Formula Boats has a staunch reputation for performance and quality built over six and a half decades, and that perception isn't going anywhere. Their history speaks for itself, and with their continued ability to build upon their legacy they an ardent fanbase full of lifetime Formula owners.
Even from the pre-Formula days with Thunderbird Boats (which is a story unto itself), to their enduring position as industry stalwarts, suffice to say, Formula knows what they're doing. They reside firmly among the leaders in boating with respect to product quality and reputation. This puts them in a position of being, through some welcome fault of their own, partially responsible for identifying trends to advance the industry. As it stands, 2021 will show their keen eye for consumer needs is still sharp. While companies continue to ride waves of uncertainty cresting throughout 2020, Formula has taken their famously strong hulls and hunkered down to orchestrate enticing new offerings for 2021. The new year will see them continue to reshape the parameters of the growing outboard-powered market beyond the conventional wisdom, and Formula fans will undoubtedly be pleased.
The 380 Super Sport Crossover (SSC), which Formula has teased for months through public testing and a media release, is ready to go. As one might expect, the new model synergizes several classic design features that make a Formula... a Formula. The construction incorporates features of the classic FASTech multi-step hull and a molded structural grid which, based on testing feedback, gives the balanced ride that Formulas are renowned for. The boat also presents as a full-cabin open-bow dayboat, which adds to the growing trend within Formula to amalgamate full-length deck space with a full cabin below deck. The Crossover series, which also includes the 330, 350, 400, and 430, has been Formula's cornerstone in recent years, and their ability to harmonize the multiple features that boaters desire has been the key to its success. The new Crossovers embody high performance, quality, a smooth ride, and the functionality of being a dayboat or an overnighter.
As the company reaches the halfway point of its sixth decade, we interviewed marketing Manager Scott Smith to discuss the evolution of Formula boats from Thunderbird to present day. We talked about what's in development for 2021, and what the future will hold for the legendary brand.
So Scott, 2021 will mark the 65th anniversary of Formula. That's a big moment for a legendary brand. Are there plans to build something special to celebrate the anniversary?
We’re not building any special 65th anniversary edition boats outright, but it’s funny, these 5 year anniversaries seem to come closer and closer (laughs). We’ve got a logo we’ll be releasing soon, and some gear as well. We’ll certainly remind people that we’ve been around for 65 years. We still feel young. I can’t go into details, but I can tell you we’ve got product coming out this year that will be memorable. It’s not specifically tied to the 65th anniversary, but that’s all I can say for now (laughs). You should see it by the Miami Boat Show.
(Naturally, this got my hopes up for a return of the legendary FASTech performance line. With the recent trend of heritage revivals among classic brands, I thought Formula might be following suit. I didn't get my wish, but I did get some good news.)
You're getting my hopes up! But I heard the FASTech performance line has been discontinued. Is that true?
We’re not promoting it, it’s not on our website or catalog. But we still have the moulds. Every time I walk out in the factory, there’s a 382 or a 353 running down the line. We’re to the point where, while they’re great boats, that segment isn’t what it was. It was probably 30% of our business when I started in 1988. I was 25 when I started in the mould room, back then it was lots of runabouts, lots of performance boats, and (at that time) the runabouts were still the skinny performance style boats. Its slowly shifted, and its become a burden redesigning and updating them (the performance hulls). But if someone opens up their cheque book (laughs), we’ll build them one. Every time I go out in the plant I look and say “Oh my god, there’s another one!” It’s funny to see how emotionally invested fans are in the whole concept (of heritage brands & classic models). When we said we weren’t promoting the FASTech line anymore the guys with 15-20 year old boats were the ones who were the most upset (laughs).
Formula is known for evolving with consumer needs and developing products in advance of growing trends. You're often ahead of the game. What model types or categories are seeing the biggest growth?
It always surprises me, and I’ve been here for 32 years now, is somehow Formula always has a good grasp on what’s going to be important about the next big step. Back in '95 we were building runabouts, performance boats, cruisers, and then came out with the Sun Sport. We gathered ideas from our dealers and thought about it, and that’s where our concept of the single level dayboat started. Everything from there is a refinement of that concept. That boat really saved our bacon in a recession back then. The Crossovers have done the same thing now.
We go all the way from the 330 up to the 430 in these Crossover boats, with a full cabin underneath a full deck. I think that’s probably due to lifestyle. You don’t see many people do 4-5 day cruises several times a summer like you used to. A lot of these are people escaping to their local dock, their getaway, where they don’t lean so heavily on having to stay overnight, or multiple nights. Our boats certainly lend themselves to it because they all sleep 4 comfortably, but people have a choice if they just want to go out and come back in. On one hand, can hop off the dock and go up to the cottage. One the other hand, they can stay out all day and they have the amenities. You can put the kids down below deck, you’ve got a fully appointed head, you can run the air conditioning for a while. I think that’s reflective of the change where people are working all the time, as sad as it is to say it. But they want to be made available, and these boats lend themselves to it.
One of the evolving trends we're often covering is outboards versus sterndrives, and how that continues to change. What trend are you seeing in outboard vs. sterndrive? What engine choices are you currently offering?
Well obviously to us, but maybe not obviously to everyone, is that for years we were strictly a sterndrive company. As that went along, that morphed into the pod drive for the Cruisers. It's definitely an outboard trending industry now. We know, if you look at the raw number of sterndrives, and the engines companies are producing, you can see those are suffering. And the funny thing about them is volume has gone down, but there’s always going to be a market for them. Because of inland boaters, and the convenience of them, and the cleaning and maintenance. But outboards have really come on strong, and I don’t know if that had a lot to do with the centre console craze, if maybe people got used to that, but there is some convenience and utility to the outboard side of it. On one hand, you have a big outboard hanging off the transom, but on the other hand you’ve got great power to weight ratio, and you also have the ability to isolate that outboard when the boat’s at rest. For coastal people, that’s really important. We're selling more ski boats, Super Sport Crossovers, the Crossover Bowriders, the runabouts, rather than the big Cruisers. Our 45 yacht and our Cruiser segment is becoming a smaller part of our output. And I think that’s a reflection of how people are living their lives these days.
As time goes on consumer needs change. But people always come back to Formula. You have one of the most devoted fanbases I know. What are the things that that keep bringing boaters back?
I think that one of the biggest things is the effort and commitment that we put into quality construction. I think we do things, and it's reflected in the price, but we do things to ensure that our boats are going to be good. Some of the things we do during the construction process you don't see elsewhere.
I remember a certain high performance boat manufacturer that was thinking of getting into the dayboats segment. Initially they called us to request a tour to see how we make our different lines. I got wind of it, and I told them: “Come on in!” Our president Scott Porter took them around. I’ve given a lot of tours in my day, and I know how the boats are built, and I tell people the difference is that anybody can build a boat like this, but almost no one is willing to make the sacrifice in terms of labour, attention to detail, and quality components. I think that’s what differentiates us from other boat companies.
As far as performance, and this is a measured response we take, but the 380 SSC outboard is a great example. That boat we’re saying officially it has a 64-67 mph top end. I’ve been on that boat. It’ll hit 65 mph every day of the week. And its impressive compared to the sterndrive version of the boat, it’s about 15 mph faster. We built a whole new bottom for that boat, a whole new hull, with different running surfaces. We pay a lot of attention to those details to optimize it. The thing is, we could have made it go faster. We know how to do that. But we don’t want to sacrifice the ride and the safety of the boat. We build boats that we want to be high performing, but also safe and stable, and a great ride. And I think a great ride is part of the Formula legacy, and one of the things that’s most important to us.
Formula is known for customizing boats and being open to customer input. Plus we're always hearing about the custom stuff you've done, or can do. So that begs the question: any interesting custom builds recently?
As of 2009, we came out with Formula Flex. Basically we’ve got a library of colors, vinyl, options, you name it, and you can tell us what colors you want, in what order, and what you want the upholstery to look like. We want the boat to be yours. We’ll put different equipment on it too. We basically said, we’ll make the boat you want. Have I seen anything interesting? (laughs). Well, we do a lot of interesting boats. You walk out into the factory and wonder 'what the heck is that?' laughs). I’ve seen European style bow rails go on boats, with the walkthrough at the front. One guy wanted a removable handrail that was more vertical at the side of the boat. I saw it from across the plant (laughs). As far as unique stuff, there’s always something going on. Every time I go out on the factory floor I see something and I’m shocked. It isn’t like its cheap to do it, or easy to do, but that’s our hallmark. We’ll work a little bit harder at it, and help make the boat yours. It can be a real challenge sometimes (laughs), but it sells boats.
The 380 Super Sport Crossover is ready to go. It appears to be an extension of the new Crossover trend, and it's a new size as well. Why should consumers be excited?
The new thing this year is the 380 Super Sport Crossover outboard version. That was kind of backwards, because we went from the old Super Sports, which is the 400 and the 370, those were step-bottom hulls, semi-cruisers I guess you would say. We dropped those along with our FASTech line once we got into the Super Sport Crossover segment. And 10 years ago I’d have said you were crazy if you thought we were going to build a 40 foot bowrider (laughs). But that’s obviously what’s happening. So we’ve done the complete switch, we dropped the 370 and the 400 and we’ve pushed out our lines with the 380. We went to the 430 and started doing that. You can only get a 430 in outboard. You can only get a 400 Super Sport Crossover in outboard. And now you’ve got the 380, which plugged the last gap in the lineup.
I don’t think we’re going to a sterndrive for the 400 or 430 at this point. The outboard version was the big thing for this year. And the performance difference between the two hulls is significant. You’ve got triple 450’s, 1350 horsepower, versus twin 520’s and 1040 horsepower. Plus the difference in weight is also notable. It’s a significant advance for us to do that. I think we’re full up, the only way we can go is outward. As far as technology and engines, with the Mercury 450 R’s, it’s funny how these high performance engines are almost mainstream. The maintenance is easy compared to the past. They’re wonderful 4 stroke motors that have a great mid range power curve. We’re just advancing with the industry.
We've discussed Formula's ability to move in advance of growing customer demand. It seems the Crossover concept has struck a chord with boaters and the lifestyles boaters are living. So why the 380 now?
It was the demand. It’s a natural evolution. Our first day boats were what we considered an open cockpit boat that people could use day to day. That was the 280. Eventually we got a 280 bowrider, then the 280 became the 330. I remember an email that floated around here from Sarah Porter (now Director of Marketing Promotions and daughter of Wayne Porter, VP of Sales), it said: “Are we going to do a bowrider 330 version?” And Wayne's answer was: “No, but here’s the reasons why.” And they made sense at that time. But years later, people are gravitating towards those bigger bow riders. It’s a natural evolution. People are using the boat at their lake cottage. It’s not a cruiser, it’s a lifestyle boat. They’re going out to the restaurant, or to the sandbar, and they're spending the day socializing. So it makes sense, you have more square footage above deck where people are spending their time. Then we had this 350 Super Sport with all this cabin space, but people wanted to see more freedom up above deck. So that’s when we developed the Crossover option for it. We saw it happening with other boat companies. They were making bigger bowriders, but we thought maybe they weren’t doing them right. And that’s when we thought: “If we’re going to do it, it’s gotta have this, this, and this.” And that’s what we did. And then we thought: “Well we have to go back and do a 33 footer, and that’s the 330 CBR.” And of course the rest is history. We did the 430, 400, the 380, and here we are now.
Big things are ahead for Formula with the continued development of the Crossover and SSC lineups. And the 380 SSC is already getting attention. When can consumers get their hands on one?
The 380 SSC that we did the photography on in the Florida Keys, that was actually the fourth boat. The first two were made without the extended swim platform pods on the side. But it was something we recognized as we were building it and were like: “Well, we can modify this and make it more usable.” So the first three boats were sold before the 4th boat went down to Florida. We got it down there, we got the media on the boat. And it was an experience (laughs), because we tested it on Tuesday, and we had a buyer who wanted it Wednesday. So we had to get it across the state and get it delivered before the weekend. We said no problem, we'll sell it. So we're all set to go.
To get the latest on Formula's 2021 offering check out their website or watch the walkthrough for the all-new 380 Super Sport Crossover below: