The hard time economics that spawned Excel, Seaswirl, Sunbird, Browning Aero-Craft, & IMP
In my over forty years in the pleasure boat industry, there have been literally thousands of boat companies and brand names of boats in North America.
Some of these were and are strictly regional brands not known or recognized in the rest of the continent but many were national and even international brands known to most of us diehard boaters.
It is those well known and recognized brands that are no longer with us that I look forward to examining in this series. These brand names may still be corporately held in reserve but are not known to currently be in production.
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The late 1980’s were strong times in the recreational marine industry with 1988 resulting in the strongest sales year in the industry in North America. The following year saw increases in interest rates, then the imposition of the luxury tax in the US, and by 1991, just three years later, with the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces bringing the fear of further gasoline shortages, industry sales were literally half what they were in 1988.
This resulted in many brand and plant closures and industry layoffs.
Irwin Jacobs, head of Genmar Holdings, Inc. which included at the time one of the industry’s premium lines, Wellcraft Marine, saw a marketing opportunity for an entry level, value-oriented trailerable boat line to augment Wellcraft sales. Industry veteran and Wellcraft executive George Sullivan headed up the project as he had envisioned it.
The resulting Excel line of boats was created in virtual secrecy and implemented as a totally separate boat line, not as a part of the Wellcraft lineup. It was developed with lean and mean and simplistic manufacturing processes with lots of parts interchanging, few to no options, and only one colour scheme. It was a boat, motor, and trailer package with either a specific Volvo-Penta sterndrive or specific Yamaha outboard. Even factory freight costs were the same for every dealer so retail pricing would be standardized everywhere.
The five models of Excel in 18 and 20 feet, including closed deck, bowrider, and a cuddy cabin, were introduced in the fall of 1991 to enthusiastic acclaim. The orders poured in. The following year saw the introduction of 23 and 26 foot trailerable express cruisers. Production could not keep up with demand. Part of this demand was the result of a unique marketing strategy with the giant warehouse retailer, Sam’s Club, which saw Excel being displayed and marketed to Sam’s Club members with special promotions and discounts.
Even though promoted as a separate line, dealerships were established through existing regional Wellcraft sales managers, and as a result, while Excel excelled, Wellcraft suffered. It was decided that the Wellcraft brand was more important and so Excel took a back seat in terms of promotion and by 1995, the Excel brand was no more.
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The origins of Seaswirl boats are a bit of a mystery but most accounts have it founded in the mid-1950’s near Portland, Orego building small outboard fiberglass boats for fishing and general use. Little else is revealed until the company was purchased in 1971 and moved to Culver, Oregon. That year, Seaswirl offered eight models of outboard and sterndrive powered runabouts from 14 to 18 feet and one cuddy cabin. Sales increased dramatically during the 70's.
The 1980’s saw Seaswirl become one of the top 10 manufacturers of pleasure boats in the United States. In 1986, it offered ten models from 16 to 22 feet of closed deck and bowrider runabouts, sport boats, and cuddy cabins. Seaswirl was purchased in 1987 by the Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) as it went on a boat company buying spree.
Industry legends Curt Olsen and Bob Troutman joined Seaswirl upper management in 1988 and sales took off. One of the most dramatic and far-reaching development was the introduction in 1989 of the first two Striper offshore-style fishing models in 17 and 20 feet.
Following the collapse of OMC in 2000, Seaswirl and its Striper models became part of the Genmar Holdings group of companies. With this support, Seaswirl was able to introduce 14 new models within a two year period. The Striper line surged dramatically on both the east and west coast saltwater markets. In 2002, it offered 13 Striper models in both outboard and sterndrive power from 17 to 26 feet and only a few Seaswirl models. In 2003, Seaswirl and Striper went to all-composite construction.
But as with so many other boat companies, the 9/11 tragedy had a huge affect. The company carried on as best it could, but in the spring of 2007, after 35 years, a 23 foot Striper Walkaround was the last boat to roll out of the Culver facility. Genmar moved all production to its Larson facilities in Little Falls, Minnesota.
In 2009, following the bankruptcy of Genmar Holdings and the resulting breakup of that recreational boat dynasty, Larson, Seaswirl and other assets including the Little Falls, Minnesota manufacturing facilities were acquired by J&D Acquisitions controlled by Irwin Jacobs, former head of Genmar Holdings, along with another partner. Seaswirl/Striper became part of the Larson Boat Group.
In 2011, Seaswirl was shut down while Striper emerged as a separate line. Striper grew dramatically, and in 2019 the Larson Boat Group which included Larson, Striper, FX, and Escape, then part of the Marquis-Larson Boat Group, was sold to the Polaris Boat division of Polaris Industries with manufacturing facilities in Syracuse, Indiana where its Rinker boats were built.
Larson Boat group assets, including molds and tooling, were transferred to the Syracuse facilities. The year 2019 saw Striper offer nine models of center consoles, dual consoles, and walkarounds from 20 to 30 feet. In the spring of 2020, Polaris shut down production of Striper as well as Larson, FX, and Rinker.
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Sunbird Boat Company was created in 1982 in Columbia, South Carolina by Vic Roof and his brother. A couple of years after inception, in 1984 Sunbird was building seven models from 17 to 20 feet. This included not only normal family runabouts but also dedicated salt water fishing models including center consoles. Sunbird manufacturing and its models were intended as entry level value-oriented boats.
By 1990, Sunbird was offering over 30 models from 15 to 27 feet and had become a major producer of both family-style boats as well as dedicated salt water fishing models. This latter market was solidified in 1992 when Sunbird offered three Neptune models in 15, 17, and 20 feet. Neptune salt water fishing models would develop into market favourites.
Outboard Marine Corporation saw this potential too and purchased Sunbird from Vic Roof In the early 1990’s. Vic Roof stayed on for a while to run Sunbird on behalf of OMC but later left and, with his son Vic Roof Jr., known as Bubba, created Sea Hunt boats in 1995 with the objective of building an affordable salt water fishing boat.
Sunbird remained popular under OMC and by 1998, Sunbird was offering not only six Neptune models but 20 family-style models from 14 to 27 feet. For whatever reason that research has not made available, OMC stopped production of Sunbird in 1998. Two years later, OMC declared bankruptcy.
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During the course of researching background for this series, although I am not personally familiar with the brand, the name Browning Aero-Craft has surfaced several times. I thought it worth exploring. What I found was most interesting.
L.B. Harkins trained and then worked in aircraft aluminum metal work during World War II. He was at Dow Chemical in Bay City, Michigan after the war working in Dow’s magnesium boat building fabrication plant. This is the first I had ever heard of magnesium being used to build boats! Harkins, along with a D. Wilste, combined the first three letters of their last names and formed the Harwill company in Bay City, Michigan in 1946 to build aluminum boats.
They set up production facilities in an old waterworks building in St. Charles, Michigan near Saginaw. June 1946 saw the first small Aero-Craft aluminum boats off the production line. Orders came in so fast that in 1947 they had to build a larger production facility and in 1948 a public stock offering to raise needed capital. They soon became one of the largest aluminum boat manufacturers in the United States building canoes, rowboats, punts, and runabouts.
This versatile company not only made boats, but all sorts of various purposed aluminum tables, cabinets, and other paraphernalia for the Army and Navy, as well as experimental boats for the Army up to 27 feet. A fiberglass division was also created to produce boats to supplement the aluminum boats. Harwill was ripe for a takeover and in the spring of 1969, the Browning Arms Company did just so. This changed the name of the boats to Browning Aero-Craft as part of the Browning Marine Division.
In 1971, it was offering 13 models from 14 to 21 feet from its fiberglass division. The horrendous fuel shortage crisis in 1972-73 was destructive to boat sales and Browning wanted out. Late summer 1974, Fuqua Industries obliged and purchased the Browning Marine Division and positioned it within its Signa Corporation subsidiary. At its peak, Browning Aero-Craft was producing about 250 aluminum boats per week along with another 30 or more fiberglass boats.
The sales damage done during the early 1970’s, plus a major factory fire that destroyed many molds and much tooling in the mid-1970’s, forced Signa to move Browning Aero-Craft production to its Decatur, Indiana location. In 1979, it was offering 10 models from 16 to 22 feet from its fiberglass division. None of this seemed to help and Browning Aero-Craft was closed down in 1979/80.
As a post-script, we learned in a previous Part 7 of Gone but Not Forgotten, Thompson Boats of Peshtigo, Wisconsin took over the abandoned Browning Aero-Craft facility in St. Charles in 1980. That didn’t last as the Thompson Boat Company folded, was purchased by Anderson Marine but that finally ended too.
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In 1959, Iola Molded Plastics of Iola, Kansas, began production of Red Fish boats, perhaps under contract. That venture didn’t last long as Red Fish folded and its brand name was replaced by the company initials, IMP in the mid-1960’s and the production carried on. There is very little information on the company except that in 1969 or ’70, it was purchased by the American Photocopy Equipment Company, a company that was looking to diversify and who’s owner liked boats and other recreational products.
By 1971 IMP was offering nine models of closed deck and bowrider runabouts, a cuddy cabin, and small cruiser from 16 to 23 feet. In 1975, it had seven models from 16 to 24 feet, including in that a 24-foot sport boat with twin sterndrives. In that same year, the American Photocopy Equipment Company sold IMP.
After Thompson Boats bought Winner Boats in 1977, IMP was contracted to make the larger Winner models for it. This only lasted a few years as Thompson went out of business (the second time) in 1980. The year 1980 was a down year for most of the boat industry, but IMP was up to 10 model offerings from 17 to 28 feet including a 23-foot flybridge cruiser.
By 1985, like many other notable manufacturers, IMP introduced several performance-style boats to its lineup. Its 14 models from 17 to 30 feet included the X310 SC with twin 330 horsepower MerCruisers with TRS outdrives. This model would later be named the 310 Eleganza high-performance boat. In 1990, the 310 Eleganza would be joined by a model 255 performance boat along with a 32-foot mid-cabin express cruiser, the Elante.
The 1990-91 market turndown must have affected IMP as the lineup had been reduced gradually every year so that by 1993, only four models from 20 to 30 feet were on offer, and all three of the Eleganza performance boats were gone. This lineup stability carried on until a 22-foot walkaround model was added in 1998, and in 1999 a refreshed lineup of six models included a 33-foot 330 Viper high performance boat powered by a pair of 385 horsepower MerCruiser sterndrives.
With only six models, IMP seemed to want to be all things to all people as this very short lineup included bowrider, walkaround, mid-cabin cruiser models as well as the 330 Viper. Lots of breadth but no depth. Perhaps the market turndown in the industry following 9/11 affected IMP too as it finally closed down and went out of business in 2003.
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