By: Richard Crowder
The 'Sleek & Sexy' Era of Sidewinder, HydroStream, Switzer Craft, Challenger, and Lone Star
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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There was a type of small boat that was popular back in the late 60's and the 70's, and there were dozens of brands that all looked sort of similar and all served the same purpose – speed, flash, and water skiing. But to my recollection, there was one brand that seemed to lead the way and set the tone for so many others that followed. That brand leader to me was Sidewinder.
Renowned sportscar racer Ken Baker founded Los Altos Marine Inc. in Los Altos, California in 1969, and the same year patented his designs and trademarked both the Sidewinder V-hull ski boat and tunnel hull race boat. The V-hull was available in 16 and 18 foot models, and the tunnel hull in 15 and 17 feet.
The modified-V hull model was the favourite by far as a general purpose runabout and as an excellent ski boat. It was a looker -- sleek, sexy, and an attention magnet. It was available in standard or deluxe trim including tuck and roll wrap-around seating, over 30 colour combinations, dazzling metalflake, racing stripes, colour-coordinated carpeting, and of course the power to match the bling.
You could choose outboard, sterndrive, or jet power in the 140 to 200 horsepower range for the first two, and 350, 500 or even 600 horsepower for the jet drive. The 455 Oldsmobile and 460 Ford were popular choices to hook up to the Berkley Jet drive. Even though the hull was a decent V design, it had a rounded instead of a sharp keel and so speeds over 60 mph could induce chine-walking and some instability.
The Super Sidewinder in 16 and 18 feet for 1970 became an icon. It had a short foredeck with a low profile, full-width, fully curved wrap-around windshield that stopped beside the driver, while its upper support continued back on each side in a subtle downward slope the met the fiberglass rear raised gunnels and continued right to the stern. Classic and unforgettable.
Sidewinder moved production in 1971 up the highway to Palo Alto while at the same time opening up facilities in Murfreesboro, TN and licensing the design to Canadian builder California Fiberglass Limited better known as Cal-Glass, in British Columbia that called the boat Cobra.
In 1972, production moved from Palo Alto to Anderson, CA, while Canadian production moved to Ontario where they were built under the Sidewinder name but still by Cal-Glass. Litigation took up an enormous amount of head office executive time as literally dozens of manufacturers copied the Sidewinder look in varying degrees. But perhaps it was simply the look and sizzle of a small, fast ski boat with added bling that was being copied. It has been said that the Sidewinder hull itself may have even been somewhat copied off the Glastron Skiflite or Fireflite in the first place. Glastron was of course the largest manufacturer of pleasure boats well into the 1970’s.
While the complete list would be impossible to come by, here are a very few of the many manufacturers that produced a similar looking boat in the 14 to 18 foot range that resembled a Sidewinder to some degree and was directed at the same market demographic: Marlin, Jolly Roger, Mandela, Thundercraft Wildcat, Kennedy, and the Sunray 145. The Thompson Boat Company took over manufacturing rights of Sidewinder in 1974 and moved production to Peshtigo, WI. Canadian production stopped in the late 1980’s and US production in the early 1990’s.
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Another brand to serve a similar market of speed, flash, and water skiing was introduced around the same time as Sidewinder, this time in Minnesota in 1968 by Howard Pipkorn. The boat was called HydroStream and over the years it created its own cult-like following.
HydroStream’s earliest years were focused on racing, but by the early 1970's its model lineup directed at recreational buyers included the 12-foot Hustler, 14-foot Vixen, 15-foot Viper, the 16-foot Ventura and Panther, and the 17-foot Vector.
HydroStreams looked distinctively different from almost all other boats and were even built differently. In looks, they almost all featured long pointy bows with concave foredecks, which were notorious for collecting rain water but structurally were intended to provide greater strength to the deck, thus requiring less fiberglass for overall less weight and presumably more speed.
Even the side decks above the rub rail were usually duo-concave and tapered aft to horizontal wing-like appendages at the transom. Convex surfaces were also employed mainly for strength but also for pleasing design. Structurally, Pipkorn and his team were said to be one of the first to use Core-mat as a stiffener in place of balsa wood, and to use a resin-type paste to fill the bottom strakes for greater strength.
The late 1970’s saw the addition of the Vulture and Viking models to accommodate the new V-6 outboard motors from both Mercury and OMC. These were acclaimed as the best of the HydroStream designs. These and some specific tunnel-hull racing designs put HydroStream back on the race circuit.
But, like most boat manufacturers the energy and financial crisis of 1979-1981 hit HydroStream hard and resulted in bankruptcy in 1981. Manufacturing continued, though, and even a new family-oriented performance model, the 20-foot Voyager, was introduced in 1983. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 1984.
Around this same time, Canadian Jimmy Tucker, a diehard enthusiast and good friend of mine, received a license to manufacture specific V-hull models in Canada that were called Canadian Edition. I have personally tested several and they are an absolute thrill to drive. Manufacturing continued at the HydroStream facility for a while, but finally came to an end in 1991. Tucker continued manufacturing in Canada briefly, but that also ended in 1994.
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Following older brother Dave’s return from the war in 1946, he joined younger brother Bob along with father Russell and mother Roma in building wooden Switzer Craft race boats in Crystal Lake, Illinois for the stock outboard racing class. They built runabouts, fishing boats, cruisers, and even race boats, all in wood and some wild styling that included tail fins. Switzer Craft’s stylistic 'Shooting Star' runabout developed over a few years into one of the world’s fastest single engine race boats. Bob Switzer won three national outboard racing championships.
In less than two weeks in 1961, Switzer designed and built the Switzer Hydro-Cat for a sanctioned APBA (American Power Boat Association) unrestricted class marathon race in Mercury Marine’s back yard on Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin. The strikingly unique boat was built of plywood, but instead of heavy wooden stringers and frames each sponson, aside from the twin cockpits, were completely filled with rigid urethane foam.
Officially the U4 but nicknamed 'The Wing,' it featured a pair of 18-foot sponsons joined by a 15-foot aeronautical wing section with adjustable aileron. It was a true four-point hydroplane design with an enclosed canopied cockpit and ran over 100 mph with only a pair of 100 horsepower outboards.
With Bob as driver and Dave as co-pilot, The Wing easily cleaned up in the race and won first overall. The next two classes were also won by Switzer boats. The Wing was the first cat to exceed 80 mph with only a pair of 80 horsepower outboard motors. It so outclassed its field that, in 1962, Karl Kiekhaefer purchased its rights and ordered over 30 of them to be distributed among Mercury Marine’s best racing drivers.
By 1965, Switzer had switched entirely to fiberglass production and his 18-foot “Wing” continued to race and win. Following a factory fire in the late 60's which destroyed all the "Wing" moulds, Switzer started building V-bottom recreational hulls that, by the mid-70's, had created performance-oriented models from 15 to 28 feet. The Switzer brothers sold out in the early 1980’s, and the last Switzer boats were built in the late 1980’s.
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Another popular, flashy, sporty, speedy, and fun ski boat at the time was the 1976 Challenger jet boat. There is very little information left about this iconic performance/ski boat design, except that the California-based company was apparently founded in 1972 and produced a range of very different designs from bass, to fish & ski, to even Mod V-P race boats over the years.
Perhaps its most memorable and significant design was its 21-foot ski model created by respected designer George Linder. George Linder is said to be responsible for designing the Chris Craft Scorpion and Stinger line, as well as the 21 Shadow, the 31 Shadow Cat, and the famous Chris Cat 300. The Challenger 21 design was licensed to Bob Hammond for the Hammond Challenger and a second set of molds became the Superboat 21.
A tribute to the 21 Challenger design was that it was later licensed and was apparently copied by several manufacturers. With its pad keel and 22 degrees of deadrise, it has been widely recognized as one of the best 21-foot boats of its kind. In 1999, Challenger offered 13 models from 16 to 20 feet. The company is said to have closed in 2000.
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In the early 1950’s, following service in the Navy and as a design engineer at Douglas Aircraft, Bob Hammond became general manager for the fiberglass division of the Lone Star Boat company in Texas. This is the same Lone Star company that was later purchased by Chrysler Corporation as noted in Part 2 of this series. In 1956, he left Lone Star and founded Glastron Boats in Austin, Texas.
Bob Hammond was a forward thinker in boat design, styling, and features. For the next almost 20 years, Bob believed in and hired the best management people he could in every discipline and Glastron flourished into the 60's and 70's, eventually becoming the largest manufacturer in the world of pleasure powerboats building models from 14 to 26 feet. Glastron was a leader introducing two-tone gel coating, custom-designed hardware, walk-through windshields, positive flotation, and mechanical steering.
Glastron boats were always flashy and distinctive, well built, and performed excellently. Hammond recognized the value of marketing and promotion and standing out to get attention. They built the custom "Bat Boat" for the first Batman movie in 1966, and boats for a couple of James Bond movies including the Glastron custom GT 150 “Flying Boat” which set the Guinness Book of Records for a 110-foot jump in the 1973 Bond movie “Live and Let Die.”
Recognizing a trend in the market for bling, flash, and speed, in 1969 Hammond enticed Art Carlson, owner of Carlson High Performance Boats in California, to head up a new line of upscale boats named Glastron-Carlson. This new division in Anaheim, CA would also make under license the Molinari tunnel hull race boats and high performance pleasure boats.
These now legendary boats are highly sought after. The Glastron-Carlson division made its last boats in 1983, long after Bob Hammond had retired from Glastron in 1974. Hammond then created Hammond Boats building in low volume and what he considered the highest quality family bowriders in 17 and 19 feet. He later added a 21-foot model as well. Hammond sold his interest in Hammond Boats in 1983 and the company ceased operations in 1985.
It must be noted here that Glastron in 2022 is still a huge builder of 18 models of family pleasure boats in four series from 18 to 24 feet. Many of these still feature the Glastron signature “spear” graphics design on the hull sides. Glastron boats are built in Cadillac, Michigan as part of Groupe Beneteau, the world’s largest pleasure boat builder.
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