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Innovators in Boating - The Porter Family & Formula Boats (Part 1)

By: Richard Crowder

The pleasure boat industry is chock full of the most interesting of people, hard working totally dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love. These then are their stories. Many of them I have met and personally chatted with and to a person, they are focused and driven and totally confident in their realities and in their dreams.

Part 10 - The Porter Family & Formula Boats (Part One)

In this Part 10 of the series, we explore the Porter family of Thunderbird Formula, perhaps the most well known name in pleasure boat building. The Formula story has been told many times by many writers and indeed is comprehensively presented with timelines on the Formula website.

To clarify my perspective, I have met Vic and Kristine Porter and all five of the second generation siblings at Formula. I have interviewed and have spent time chatting with President Scott Porter numerous times. Scott is one of the most down to earth, sincere, and knowledgeable people in the boating business. I have also been to the Formula factory in Decatur, Indiana a few times. My impressions have always been that the Porter family and the boats they produce represent the gold standard in the pleasure boating industry.

What I will endeavour to do here is introduce some personal anecdotes, as well as some potentially interesting side notes, that are not often covered in other write-ups. This Part One of the Porter family story will explore the timing and background of three separate events that eventually came together to make the Porter family synonymous with the Thunderbird/Formula name. The three events are: the creation of Thunderbird, the creation of Formula, and Vic Porter’s start in boat-building.

The Creation of Thunderbird

It starts in Miami where John “Woody” Woodson was experimenting with new fiberglass technology and built playground animal shapes for a friend for his amusement park. But Woody wanted to make boats, and in 1956, he named his company Plastics Fabrications. He used one of his friend’s buildings to make his first fourteen and then sixteen-foot runabout, which he branded Thunderbird.

He sold them as fast as he could make them, and additional models including a cathedral hull he developed were added. In 1959, an eighteen-foot Thunderbird became the first sterndrive-powered boat to make the crossing from Miami to Nassau. In 1961, Merrick Lewis, a friend of a friend and President of Ohio-based Alliance Machine, bought Plastics Fabrications and the Thunderbird name from a cash-strapped Woody Woodson. Merrick Lewis knew virtually nothing about boats.

Enter a young Richard “Dick” Genth, who also knew very little about boats but studied up on them in a local library. He convinced Merrick Lewis he could sell Merrick’s Thunderbird boats. Genth was a hustler and set up dealers, while Merrick created Thunderbird Products Corporation and made Genth the President. Dick Genth hired good people including Mike Collins, who later became President of Donzi Marine and who I later got to know personally.

Thunderbird viewed the new sport of offshore racing as a good way to promote its products, so Dick Genth himself started racing and became a world champion alongside such legendary names as Dick Bertram, Don Aronow, Odell Lewis, and Sam Griffith. In 1964, Alliance Machine bought Formula Boats from Aronow, hoping to do even better on the offshore racing circuit. The company name was changed to Thunderbird/Formula and production was set up in the existing Formula facility on N.E. 188th St. in North Miami.

But the facility and the racing offshore team took money and time. Thunderbird/Formula soon ran out of both. In 1969, just when Formula had introduced its first-ever cruiser, a 26-footer, the company was sold to Fuqua Industries of Atlanta, Georgia. Fuqua Industries’ methodology was to buy companies at a good price, reorganize them and then re-sell them. Fuqua’s portfolio of boat companies included the very upscale and highly sought after Pacemaker and Egg Harbor sportfishing and motor yachts.

Meanwhile Dick Genth moved on and had a huge impact on pleasure boat building as President of Donzi, Wellcraft, Century, and Chris Craft. To appeal to its high performance demographic, Dick Genth’s grown daughter Kathy posed provocatively for Donzi in late 1980’s with flowing hair down to her waist while made to appear in the nude. She was referred to as The Lady Godiva of boating. Dick Genth died at age 77 in 2002. At the time he was President of Westship World Yachts in Tampa, Florida.

The Creation of Formula

In 1959 at age 32, Don Aronow, who today might 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 started racing boats for fun.

In 1962 with the intention of building better and faster race boats, Aronow created Formula Boats, named after the fastest car racing series F1, and set up production on a channel off Biscayne Bay connected to the intracoastal waterway on what would later become famously, or infamously, known as “Thunderboat Row” or “Speedboat Alley” –at N.E. 188th St. in North Miami.

One of Aronow’s first and most successful boats was the Formula 233 designed by fellow offshore racer Jim Wynne, who is generally credited as the inventor of the sterndrive. The 233 featured a modified version of the relatively new deep-V hull design of Raymond C. Hunt while retaining what has become the trademark of offshore high-performance boats: a deadrise of 24-degrees for a smoother ride in rough water coupled with high horsepower to break it loose and give it speed.

But Don Aronow didn’t see building boats as necessarily a way to make money but instead as a way to build a brand's reputation and marketability and then sell the company. 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.

Aronow then created Donzi, and sold it. He created Magnum, then sold it. He created Cigarette under the Cary name due to a non-compete clause from the sale of Magnum, but when relieved from that, started the Cigarette Racing Team. After selling Cigarette he created the USA Racing Team, which built the very fast and stealth-looking 39-foot Blue Thunder catamarans. He sold these boats to the US Customs Service for hunting down drug smuggling boats. I was given a ride on one at an offshore racing event. The boat was all business.

Vic Porter’s Start in Boat Building

The story of Victor B. Porter is the essence of The American Dream. Vic Porter was the consummate entrepreneur, having been successful in mobile home sales, real estate, then a small frozen food and ice dream store, and in 1957, as a boat salesman all in Decatur, Indiana, a small town a half hour drive southeast of Fort Wayne.

Vic Porter knew he could build a better boat than the ones he had been selling, and in 1958 with $3,000 in borrowed funds, founded Duo Incorporated inside a converted ice cream locker. With three employees he built his first boat, a fourteen-foot twin outboard-powered catamaran. He marketed them under the Duo name, with Duo being the Latin word for two, representing the two hulls of a catamaran. The model lineup increased steadily, as did sales, and by 1963 Duo’s thirty employees were building twenty boats per week in a new facility. By 1966, sales topped one million dollars.

By then they had moved to another facility over five times the size and with almost two hundred employees. Truck campers were being made as well as boats. By then Duo was building tri-hull, cathedral hull, tunnel hull, and mono-hull runabouts. They had also purchased Aqua Swan aluminum and Crownline runabout brands and began building all of them in the Decatur facility.

Bangor Punta of Greenwich, Connecticut was created in 1964 and by 1967 was a conglomerate within many diverse industries. At one point it owned Piper Aircraft and Smith & Wesson firearms. Its Leisure Time Group owned Cal Boats, Jensen Marine, O’Day Sailboats, Ranger and Luhrs Yachts. Its prize was the large Midwest regional builder Starcraft, which made not only a large complement of pleasure boats but also RV’s, campers, and even livestock feeders.

In 1967, Vic Porter sold Duo Incorporated to Bangor Punta and remained on as President of Duo until 1970. In that same year Porter stepped away, and along with five business associates founded Signa Corporation in Decatur to start building boats again, primarily sterndrive and outboard powered tri-hull runabouts. With Porter’s solid reputation Signa had little trouble marketing its boats throughout the Midwest and the East as the company grew.

The momentum attracted the attention of Fuqua Industries, which had purchased Thunderbird/Formula in 1969. In 1973, Fuqua purchased Signa and Vic Porter became President of both Signa and Thunderbird/Formula until 1975. By that time, a young freelance designer named John Adams had become the fulltime designer for Thunderbird/Formula, and its boats were being produced in California as well as Florida. Signa boats were still built in Decatur.

In 1976, the entrepreneur in Vic Porter surfaced once again as he created Porter Inc. and purchased Thunderbird/Formula/Signa from Fuqua Industries. He did business under the Thunderbird Products name building both Formula deep-V and Signa tri-hull boats. In 1975, the Formula 255 deep-V series of cuddies and cruisers was created and in 1979, the same year the Signa lineup was cancelled, came the formidable and legendary Formula 302 LS high performance offshore model. The Formula name was making headlines.

The Porter, Thunderbird, and Formula names have now come together. In Part Two of the Porter Family story, we will explore how Vic and Kristine Porter, along with four sons and one daughter plus a growing number of grandchildren, have built the Formula name into the gold standard of the boat building industry.

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