By: Richard Crowder
Until 1962, N.E. 188th Street in North Miami was nothing more than a dusty dead-end road less than one kilometer long. It sits east off Biscayne Blvd., the urban name of the major east coast highway, US-1, and is just north of Sunny Isles on Miami Beach. The street is flanked on both sides by canals leading into Biscayne Bay on the Intracoastal Waterway, and a couple miles north of Haulover Cut with its access to the Atlantic Ocean.
The street’s sleepy image changed dramatically when Don Aronow moved in to build his newly created Formula high performance boats. Over the next few years, builders and creators of the newest sport of high-performance boating set up shop on N.E. 188th Street, and the street’s reputation quickly changed.
It was then that “Thunderboat Row” became synonymous with NE 188th Street and became a mecca for fans and buyers of high-performance boats. Others have referred to the street as "Speedboat Alley," "Gasoline Alley," or even "Fleet Street" but Thunderboat Row is by far the most recognized name.
In 1959 at age 32, Don Aronow, who today might readily be referred to as a jet-setter or playboy millionaire, sold his construction company in New Jersey and moved to Miami to “retire” for a while. He took up spearfishing and looked for faster boats to get him to his favorite fishing spots. He witnessed the first Miami to Nassau offshore race in 1960, which Dick Bertram won handily running the new Ray Hunt Deep-Vee hull design in his thirty-foot wooden boat Moppie. Don Aronow then started racing boats for fun.
In 1962 with the intention of building better race boats, Aronow created Formula Boats, named after the fastest Formula One (F-1) car racing series, and set up production on barren and remote N.E. 188th Street in North Miami. The cost of land was cheap and access to the water for testing was excellent. One of Aronow’s first and most successful boats was the deep-V Formula 233, designed by Walt Walters and fellow offshore racer Jim Wynne who is generally credited as the inventor of the sterndrive.
An interesting aside here is that Wynne had previously worked for Carl Kiekhaefer at Mercury and had helped develop the sterndrive. But Kiekhaefer apparently wasn’t interested due to potential competition for his outboards. Wynne left Mercury and built a prototype in his garage. He sold the idea and the patent to Volvo Penta which introduced the Aquamatic sterndrive in 1959.
But Don Aronow didn’t see building boats necessarily as a way to make money, but instead as a way to build the boat’s reputation and marketability before selling the brand down the road. And this he did in spades. In 1964, he sold Formula Boats to Alliance Machine, which also owned Thunderbird boats, thus creating the Thunderbird/Formula name. It was an eighteen-foot Thunderbird that had made the first ever sterndrive-powered crossing from Miami to Nassau in 1959 using Wynne’s invention.
Immediately after selling Formula, Aronow created Donzi, built a new factory just west of the Formula facility, and created the famous 28 Donzi which was an instant success. He then sold Donzi in 1966 to Teleflex Inc. which made marine accessories including steering systems. Dick Genth and a partner bought Donzi in 1985 and moved it to a large facility in Bradenton, Florida.
Right after selling Donzi, Aronow created Magnum and built another building west of Donzi near the beginning of N.E. 188th Street. Some have said the Magnum building, which is quite visible from Biscayne Blvd./US-1, was situated in such a way to obscure the Donzi facility from being seen from the highway. Aronow built a new 27-footer, the now famed Maltese Magnum, and immediately won a World Offshore Racing title in 1967.
With three renowned race winning high performance boat builders side by side, the die was cast and Thunderboat Row was born. It was a magnet for boating enthusiasts and new companies looking to get in on the action. As part of the sale of Magnum in 1968, Aronow was restricted from building boats for a couple of years. So Don had his friend Elton Cary build him a Harry Schoell designed race boat, which they called a 32 Cary. This became the first Cigarette model, and by stretching all dimensions proportionately, later became the renowned Cary 50.
The multi-talented Allan “Brownie” Brown had been GM of Donzi and left in 1968 to create Nova Marine further down on N.E. 188th Street. Aronow used Brownie’s shop to do some work on his new “Cigarette” boats since it was out of sight of the Magnum facility. Brown first built a 24 Nova following his own previous design of the Donzi 22 but increased the transom deadrise on the Nova slightly to just under 25-degrees, making it the deepest-V and giving it a very smooth ride. It was powered by twin 235 horsepower V-8 inboard V-drives.
Brown taught his financier partner Bill Wishnick how to drive and throttle, and Bill went on to become a multi-time world offshore champion. Brown sold the rights to the Nova to Wellcraft in 1970. Wellcraft installed sterndrives and the Nova became one of its biggest selling models over many years. Brown went on to be Chief Engineer at Magnum and then President and CEO of Cougar Powerboats when it set up shop on Thunderboat Row a few years later. In 2019 Brownie wrote Tales from Thunderboat Row, a delightful, revealing, and personable read.
Cougar Powerboats was originally started in England in 1969, but later set up a shop on N.E. 188th Street as Cougar Marine with Brownie Brown as President and CEO. Clive Curtis was one of the founders of Cougar Powerboats in England and his son, Steve Curtis, has become one of the winningest offshore racing throttlemen in history. Cougar built both V-bottoms and 'cats' but is perhaps best known for its famous racing cats of the day including Bobby Idoni’s Fayva Shoes, Betty Cook’s KAAMA, and perhaps most famously, the first 50-foot, 4-engined Superboat Cat for Al Copeland of Popeye’s Chicken fame which dominated the circuit in the late 1980s.
Aronow had created the Cigarette Racing Team in 1970 on Thunderboat Row. The Cigarette name became an almost generic term for high performance boats as the model lineup expanded and sales flourished. Aronow was the ultimate salesman. The name “cigarette boat” originated with the common description given to rumrunner boats off the coast of New York and New Jersey in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Aronow sold boats to Kings Hussein of Jordon and Juan Carlos of Spain, to the Shah of Iran, Baby Doc Duvalier of Haiti, Malcolm Forbes, and perhaps the most famous of all, Vice-President (at the time) George H.W. Bush who became a good friend of Aronow. Ex-President Lyndon B. Johnson owned a couple of 16-foot Donzi’s which he used on a lake at his Texas ranch. Ex-President Ronald Reagan’s son, Mike, was an offshore racer but that’s a story for another day. Aronow sold the Cigarette Racing team in 1982.
In this Part One of the story of Thunderboat Row, we have seen Aronow’s creation and subsequent sale of Formula, then Donzi, then Magnum, his creating of Cigarette and the start of other builders setting up high performance boat building as the street was becoming known as Thunderboat Row. At the same time, it was gaining both an admiring albeit seedy reputation for some of its underbelly activities involving drug-running – not by the boat builders but by their customers. It was not unusual to see drug enforcement and customs officials on the street.
In the Part Two conclusion of Thunderboat Row, we will look at some other builders who set up shop on the street, the eventual decline of Thunderboat Row, the murder of Don Aronow, and a personal experience I had while testing of “The World’s Fastest Production Pleasure Boat” from the docks of Thunderboat Row under the tutelage of world champion and renowned throttleman, Bobby Moore.