By: Richard Crowder
The West Coast Influence of Fiberform, Sun Runner, Apollo, Uniflite, Tollycraft, & Prowler
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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So far in this series, we have explored boats that were made primarily in the eastern portion of the continent. There were many pleasure boats built in the west, albeit ofttimes they were designs quite different from those built in the east, and often more suited to boating in the Pacific northwest and its inland lakes. Here are some of those builders no longer with us.
There is very little information available about Fiberform Boats, a company founded by Don Barnes in Spokane, Washington, supposedly in the late 1950’s. But Fiberform is most worthy of a mention as its boats were popular throughout almost all the US and Canada in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
As Fiberform grew, so did its lineup from small to medium-sized runabouts, fishing boats, to cuddies, and then later on to cruisers including hardtops, flybridges, and sport fisherman designs from 14-30 feet. It appears they eventually added additional production facilities in Spokane as well as in Kelowna, British Columbia, and in Edenton, NC. The Fiberform brand was well-known and in demand throughout North America.
In the early 1970’s, Don Barnes sold out to U.S. Industries, which was apparently one of the models of the conglomerate movement in the late 1960's. At one point, U.S. Industries had over one hundred medium-sized companies in its portfolio. By1977 Fiberform offered models from 15-28 feet with names like Sitka, Chinook, Islander, Bermuda Express, as well as a Bermuda Hardtop Sedan.
The following year it added a wide beam, twin sterndrive-powered 28-foot Tri-Cabin as well as a Command Bridge and Sport Fisherman (note that west coast builders at the time seemed to refer to any flybridge as a “command” bridge). West coast command bridge boats almost all had both upper and lower control stations. Almost all the west coast boats either in hardtop or command bridge designs provided a “sedan” bulkhead to protect the lower cabin from weather. West coasters liked to use their boats almost if not all year round.
Fiberform offered the same model configurations in its 28, 31, and 34 foot versions. All of these wide-beam models became Fiberform’s Executive Yachts and were built in a separate facility. They all became extremely popular in both inland and especially offshore boating environments.
They had a reputation for being strong, well built, and having a smooth ride. The severe market downturn of the late 70's and early 80's hurt Fiberform as it did most boat builders. Fiberform closed its other plants except for Spokane. In June 1981, U.S. Industries put Fiberform, along with 13 of its other divisions for sale. The Fiberform name disappeared in 1982.
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Sun Runner Boats grew into a major national and eventually international builder in a very short timeframe. After Don Barnes sold Fiberform to U.S. Industries in the early 1970’s, within a few years his son opened a facility in Spokane, Washington and started building pleasure boats. It was always family owned and operated business.
Sun Runner designs featured unusually high freeboard (sides of the hull) and were reputed to be one of the first builders to have all-fiberglass stringers as opposed to a fiberglass coating over wood. They were also one of the first to utilize a fiberglass inner liner with foam between the outer and inner “hulls” acting as a structural member.
Sun Runner cruisers were recognizable not only by their high freeboards, but also by the seemingly overbuilt support structure beneath the large teak anchor platform at the bow. Sun Runners had a deep-V hull design resulting in a smooth ride in rough water. By 1984, Sun Runner was building bowriders, specialty fishing boats, cuddy cabins, hardtop sedans, express and flybridge cruisers from16 to 32 feet. Its goal was to be the “Cadillac” of boats.
By 1988, Sun Runner was running into financial problems with its bank and was sold to a local Spokane businessman. The new owner planned to not only continue to operate the brand locally, but he opened a new facility in Florence, Alabama with the intention of expanding their line of cruisers and yachts from 38 to a whopping 61 feet.
He apparently ran short of cash, and in early 1989 Sun Runner filed for bankruptcy. While looking for new owners the company was allowed to keep building boats at both Spokane and Florence facilities, but by 1991 the last Sun Runner boats were built. It must be noted here that the Sun Runner boats of this segment are not connected with the Sunrunner (different spelling) boats still being built in Australia.
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Spokane, Washington spawned another boat company when Apollo Boats established a manufacturing facility in 1971. By 1974, Apollo was producing models from 16 to 20 feet in family runabouts, cuddy cabins in soft top, and hardtop sedan configurations. But what they became known for, at least initially, were their relatively high performance speedsters in 16 to 18 feet. These were exciting and very appealing boats available in sterndrive and jet drive.
Apollo had a solid western US and Canadian dealer network, and by summer of 1976 a very popular 25-foot “offshore” cuddy express model was added to the lineup. A plant expansion was added to handle production demand, and sales had reached the $6 million dollar mark at a time when the largest and most expensive model retailed for less than $5000. Dealers were added throughout Canada and the United States.
By 1979, Apollo was building models up to 30 feet, but both the financial crisis which generated unheard of commercial interest rates, as well as retail borrowing rates, and then the gasoline shortage and subsequent high prices all accumulated to hurt many in the marine industry – both manufacturers and retailers alike. By mid-1980, Apollo was barely hanging on and finally closed its doors in 1981.
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In 1957, United Boat Builders set up in Bellingham, Washington to produce Uniflite Boats. Uniflite was not a huge builder and indeed, perhaps the largest portion of its output was destined for the US Navy and the Vietnam War. My reason for including it here is that it was the only pleasure boat manufacturer, to my knowledge, that utilized a fire-retardant resin in the production of its fiberglass boats and yachts.
Uniflite started by building 14, 18, and 20 foot outboard and sterndrive powered runabouts. In 1959, it moved into larger facilities and expanded its lineup to include a 25-foot cruiser and eventually 31 and 34-foot express and sportfisherman cruisers. In 1962, Uniflite was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and soon started quoting on US Navy contracts.
In 1965, Uniflite was awarded a Navy contract to build a series of PBR’s -- Patrol Boat Riverine -- a 31-foot diesel powered jet drive armed patrol boat for shallow water patrol work in Vietnam. These boats were called the backbone of the brown water navy! For the next 10 years, Uniflite produced over 400 Patrol Boats along with landing craft, as well as 40 and 50 foot personnel boats. It also built commercial fishing boats, and even some sailboats.
In the late 1970’s, Uniflite built another facility in Swansboro, North Carolina and its model lineup expanded dramatically from 26 to 49 feet, featuring every popular model configuration. It apparently was involved in major litigation in the early 1980’s and was then acquired by Chris Craft in 1984. Manufacturing continued until 1989 when its name was finally discontinued.
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Robert “Tolly” Tollefson founded Tollycraft in Kelso, Washington on the Columbia River south of Seattle in 1936. Tolly grew up boating, building a 36-footer for himself, and served with the Coast Guard during the war. He eventually returned to Kelso, bought a sawmill with a partner, and started building a 58-foot yacht for himself.
When the mill burned down in 1957, he started building boats full time. He started with 16, 18, and 20-foot runabouts of wood, then plywood, then a fiberglass skin coating over the plywood. Tollycraft became one of America’s most prolific boat builders, producing over 6000 boats over the course of its existence.
Tollycraft started building in fiberglass in 1962. They hired world-famous Seattle designer Ed Monk Sr., and then equally esteemed naval architect Ed Monk Jr. to produce designs for the company. The first real success was a 26-footer for which almost 900 were said to have been built. He kept building bigger and bigger as his designs caught on and his boats gained a reputation for quality, seaworthiness, and the ability to withstand what the Pacific northwest could deal out. As the word spread, his boats eventually were sold worldwide.
Tollycraft designs were almost unmistakeable with their low center of gravity pilothouse command bridge, dubbed as the “coho” look. They also had good bow flare and cruising efficiency in their semi-displacement hulls. The 37-footer is claimed by many to be the best running hull while the 43 tri-cabin is claimed to be the most popular of all Tollycraft.
Although Tollycraft came in many model configurations including double cabin, express, sedan, sport, convertible, tri-cabin, sportfisherman, sundeck, and motor yacht, some others claim the 43, 44, and 48 motor yachts, especially those with a cockpit were the favourites. By the mid-80's, Tollycraft had added a 53, 57, and eventually a 61 and 65 raised pilothouse models.
When Tollefson sold the company in 1987 at the age of 76, the company was reportedly making an astonishing 150 yachts a year. But alas, Tollycraft floundered under the new owners and it declared bankruptcy in 1993. It somehow resumed operations the following spring, but eventually closed down for good in 1996.
Tollycraft owners are very proud and knowledgeable about their yachts and hold regular rendezvous. It is almost like a cult following with their devotion to the brand, which is well-earned by the quality and seaworthiness of Tollycraft boats to this day. I personally talked to Tolly Tollefson in the early 1980's about obtaining a dealership as I admired his product so much. I was never able to rationalize the high costs and difficulty of transport to the east and still remain competitive, so sadly a dealership never came to pass. Pity.
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We move north now from Spokane, Bellingham, and Kelso to Vancouver, British Columbia. Forbes Cooper was a successful businessman of many stripes who moved to British Columbia and purchased a sailboat manufacturing facility at auction in the 1970's. He successfully turned the company around, and by the mid-‘80’s created the Prowler powerboat line known as Prowler by Cooper Yachts.
Prowler offered a full line of runabouts starting at 18 feet, cuddy cabins, and even a 27-foot performance boat. They also had a line of express cruisers, mid-cabins, command bridges, and most popular of all, flybridge aft-cabins in 9, 10, and 12 Meters (32, 35, 42 feet) called Sundecks. These were considered very roomy boats and good value, and they were trimmed throughout with teak accents. They were available in sterndrive and inboard power.
Prowler boats by Cooper Yachts expanded quickly through dealerships across the United States and Canada. Cooper sold the Prowler part of his company in 1989, and sadly production ended shortly thereafter in 1990. Forbes Cooper continued to design and build custom and semi-custom yachts.
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