By: Richard Crowder
The incredibly short but influential eras of Mariah, Lyman, Celebrity, and MFG
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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In his spare time Bernard Lyman, a cabinet maker in Cleveland, Ohio, made the odd boat for his and his friends’ use. He found he loved boatbuilding and his boats were beginning to attract attention, so in 1875 he went at it full time with his brother Herman and created Lyman Brothers Boat Works. The business flourished and their boats were in demand.
Being on Lake Erie and known for its rough water, Lyman concentrated on all lapstrake (clinker built) rowboats, punts, skiffs, and sailboats for strength to handle Lake Erie and nearby inland lakes and rivers. Bernard’s son Bill joined the prospering company in 1920, became manager in 1928, and in 1932 moved it to a new facility in Sandusky, Ohio.
Bill directed the growth of Lyman to include not only outboard powered boats but also inboard power and to larger overnight-style cruisers over 30 feet. Lyman boats became known for their smooth rough water ride and durability. They were practical, rugged, and roomy. These attributes, as well as an affordable price, formed the basis for their surging popularity. The concentration of cottages and tourism in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River at the Eastern end of Lake Ontario became a huge market for Lyman.
During World War II, Lyman was contracted to build five different models for the US government. Fulfilling these contract conditions meant modernizing its building processes to a production line operation. Lyman was able to make the change and carry those processes on after the war to achieve greater efficiencies. It also introduced Lyman to the new plywood material which provided greater strength and less weight to its lapstrake boats.
This became advantageous when solid and seasoned mahogany planking became more difficult and more expensive to buy for Lyman’s largest competitors. Lyman had no problem sourcing the plywood they needed, and their production and sales soared, as did their dealer network. Lyman became dominant.
But alas as the mid-60's approached, Lyman like so many other wooden boat builders, was not receptive to the approaching avalanche of fiberglass boatbuilding. One of its first efforts involved using one of its newest models as a plug to create a mould for laying up a fiberglass boat that replicated the lapstrake look. Lyman apparently used this technique for most of its fiberglass boats. As you will find out later in this article, it may have learned this technique from the MFG Boat Company.
Wooden boat construction ended in the early 1970’s, but the popularity of the Lyman brand kept sales of its fiberglass boats on a high even while utilizing their wooden model designs. Demand slowly tapered off until eventually the company closed its doors in the late 1980’s.
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There is little information available about Mariah boats and its history, but the brand is noteworthy of mention here not only because many boaters will be familiar with the name, but also because it came and went relatively fast while leaving a huge imprint on the market when it was in production.
The very charismatic, and if you had met him as I have, memorable Jimmy Fulks started building Mariah boats in Benton, Illinois in 1989. Within a short time period he quickly built a new production facility there as well. Benton is roughly one hundred miles southeast of St. Louis.
Around the same time, he established Chariot Marine Fabricators and Industrial Corp. in nearby West Frankfort to supply Mariah with its canvas products, some synthetic and plastic parts, and some boat trailers. Chariot’s trademarked slogan was, “We Relentlessly Pursue Excellence.”
From the outset, Mariah positioned itself to pursue the upscale market niche occupied by brands like Cobalt and Sea Ray. Its advertising and marketing slogan was, “Equipped Like No Other Boat in the World.” By the mid-1990’s it is said that Mariah had 500 employees, over 200 dealers nationally and internationally, and was one of the largest independent boatbuilders. Its boats certainly appeared from the surface to be well built and richly appointed and claimed to have no wood in their construction.
By the year 2000, Mariah reportedly had sales close to $50 million and a lineup of 38 different models from 18-31 feet. This included runabouts, bowriders, sport boats, deck boats, cuddy cabins and mid-cabin express cruisers and with model names such as Diablo, Jubilee, and Shabah.
In that same year, Mariah received patents for its “Boat with integrated floor and stringer system and associated method of manufacturing.” Fulks would spend much of his later years filing many lawsuits against boat builders claiming patent infringement. Jimmy Fulks died in Florida in 2008 at age 59.
Reasons have never been made clear, and to the apparent surprise of many at the time, but Mariah closed its doors in spring of 2001. In 2002, its assets were purchased by Sea Fox Boats and production was moved to Moncks Corner, South Carolina. There were no 2002 models, but 2003 saw a lineup of 10 Sea Fox-produced Mariah models from 17-26 feet. In 2009, the flagship G270 mid-cabin cruiser was introduced, but Mariah production was eventually stopped in 2012. (Note: Sea Fox itself is still a strong manufacturer in 2022.)
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Celebrity Boats was another relatively short-term builder out of Benton, Illinois that started production around 1979 and lasted until around 2001, resulting in over 20 years of building compared to Mariah’s relatively small 10 year run.
There is very little information available about Celebrity Boats except it appears that a Fred Claxton may have been one of its founders. Claxton went on to become one of the founders of Crownline boats in nearby West Frankfort, Il in 1991 after he left Celebrity. There is one most interesting bit of information I unearthed in my research that has left me somewhat puzzled: a January 1988 edition of Boating magazine contained a water test and review of the – are you waiting for this – “Celebrity Crownline.”
A couple of years after Celebrity began, in 1980 it was offering 8 models from 16-20 feet. By 1991, that lineup had mushroomed to 25 models from 18-29 feet. This included the normal offerings of runabouts, bowriders, sport boats, deck boats, and mid-cabin cruisers, along with walkaround and center console models mainly directed at the fishing market.
This stretched its resources and in 1995, Celebrity was purchased by the consumer products group of Canadian giant Bombardier Recreational Products, which was (and is) the market leader in personal watercraft with Sea-Doo. At the time, Celebrity had sales in the $35 million range. In 1997, the Celebrity lineup was remarkably pared down in model offerings to only seven models from 18-24 feet.
Sales continued to slide and Celebrity production was moved in 1999 to Grand Mere, Quebec. The year 2000 models were fabricated there, but it appears that 2001 was the last year for Celebrity production. Meanwhile, Bombardier introduced Sea-Doo sport boat production (jet boats) to the Benton facility, but late in 2012, it announced it would be exiting the sport boat business and would be closing the Benton facility.
(Note: Crownline has survived very well and offers a full lineup for 2022. BRP is of course still a huge force in the recreational pleasure boat industry.)
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The Molded Fiberglass Boat Company, MFG, is an interesting study and unlike any other to my knowledge. Robert Morrison became enamored with the breakout discoveries of fiberglass reinforced plastics (FRP), and in 1948 formed the Molded Resin Fiber Company in his home in Ashtabula, Ohio. He experimented to determine all the various products this new material might be suited for.
His first major breakthrough came in 1949 to provide Wonder Bread with trays. In 1950, he formed the Molded Fiberglass Sheet Company, then in 1952 he created the MFG Tray Company, and in one of the most memorable and perhaps significant developments in its history, in 1953 through the MFG Body Company supplied body panels to General Motors for its new Corvette sports car.
Still wanting more, in 1954 the company created a mould, lapstrake overlaps and all, from a Lyman boat hoping to convince Lyman that this new fiberglass product would be ideal for boatbuilding. But Lyman didn’t agree and turned down the proposal. Even though MFG didn’t particularly want to be in the boat business and simply wanted to make fiberglass boat hulls for others, it now had hulls which it finished with decks and interiors, and in 1955, created the Molded Fiber Glass Boat Company (MFG) in Union City, Pennsylvania. MFG claims its boats to be the “first mass produced fiberglass pleasure boats.”
By 1960, MFG had gained a reputation for build quality as most of its models were by then of all-fiberglass construction and sales grew as a result. In the mid-60's, MFG purchased one of the leading manufacturers of the time, Crestliner boats, but kept those production facilities in place in Minnesota. By the end of the 1960’s, MFG was making boats for Sears Department Stores. These very popular models were made in MFG’s Ashtabula facilities.
Crestliner was sold off in the early 1970’s and sales of MFG boats continued to grow as did the model lineup. In 1973, a full range of V-hulls and cathedral hulls from 14-21 feet were on offer in addition to a 12-foot punt. In 1977, MFG started building fiberglass cowling covers for Johnson and Evinrude outboard motors from OMC.
MFG continued to build boats into the early 1980’s, but this part of the business was eventually abandoned as other projects and divisions grew. To this day, MFG still makes certain body parts for Chevrolet’s Corvette as well as turbine blades for wind generators, fiberglass truck bodies, and structural concrete members along with a host of other products.
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