a man his company or even his boats.

It is a far broader story of how the dramatic changes in American society, the economy and technological advances of the day converged to change our leisure habits forever.

Americans fell in love with Chris-Crafts style, breathtaking speed and their exquisite craftsmanship, but more importantly they were enamored by an ideology and their promise of attaining the American dream and so, from that standpoint, the story of Chris-Craft tells us much about the rapidly changing America of the 1920s and 1930s.

The Chris-Craft name even today, is synonymous with both speed and craftsmanship, but for more than sixty years, this worldwide boat building empire founded by Christopher Columbus Smith, would become a leader in mass produced mahogany pleasure craft.

Many antique boat enthusiasts easily recognize the inherent design features and rakish style of these varnished mahogany beauties, yet most people know little about the early Chris Smith runabouts or their features.

It is widely accepted that Chris Smith's runabout business did not officially begin until the establishment of the Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company in February of 1922, but as early as 1915, Smith had advertised his custom boat building services in Power Boating Magazine urging readers to, "Let Me Build You A Smith Boat."

Prior to 1915, Smith's proven race winners, “Baby Speed Demon” and “Baby Reliance” were awarded the APBA’s coveted Gold Cup.

In 1916 after the sale of the Chris Smith designed race boat Miss Detroit I, the Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company was purchased by industrialist and race-boat enthusiast Garfield Wood. It is uncertain whether it was a total buyout or simply a cash-injected partnership, but both Gar Wood and Chris Smith would form a synergetic relationship over the next five years winning five successive Gold Cup race championships and two Harmsworth trophies.

Despite his racing successes, Smith did not wish to remain a one-dimensional boat builder and although most of his energies seemed concentrated on racing hulls, he continued to solicit pleasure boat contracts and his dreams for a successful pleasure boat business began to take shape.

Stunning documentation of Chris Smith's ability and virtuosity as a hull designer and boat builder is published in the Lloyd's Register of American Yachts. This premier compilation of data regarding American and Canadian-owned yachts offers indisputable evidence of what was perhaps Smith's most ambitious project - an 80’ cruiser.

The records indicate a wooden-hulled vessel named “Hourless”, powered by twin six- cylinder Murray and Tregurtha gasoline engines, designed and constructed by the Chris Smith Boat Company, Algonac Michigan in 1919 for Walter E. Flanders of Detroit. Mr. Flanders who served as the General Manager of the Ford Motor Company from 1906 – 1909 was responsible for the production of over 10,000 cars per year, working under the direct leadership of Henry Ford.

By 1921, Smith was marketing a standardized 26’ express cruiser through a boat broker at the Central Marine Service Corporation in Detroit.

A remarkably informative advertisement about this design appeared in the August 1921 issue of Power Boating Magazine and the boat was powered by a Hall-Scott, four cylinder, 100 hp engine, equipped with electric start and lighting. It sold for $3,950.00 and was available in two models. A standard painted finish with mahogany trim or full mahogany hull for $500 extra.

Both models were built with Smith's trademarked double- planked bottom and the ad featured a rare photograph of this runabout showing a large rear cockpit design aft of the engine.

Smith designed his runabouts with the more popular forward steering and while there are no existing records to indicate how many of these boats were actually built, it is clear that Chris Smith was anticipating a move towards pleasure boat production before the storied dissolution of his racing partnership with Gar Wood.

In 1922 the following year, Chris Smith and his four sons, Jay, Bernard, Owen, and Hamilton, established the new Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company called Chris Smith Craft, which later became known as Chris-Craft.

What was perhaps the new company's first advertisement, appeared in the April 1922 issue of Motor Boat Magazine.

Contrary to the popular notion that the standard 26’ runabout was the only boat model initially offered by Chris-Craft, this ad contradicts that misconception by listing four different models available. These early models reflected the Smiths' transition from the traditional rear cockpit design to the modern forward cockpit steering and also indicated their awareness of what was in demand by the popular market.

The fourth model offered, a 33-foot Baby Gar, may be a complete surprise to many.
This boat achieved an advertised high-performance speed of 50 to 60 miles per hour and sold for $7,500. The first 33’ Baby Gar runabouts were built by Chris Smith for Gar Wood in response to the APBA’s rule change regulating Gold Cup racing, but the original table of offsets is found in the Chris-Craft Collection.

Research into the early accounting and purchase ledgers reveal that the first hulls built by the Smiths' new company were not runabouts, but rather a racer, the Packard-Chris Craft. The build was commissioned by Colonel Jesse G. Vincent, founder of the Packard Motor Car Company and was delivered to him in August of 1922, just in time to compete in the Gold Cup races to be held the following month in Detroit.

This powerful new entry onto the racing scene that now conformed to the new APBA’s rules was equipped with a six-cylinder Packard 200hp engine that was capable of achieving speeds of up to 45.6 miles per hour.

Colonel Vincent drove the Packard Chris-Craft to victory defeating Gar Wood who had held the Gold Cup title for the previous five years. Wood's boat “Baby Gar Jr.” was also a Chris Smith design and a third Smith-built boat known as “Chris-Craft II” also participated in the Gold Cup championships that year.

Chris-Craft II was driven by Gar Wood's brother George and it differed greatly in appearance from its Packard counterpart because it was designed as a standard 26’ runabout with a single cockpit and steering controls forward of the engine.

After only two years in business, the Smiths runabout was beginning to make an impact on the marketplace. Rapid sales growth of Chris-Crafts in the early part of 1924 resulted in the company's increased production to four boats per week. By May, Forty-One new boats were completed for delivery.

In the 1920s American productivity and incomes were up and a torrent of new goods and conveniences - roadsters and runabouts, radios and installment buying - beckoned the affluent and the growing middle class. Advertising came into its own as brash and sophisticated campaigns promised that consumption would bring happiness and social success.

Americans fell in love with speed and style – and with Chris-Crafts. The beautiful affordable new runabouts took Florida by storm and the rest of the nation soon followed.
This exponential growth prompted a media campaign in 1925 to expand the public awareness of Chris-Crafts.

A redesigned runabout with a new forward double cockpit was illustrated in full-page advertisements promoting the ability of Chris-Craft to maintain lower prices as a result of their application of "motor car standardization and volume production methods" for their boats.

The Smiths were second only to Garwood Industries to apply these techniques and in an effort to stay ahead of their competition they cleverly offered the first ever payment plan in the endeavour of boat sales. A potential buyer only needed a down payment of $1,340.00 to secure his Chris-Craft with the outstanding balance due within twelve months.

Another sales incentive fully warranted the quality of each boat against manufacturing defects for one year claiming, "It is so nearly trouble-proof that this guarantee has cost an average of only $6.00 a boat". Additionally, the Smiths tried to avert any fears of unscrupulous dealers who would not honor the company's guarantee with the statement, "When you purchase a Chris-Craft you deal directly with the builders, who are fully responsible for service".

As a result, several more years would pass before a dealer network was established.
Chris-Craft with its new standard of luxury and speed, combined with moderate price and absolute safety, met all three needs. Chris-Crafts were easy to handle, dependable and seaworthy and while many celebrities owned Chris-Crafts, their real bread and butter market was the hopeful American middle class.

Chris-Craft not only sold mahogany and brass - but dreams.

The company's ads seductively alluded to the leisured life of evening gowns and brilliant parties. Sales material flattered readers, calling them "those who are accustomed to leadership afloat or ashore." Brochures pictured men in smart blue jackets and women in the latest fashions. Chris-Crafts were "the new vogue” allowing owners to "entertain distinguished guests or carry friends or family in approved style to club or regatta". Chris-Craft offered all of this - on the affordable installment plan.

“Make up your mind that your family will get full benefit of the health and character-building properties of clean, active outdoor life. Buy them a Chris-Craft this year”.

Always in tune with the fears and hopes of Americans, Chris-Craft understood the appeal of wholesome recreation, particularly after the comparatively wild and promiscuous 1920s. By owning a Chris-Craft, parents were sold on the ideal that they could keep their youngsters occupied with clean healthful and thrilling activities such as swimming fishing and picnicking. Chris-Craft also suggested that the relaxing, "health-building" hobby of
boating might lengthen the life of the tired businessman.

Chris Smith died in 1939, but his son Jay proved to be an equally able boat builder and the company continued to flourish.

As WWII approached, Chris-Craft like many of the war-time boat builders received a lucrative government contract to produce Allied landing craft. Chris-Craft built more than 10,000 landing craft that went on to spearhead the “D-Day” landings at Normandy.
After World War II, Chris-Craft recommenced commercial boat production with renewed vigor.

By 1959 Chris-Craft had ten factories and more than 5,000 employees.

Leadership of the Company passed to Chris Smith's grandson Harsen and when interviewed for Time Magazine, he attributed Chris-Craft's success to the family rather than to any individual within it.

Over the years many prominent American families have owned Chris-Crafts.

Among them are the Vanderbilts, Fords, the Firestones, the Sloans and the Morgans. There is no greater accolade for a company than having two U.S. Presidents owning Chris-Crafts and both Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy used their boats to escape and relax with their families.

The first movie star to buy a Chris-Craft was Helen Morgan in 1928. Since then, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Henry Ford, Katherine Hepburn and even Elvis Presley have all been customers.

Today Chris-Craft boats are still sought by Stars, but the boats themselves are also stars in their own right and have been featured in countless films and been written about in novels.

The story of Chris-Craft is the story of the “American dream”. In the 130 years since the Company has been in existence, it has built more than 250,000 boats.

Countless families have experienced the innovation and quality that are Chris-Craft hallmarks, not just in America but across the world.

Chris-Smith's legacy is an approach to building boats that combines craftsmanship with efficiency, beauty with practicality, performance with comfort and style with elegance.

Today, Chris-Craft is Head-quartered in Sarasota Florida and while they no longer manufacture the mahogany boats that made them famous, they remain one of the largest boat building companies in the world.

Andy McCutcheon, 100 Years of Wooden Glory. Copyright 2006
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