By: Richard Crowder
A deep dive into Chrysler Boats, the Chris Craft Stinger, the Sea Ray Pachanga, and the Houseboat Craze of the 1970's
In my over forty years in the pleasure boat industry, there have been literally thousands of boat companies and brand names in North America.
Some of these were regional brands not known or recognized in the rest of the continent, but many were national and international brands known to most 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 brands may still be corporately held in reserve but are not known to currently be in production.
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I began Part 1 of this series with the loss of an unsuspecting name as a boatbuilder -- the gigantic Outboard Marine Corporation, OMC, which stopped building boats to concentrate on its prime business of building engines. I am going to start Part 2 of the series in the same manner.
Chrysler Corporation, the third largest automobile builder at the time, started selling its inline 6-cylinder “L-Head” and later its V8 automobile engines to boat builders like Chris Craft back as far as the 1920’s. Over the decades they became a major marine inboard engine supplier. In the mid-1960’s, Chrysler purchased West Bend outboard motor company as well as the Lone Star boat company.
Unlike OMC, which already had a huge dealer network, Chrysler had to build on the West Bend and Lone Star networks for its renamed line of Chrysler Boats, which were powered of course by Chrysler outboard motors. Unlike OMC’s relatively small model lineup, Chrysler boats included a full range of runabouts, sport designs, and even cuddy cabin overnighters.
Chrysler boats became a major player in the marine marketplace. The 1970’s Chrysler Conqueror performance model was a huge seller. Boat interiors often reflected Chrysler's automobile interiors, as did exterior colour choices and accent trim and graphics. Chrysler also built its own line of trailers and even offered a successful line of sailboats. You could buy a Chrysler car, boat, motor, and trailer that shared model name and colour scheme. You could buy a Valiant, Fury, Charger or Super Bee model car and boat.
Alas, in 1979, the US federal government bailout of Chrysler forced it to close its non-automobile related businesses, and the marine unit was sold. The boat division was apparently sold to a group that soon stopped building them and the outboard motor division was purchased in 1984 by US Marine and were re-labelled and redeveloped as Force outboard motors.
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This next segment is a topic close to my heart and something I have been wanting to write about for some time. The topic is how well-known family-oriented boat builders decided, one by one, to get into the pseudo high performance boat business. Some background is needed.
It all arguably started with Chris Craft. In the late 1970’s, Chris Craft was faltering financially and hired the renowned Dick Genth, who had just finished rescuing Wellcraft, to re-focus its model lineup and clean up the bottom line. Genth, an ex-offshore boat racer, saw the potential for glamour and headlines that sleek speedsters on the water could bring to a family boating company. The same had happened with the licensing of the Scarab name for Wellcraft and as Cigarette had done for the industry.
By streamlining production and cutting out waste, Genth quickly turned the bottom line around for Chris Craft so that by the very early 1980’s he was ready to put his plan to work. First, he introduced the Scorpion line of smaller sport boat models intended for family use. Then he made a deal with Excalibur Boats to build its 31-footer under license. Excalibur was a very credible and respected offshore-style boat with credentials to match.
But the real excitement and sales boost came with the introduction in 1982 of the Chris Craft Stinger series, which eventually built models from 20 all the way to 41 feet. These were a sleek cuddy cabins with deep-V hulls and construction techniques intended to handle big water. The 26-foot Stinger with twin V-8 sterndrives became a market favourite.
As the mid-80’s rolled around and other family boat manufacturers saw the success of Chris Craft’s Stinger line, many family boat builders decided to get in on the action. Sea Ray built its Pachanga’s, Four Winns its Liberator’s, Bayliner its Cobra’s, Wellcraft its Nova’s, Doral its Phazar’s, Cadorette its Eagle’s, and Celebrity its Andretti model which was licensed after arguably one of America’s most famous car racing celebrities. Most of these models came in different lengths and with single or twin engines accordingly.
Cobalt even got into the game with its Condurre models, the 30-foot version of which had a remarkable 24-degrees of deadrise in its deep-V hull design, the same deadrise as most of the famous offshore race boats. Regal Boats worked with offshore racing legend Steve Stepp of Velocity Powerboats and arranged to build the 30-foot Regal Velocity under license.
I have driven most of these models. I ran my first poker run in 1989 in a friend’s 30-foot Regal Velocity. We had switched the sides the outdrives were on to create more stern lift, and not only did we have a blast but we were one of the fastest V-bottom boats. I loved the Four Winns 21-Liberator and found it to be one of the most sure-footed and predictable boats I had ever driven. It should be noted that all of the above-mentioned manufacturers except Doral, Cadorette, and Celebrity are still huge players in the family boat building business.
This high performance craze by family oriented boat builders lasted into the mid-90's when high performance buyers starting selecting from the growing range of dedicated high performance boat builders. The Chris Craft Stinger that started it all lasted apparently until 1989, the year following Chris Craft’s bankruptcy and after the company had been taken over by OMC.
It must also be noted that one of the first high-performance boat builders that was also a family boat builder, Formula Boats by Thunderbird, built quality high performance boats before, during, and after this craze. They still build them today along with a family line of bowriders and cruisers. It all started with their popular 302 in 1979 and developed into its LS and the bigger and absolutely gorgeous SR series. Then came its Fas³Tech® designs in the late 90's which have carried on to this day. All of them feature the offshore-friendly 24 degrees of hull deadrise and all are legitimate offshore contenders.
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It’s time for an about face and go from high performance boats to leisurely cruising with family and friends in a houseboat. As discretionary income grew following World War II, families were looking for ways to spend more time together, and specifically, together with nature. Some chose camping, some became cottagers, some chose trailer boating, some RVing, some cruising, and for those living near inland lakes and interconnected lake systems, river systems, and canals, houseboating, which encompassed almost all of the above activities into one, became a huge craze.
In the early 1950’s, many houseboats were homebuilt by welding together 45-gallon drums into the semblance of pontoons and then constructing a 2x4 frame with a plywood covered superstructure. Increased demand resulted in full-scale manufacturing facilities by the 60's, which used aluminum and steel and the new fiberglass for hulls, as well as vinyl and molded plastics for the interiors. Manufactured houseboats became pristine, luxurious, 'homes away from home.'
Some well-known houseboats no longer with us like Hobo and Sea Camper in the 20 to 24-foot length, or even Yukon Delta at 25 and 31 feet, were all of trailerable beam and relatively easily towed from one body of water to another, or from campground to campground, thus doubling as an RV and a boat.
Other huge names like Skipperliner, Nautaline, and Burns Craft built mainly in the 35 to 50 foot range, but with some models up to 70 or more feet in length. These, and most other larger houseboats had fiberglass hulls. However, another one of the favourites of the day was River Queen, which built these gigantic homes on the water with steel hulls. Almost all of these used sterndrives or inboard V-drives for power, and most had a planing hull to help them to get up and go – relatively of course. One other very popular one in this same category was Aquahome by Chris Craft.
Since most houseboats were never intended to be comfortable in big water conditions, houseboating clustered around inland boating areas with suitable water conditions. These areas included the Lake Cumberland area of Kentucky, said to be the birthplace of houseboating, Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, and the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) of interconnected lakes and rivers created by the US Army Corps of Engineers which stretched hundreds of miles for smooth and leisurely cruising.
There were many man-made lakes in western USA created as head ponds of hydro developments such as Lake Mead in Nevada which were ideal for houseboating. Central USA with its Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River systems. In eastern USA, the Erie Canal and Hudson River system were perfect, as was the Trent-Severn and Rideau Canal systems in Ontario. One of the biggest houseboat havens was and still remains the huge Shuswap Lake system in British Columbia.
Many of these regions fostered commercial houseboat production, some of which grew to national proportions and some of which remained as regional brands. In the early 1960’s, Alcan (the Aluminum Company of Canada) embarked on a program to expand the use of aluminum by entering vastly divergent markets, creating a need, and then eventually selling off the result for others to continue.
As well as house siding, kitchenware, and small fishing boats like Sterling and Springbok, Alcan got into the houseboat business and created its very well received brands of Alcan housecruisers in 29 and 37 feet. These aluminum-hulled boats were meant to get up and go and were built more like cruisers to take more than just calm water. When Alcan sold this division, the boat became Alwest which seemed to cease building two years later in 1973.
Another brand like this was the Georgian Steel houseboat in 33, 37, and 43-feet which were built of steel and intended for use on the Great Lakes. There is one more brand no longer with us but that needs mentioning, as it was very well known and respected. Carri-Craft was unusual in that it was a catamaran hull and capable of moderately rough water conditions. Its 57-footer was most popular.
There are literally dozens and dozens of recognizable houseboat builder names like Boatel, Capri, Carlcraft, Cruise-A-Home, Delta Clipper, the aluminum-hulled Kingscraft, and Sundance pontoon houseboats that are no longer with us, as well as Fantasy Yachts houseboats that built luxurious models up to and over one hundred feet long. Three Buoys pontoon houseboats built many dozens and dozens primarily for the rental market. Although Three Buoys Marina still services the huge rental market in the Shuswap Lake area of British Columbia, it no longer builds or rents houseboats.
There are dozens and dozens more that are currently building houseboats to satisfy the continuing demand. Many of the current builders are supplying the ever-growing market of houseboat rentals. Most of the renting is on the same bodies of water that spawned the original builders.
Stay tuned as this series has literally hundreds of brand names of boats no longer with us and which will be gradually revealed over the next number of weeks.
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