Owen Edwards, who definitely has an eye for style—he coauthored the book Quintessence: The Quality of Having It—has an old family movie of himself tootling along Lake Mohawk, up in Northern New Jersey, in a vintage Chris-Craft runabout.
"Everyone is dressed in the kind of clothes that one would wear in a Packard, not a boat," Edwards mentioned to me the other day. "I think that people really thought of those speedboats as fast cars on the water. Those throaty, hidden engines seemed to push the Chris-Crafts along magically, with a big rooster tail of spray adding to the glamour. The brightly varnished natural wood didn't hurt, either. Whenever I read that wonderful passage in Tender is the Night, where Dick Diver is trying—and failing—to water-ski with the beautiful actress on his shoulders, I'm absolutely sure he's being pulled by a shiny Chris-Craft."
Chris-Craft imagery is like this: delicious and transporting, evocative of a time and place when your car was better-looking than you were. That Chris-Crafts were designed like automobiles—with a slick of varnished wood, the glint of steel—is what makes them so alluring today. It is what swells the rosters of the Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club (I "joined" for a week last spring, and each night's e-mail postings brought new owners); it is why boat builders fall all over themselves to satisfy an appetite for the glory days of the wooden runabout by creating new "classics" in the Chris-Craft image. Flipping through the back pages of WoodenBoat magazine, you'll see a whole world of these new "antiques"—with names such as Hacker-Craft and Grand-Craft—but the standout, the most ubiquitous name, is still Chris-Craft.
"It's the name that everyone knows—shorthand, now, for a glamorous wooden runabout," said Hallie Bond, who is the curator of the Adirondack Museum and the author of Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks. "The real story of this region is boats that you can carry, but certainly the great Adirondack camps, by the 1920s anyway, were not considered complete without a Chris-Craft or three out in the boathouse. This has always been a place where the very wealthy came to holiday, and they always brought the latest trends."
Chris Meigher's family has an island "smack dab" in the middle of Lake George, New York. His 1946 Chris-Craft utility boat and a 1937 triple-cockpit Chris-Craft have been in his family since they were bought new. "When you live on an island," Meigher says, "boats are an essential part of your day, and your needs. What I love about the Chris-Crafts is that they really do connect you back to a point in time—for me, it's to lazy summers in the 1950s, to lots of climbing, and what I love about the lake." Meigher's ear is so attuned to the sound of his boats' engines—to "that almost melodic throaty gurgle"—that he can tell without looking which one is being driven, or whether a neighbor has come to call.
"Up here," he says, "there's a total resurgence of interest in these classic wooden boats. There's a boat builder up the lake who's now building new Hacker-Crafts, close to one new boat every week or two. That's more than 30 boats a year, and that's a lot. To my mind, and I'm going to sound like an aging purist, you don't get the same ride in a new boat, it's just not as smooth a cut through the water."
Christopher Columbus Smith, founder of Chris-Craft, probably whittled his first boat, a duck-hunting shell scraped out of Michigan timber, in the early 1870s, when he was 11 years old. No bells went off for this early effort, but Smith clung to the habit—even after his shop, Chris Smith & Sons, had made its name and fortune by turning out the fastest powerboats in the world—of first whittling the hull shape for his new designs.
Smith was a backwoods guy from Algonac, Michigan, a former duck-decoy carver and hunter who promised his bride-to-be he'd settle down and start a boat shop. Love may have been the engine that built the Chris-Craft company, but the one that changed its history was a tiny, two-horsepower gasoline model.
By the end of the century, Smith and his brother Hank were known as the boys who could not only find you the best hunting and fishing in the Algonac region, but could build the best boats to take you there. When a pal brought the little, carburetorless and cantankerous engine to Algonac from nearby Detroit, the brothers eagerly bought the thing and bolted it to one of their handmade rowboats. The rest is a tale of bigger and better engines and Smith's instinctive flair for crafting speedy hulls. Before long he was billed as the guy who "could build a boat that would beat anything afloat," and Hank had lost interest and faded from the picture.
Throughout the teens, Smith's boats broke speed records all over the country. By the '20s, Chris-Craft was a household name, as desirable as a Ford. Using techniques learned from Detroit, Smith had done something quite extraordinary, creating production speedboats that could be sold and marketed like cars. "Of course anyone can drive a Chris-Craft who can drive an automobile," read a 1928 brochure. "In fact, many women and children who drive Chris-Craft have never driven a motor car . . . it glides over the waves with velvety smoothness, carries two or three families in utmost comfort."
You could buy a Chris-Craft on "time" (a 22-foot runabout went for about $2,000 in 1928) and find one darn near anywhere in the country—such was the extent of the company's dealer network. "They were the right boats in all the right places in a very heady time," wrote Joseph Gribbins, author of Chris-Craft: A History 1922-1942 (Devereux Books). "The boats were sleek, speedy, exciting—just the vehicle for a cake eater in a yachting cap to slide alongside the club float and entice a bevy of flappers aboard. They were also the boat of choice for a variety of other customers in the twenties, and even in the thirties, when the Depression failed to depress, and perhaps even stimulated, the desire to get behind the wheel of something fast and flashy."
Ads began to tout the Chris-Craft as an upmarket fetish. A 1929 brochure enticed customers with the promise that "bank presidents and brokers whose names are news everywhere, heads of great institutions and high officials have found their Chris-Crafts most useful and enjoyable. It gives them complete relaxation and change and clears away nervous fatigue."
To truly "get" a Chris-Craft, you really have to try one on, slide behind the wheel. I called a friend, Michael McCaffrey, a wooden-boat builder and restorer in Newport, Rhode Island and a trustee of the International Yacht Restoration School there. McCaffrey has a 1948 18-foot Chris-Craft deluxe utility runabout living in his barn. Could I see it, touch it? It was one of the first projects the school undertook in its first year, almost five years ago. The students replaced the boat's bottom and tooled around Newport Harbor in her for a summer or two. McCaffrey told me it's very similar to the boat used in the movie On Golden Pond; his was originally one of a fleet of water taxis zipping around Casco Bay in Portland, Maine. There was a mouse living in her engine the afternoon I visited—a flathead 6, the original 90 horsepower one (that's the engine, not the mouse)—but McCaffrey tells me that it runs just fine, at "a comfy 25 mph."
"If you stand at her bow, you see how they made these boats," McCaffrey explained, pointing out perfectly-matched planks peppered with neat little bungs and flanking the stainless-steel cutwater in tidy, symmetrical rows. "You take a piece of mahogany, sliced thick, and then cut it in half so the planking is bookmatched. They're simple boats, but they have nice details."
This one was, indeed, quite lovely. I clambered into the boat, and sat high upon the detergent-blue leatherette seats, with the glossy-white, painted-enamel wheel in my hands, a tiny throttle on its crosspiece, and squelched a reflex to wave. There's a nifty and minimal instrument panel and, on the bow, a perky, pivoting single headlamp. You fit tight under the wheel, just as you would in an old car, with the ignition key just to your right, and you feel that a jaunty vintage driving cap wouldn't be out of place. The cleats are no bigger than the first two digits of your forefinger—more like decoration, really, what line would loop these dainty stainless-steel points?—suggesting you'll be parallel parking somewhere, rather than tying her up; the lifting eyes, one on her bow and one aft, are styled like birds' wings, so you can haul her out of the water easily at the end of each season. The varnish is so shiny you want to lick it. There's no name painted on the Philippine mahogany transom; McCaffrey says the boat has always been called, simply, "Oh Baby."
I can see why.
On the Water
Buying Anthony Mollica, who is chairman of the collection committee of The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York, and the owner of a 33-foot Chris-Craft Futura and a 22-foot custom sedan, both from the 1950s, points out that a vintage Chris-Craft is a good way to enter the antique boat market, for the simple reason that you can always find parts for them. He suggests visiting one of the large antique brokers, which are set up almost like museums, such as Antique Boat Connection $ in Canton, Connecticut (860-693-4811), has been selling antique runabouts for 20 years. His Chris-Crafts range in price from $17,000 for a utility boat to $100,000 for a deliciously restored Cobra.
Magazines Don't forget WoodenBoat magazine, Classic Boat, and Marine Trader for browsing, parts, and the boats themselves.
Background The Mariner's Museum, which keeps the Chris-Craft archive, will provide you with a full packet of information about your model for $25. Just give them the hull serial number. Newport News, Virginia; 757-591-7785; www.mariner.org/chriscraft.
Clubs Antique and Classic Boat Society: 315-686-2628; www.acbs.org * Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club; 850-224-BOAT; www.chris-craft.org.
Books Chris-Craft: A History 1922-1942, by Joseph Gribbins (Devereux Books; 781-631-3055) • The Legend of Chris-Craft, by Jeffrey L. Rodengen (Write Stuff; 800-900-BOOK) • Fifty Years of Chris-Craft, by Anthony Mollica (Motorbooks International; 800-458-0454).