Everything Old Is New Again at Chris Crafts

The 43 is the largest of the new breed. It's one of the best-known names in the history of American boatbuilding, and certainly the most venerable. Just hearing the words "Chris-Craft" evokes a nostalgic image of a sleek runabout with gleaming wood, a classic sheerline and slight tumblehome aft-whether it's a vintage 1920s Gold Cup racer, a 1950 Sportsman like the one in the film "On Golden Pond," or the 2006 Woody Speedster.

"What appealed to me was the brand name, that's what drove me," said British entrepreneur Stephen Julius, a former owner of Riva Yachts, who acquired Chris-Craft through his Stellican Ltd. partnership in 2001. Orphaned by former parent company Outboard Marine Company's bankruptcy filing, the plant in Sarasota, Florida, had ceased operating by the time Julius and partner Steven Heese took it over. "Steven and I turned on the lights," Julius said. Chris-Craft had even lost the rights to its own trademark, which Julius acquired in a separate transaction from media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation had ended up with it.

Now, five years later, Chris-Craft has carved a niche for itself as a premium production boat manufacturer, offering 10 models ranging from 20 to 43 feet in four distinctive, retro-styled lines. Total production for 2005 was upward of 700 boats.

Steve Heese (left) and Stephen Julius (right) are taking Chris-Craft back to its roots.

"This year has been literally the tipping point for us," Julius said in late December. "There's momentum in the market. We're being approached by dealers." He cited the two CSI Awards the company received from the National Marine Manufacturers Association in 2005, saying, "We're being rewarded for all the hard work." But he and Heese are not resting on their laurels. Chris-Craft is launching three new models, the Corsair 33 and the Launch 22, and the 22 Rumble, as well as a limited edition "Woody" version of the popular 20-foot Speedster, for 2006. The secret of the new team's success lies in its strategy of returning to the company's storied past for current models-styling cues and functionality. "This is a heritage brand. What we're trying to do is be true to our roots, to be sure the historic heritage is preserved in a modern form," Julius said.

Several books have been written about Chris-Craft and its founder, Christopher Columbus Smith. A prolific and inventive wooden-boat builder, Chris Smith, who was born in 1861, made a name for himself in race-boat circles by the turn of the century. At the same time, Smith was building custom runabouts and cruisers for individual clients.
He taught his four sons his trade and in 1922, they founded the Chris Smith & Sons Boat Co. Its mission was to build standardized boats for the recreational market, constructed using assembly- line techniques similar to those pioneered by the fledgling automobile industry.

Between its start and 1960, the company launched dozens of models that are still revered by antique-boat collectors today, including the Runabouts of the '20s, the Commuting Cruisers of the '30s, the stylish 1940s Riviera and the flagship, 50s Commander. The current Roamer and Corsair lines also owe their names to earlier Chris-Craft series. Moguls, movie stars and politicians all drove Chris-Crafts, further adding to their popularity.

In the '60s, when fiberglass replaced mahogany as the boatbuilding material of choice, Chris-Craft's famous woodies faded from the waterways. The company was bought and sold several times, and eventually its boats began to lose any resemblance to those from Chris-Craft's heyday. Outboard Marine Corporation, which acquired the line in 1989, announced a return to the roots of the brand in 2000-just before filing for bankruptcy.

Since acquiring the company, Julius and Heese have maintained a "Back to the Future" philosophy, poring over historic deck plans with their design team each time they add a new boat to the line. While the factory's hull construction techniques are modern-the only wood utilized is fiberglass-encapsulated marine-grade plywood in the stringer system-each model has retro lines and hallmarks, such as stainless steel air intakes and perforated-metal dash panels."We want to develop boats that are distinctive and can be recognized as Chris-Crafts from two hundred yards away," Julius said.

Chris-Craft is still growing; there are plans to launch a fishing boat line in August, and Julius thinks there's a market for a bigger Corsair. While the new Chris-Craft may never achieve the old company's production quantity, which topped 8,000 boats a year at its peak in the late '50s, Chris Smith would no doubt recognize the quality and styling of today' models as worthy of the tradition he established more than a century ago. Chris-Craft, 941-351-4900. www.chriscraft.com.

Chris-Craft Timeline:
1874: Christopher Columbus Smith builds his first boat at age 13
1914: Smith?Ĵs Baby Speed Demon wins the Gold Cup
1920: Miss America I and Miss Detroit take home the Harmsworth Trophy
1922: Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company is founded
1941: Chris-Craft wins its first military contract
1944: The company?Ĵs landing craft are first to Normandy Beach on D-Day
1957: Chris-Craft headquarters move to Florida
1960: The company is sold to National Automotive Fibers, Inc.
1968: Herbert J. Siegel acquires Chris-Craft
1981: Siegel sells the boat business to Murray Industries but retains the trademark for his media firm Chris-Craft Industries
1989: Outboard Marine Corporation acquires the company
2000: OMC files for Chapter 11 in December
2001: OMC?Ĵs assets are liquidated; Genmar CEO Irwin Jacobs acquires the boat companies
2001: Stellican Ltd. buys Chris-Craft from Jacobs
2001: The Chris-Craft trademark is reunited with the boat builder
2004: Chris-Craft 130th Anniversary Celebration
2006: Four new models launch at the Miami International Boat Show

Everything Old Is New Again at Chris Crafts Rating: 4.5 Diposkan Oleh: Shendy Hickey
 

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