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.
The Porter Family & Formula Boats (Part 2)
In Part One of this story, we explored the three separate events that came together in 1976 when Vic Porter purchased Thunderbird/Formula/Signa from Fuqua Industries. His new Porter Inc. company began doing business under the Thunderbird Products name, built Formula deep-V boats in Florida and California under the design direction of John Adams, and built Signa tri-hull boats in Decatur, Indiana until he discontinued the brand in 1979.
We can now explore in Part Two of the Porter family story how this entrepreneurial and multi-talented family of parents Vic and Kristine paved the way. The parents, along with four sons, a daughter, plus a growing number of grandchildren, have built the Formula name while establishing themselves as a gold standard in the boat building industry.
Vic and Kristine Porter had six children. All got involved at one time or another with the business, whether it was sweeping floors or doing menial tasks at the factory or running the boats on the lake. Son John went on to become a doctor, but after completing their formal education, sons Scott, Grant, Wayne, and Ted as well as daughter Jean all began working full time at Thunderbird/Formula, gradually working their way through the ranks to senior management.
In 1976, Scott Porter was twenty-three years old when his father took control of Thunderbird/Formula. By 1980, having finished his college education and served his apprenticeship in various production capacities at the factory in Decatur, he was sent to manage the Florida production facility of Formula on N.E. 188th Street in North Miami. In 1981, Formula production in California was discontinued and concentrated to the Miami facility.
In those days offshore racing was huge and one of the very best was diminutive Betty Cook, who became a multi-time world champion. Scott Porter became an offshore racing fan, got to know Betty Cook, and purchased some engines and proprietary KAAMA surface drives from Cook’s company for his Formula boats. In 1981, Formula designed and built the Formula K5 racing catamaran for her. When Cook was unable to race due to her developing cancer, Scott jumped in.
Scott continued to offshore race until 1986, first in a Formula 302-SR1 with outboards and then the same model with KAAMA surface drives. He won the Southeast Divisional Championship and set a UIM (the world motorsport sanctioning body) world speed record. On a personal note, a few short years later, Betty Cook took me for a test drive in one of these boats to promote her KAAMA surface drives.
Along for the ride that day during the Miami Boat Show was my friend and now BoatBlurb.com colleague, Captain Bill Jennings. A few months later, Betty agreed to be the guest speaker at the inaugural meeting in Toronto of the Performance Boat Club of Canada which I had helped organize. She delivered an awesome speech during a stopover on her way to some relaxing in Muskoka, but very sadly died later that year when her cancer returned with a vengeance.
Returning now to boat production, in 1980, integrated, continuous, fiberglass cockpit liners were introduced giving the Formula boats much improved structural rigidity and better design flow. 1982 was a landmark year for Formula when the strong Florida sun and Scott’s keen insight led him to first utilize Imron® paint for hull graphics to replace the more fade-prone gelcoat. The use of the more expensive Imron® process has continued to be a trademark of Formula boats to this day.
1984 saw Formula introduce the industry’s first use of curved glass windshields as well as the Silent Thunder® switchable exhaust system. In 1988, the N.E. 188th St. facility was shut down and production moved to a brand new, much larger, modern, state-of-the-art facility in Decatur. That same year saw Scott become President of Thunderbird/Formula while father Vic became Chairman of the Board and mother Kristine a member of the Board in an advisory role.
The early 1990s saw the introduction of the Sun Sport line as Formula put more emphasis on the growing market of family dayboating. But performance was still a backbone of the Formula brand and in 1997 came the introduction of the FAS³TECH series of high performance models featuring double-stepped hull bottoms which replaced the iconic SR-1 series predecessors. At the same time, Formula developed and introduced its Engineered Structural Grid Technology which replaced the old system of wooden stringers.
I drove to Decatur that fall with an invitation to test drive one of the first 382 FAS³TECH’s. I was first given a comprehensive tour of the factory which was one of the cleanest, brightest, and most efficiently laid out facilities I have ever been through. The owner’s lounge where new buyers could relax while watching their boats being built was remarkable. The employee cafeteria was obviously well utilized with great food and conducive to boosting corporate morale. The Porters along with all levels of management mingled at the tables with all others.
I was provided a detailed look at the molding of the new structural grid (stringer) system and witnessed the precise installation and tabbing of them into hulls before following the production line to fully completed models and their eventual “water” test in the indoor pool. It was an education into the right way to build a fiberglass boat.
Early the next morning, I was taken to a nearby lake with a 382 FAS³TECH in tow behind us. Did I mention it was late fall? I was provided with a toque and heavy gloves plus a survival suit to wear over my fall jacket. It was cold, so cold that we broke a thin skim of ice as we launched the 382. We progressed slowly out and around the lake to ensure we would not run into any more ice and then I was given the helm to put the 382 through all the normal testing paces of acceleration, top speed, and handling, including ever-tightening cornering at increasing speeds to determine the reaction of the stepped hull. Needless to say, I was totally impressed on all counts and said so in my write-up. Warming up after the fact did take some time though – like a day and a half!
As the new century mark approached, the factory was once again expanded, the Super Sport series and then Yachts were introduced. The award-winning Super Sport line of cruisers followed shortly thereafter. At this point the American Powerboat Association (APBA) Offshore Division introduced Factory 1 and Factory 2 racing as a way for single and twin-engine production boats to compete against each other with strict rules regarding size and weight and with identical factory-sealed sterndrive power from MerCruiser.
The objective was to “win on Sunday and sell on Monday.” It gave offshore racing fans a look at the same high performance off-the-shelf deep-V models they could see in a showroom from the builders they knew like Formula, along with Cigarette, Fountain, Baja, Donzi, Wellcraft Scarab, Hustler, etc. President Scott Porter once again donned his race suit and took the helm of a 382 FAS³TECH and succeeded in becoming a national and world champion.
A few years later, Scott Porter’s brother Ted, head of Formula’s human resources, became interested in unlimited hydroplane racing. In 2006, under his guidance, Formula competed in the Air National Guard hydroplane series. Unlimited hydroplane racing had become a huge spectator attraction and was given immense publicity during the multi-year unbroken winning streak of Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser.
But with Little’s passing in 2003, the sport was gradually becoming less and less an attraction. Ted Porter is credited with returning the sport to its former glory days. Formula won three world championships, one national title and campaigned as many as three boats at a time on the tour. He is also credited with initiating a driver training program to develop more and better qualified unlimited hydroplane drivers. After six successful years on the circuit, Formula pulled out of racing in 2012.
In 2010, Formula introduced the FX line of hi-tech and snazzy upgrades to graphics, upholstery, dash backings, trim, gauges, and controls. Later, the Flex program allowed customers to pick and choose virtually any of these upgrades to individualize their boat to their preferences. Upgrades like choosing from seventy to eighty colour choices of Imron®, to a multitude of striping combinations, or carbon fibre accenting, or upholstery quilting, or high-end Livorsi ® gauges or controls, and on and on.
2012 saw the start of the Crossover Bowrider series and in 2017 the addition of outboard power, which would eventually spread across much of the lineup in conjunction with sterndrive, inboard, and pod drives. As Formula enjoys its sixty-fifth anniversary in 2021, it offers a total of sixteen models from twenty-four to fifty-feet in six series of Bowriders, Crossover Bowriders, Sun Sports, Super Sport Crossovers, All Sport Crossovers, and Performance Cruisers.
With Vic and Kristine Porter are semi-retired with Vic still serving as Chairman. All five of the original second generation children are still in upper management positions with Scott still serving as President. Six third generation grandchildren are employed fulltime, and some fourth generation Porter great grandchildren are working part-time and summer job. Thunderbird/Formula is, without a doubt, a family dynasty in the pleasure boat building industry.
Vic Porter has received many industry accolades and has devoted much of his semi-retired time to both the industry as well as Decatur and Indiana State committees and boards. He has also volunteered countless hours to local projects and has donated generously to many. Vic and Kristine’s children have all given similarly. And if you were to speak to any of them or get to know any of them as I have, you will quickly agree that the Porter family is indeed representative of the gold standard of family names in this industry.
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Postscript- On a personal note, if you happen to visit the Thunderbird/Formula facility and if, like me, you are also a car aficionado, then add some extra time to your plans and when in Decatur like I did. Visit the Lingenfelter Performance Engineering facility, which is renowned for its after-market upgrading of especially Corvettes and Camaros.