Snakebitten: The Fin Phenomenon

You would assume that the aft fiberglass golden dorsal fin on the Chris-Craft Cobra served some aerodynamic purpose. It did not; it was simply a marketing ploy. “You bought that boat for what it looked like,” says Cobra owner Frank Miklos. “Not for what it could do for you.”

Flash back to America in the 1950s, when the nation was fascinated with travel and aerodynamics. Nearly everything had some design element indicating forward motion. In 1942, Wernher von Braun’s rocket was launched, making the possibility of advanced flight a reality, and during the ensuing decade, the rocket’s style, with its smooth fins as stabilizers, crept into the design of everything from architecture to sunglasses to cars to boats.

Chris-Craft was not the first boat manufacturer to add a fin to its deck. Ventnor Boats, founded as a builder of racing boats in 1902, introduced in 1945 a line of 20-foot and 23-foot recreational vessels that featured a plywood dorsal fin on the aft deck. While on hydroplane raceboats the dorsal fin served as a stabilizer, on these recreational craft it was nothing more than an aesthetic element. Ventnor dropped the dorsal fin in 1951. Chris-Craft then took the idea, obtained permission from the government to use fiberglass, and created its own version of the design.

While the single-cockpit Cobra did not sell well enough to convince Chris-Craft to keep the boats in production, the company retained the finned concept for a few more years. In 1957, Chris-Craft introduced the Continental, which, with its twin tail fins, looked like a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. In 1958, Chris-Craft launched the Silver Arrow, the company’s first mostly fiberglass boat, which also was a sales flop: Only 92 were built in two years. The same year, Chris-Craft also introduced a 21-foot Capri that featured an automotive interior.

The finned Cobra, as well as Chris-Craft’s other auto-influenced designs, may not have been a best seller, but it marked the company’s first use of fiberglass, an essential move that would have a significant impact on Chris-Craft’s future.

 

Photo by Drew Phillips
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