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Contemporary Classics

Shaun Tolson

In the immediate wake of World War I, the world rapidly was changing. Prominent sports stars captivated the nation, led by Babe Ruth and his powerful bat; Jack Dempsey and his unexpected rise from bar room brawler to world heavyweight champion; and Bobby Jones with his unmatched domination on the golf course.

In other aspects of society, silent films emerged, providing America with its first taste of the Hollywood celebrity. Jazz music flourished, and with it came a growing interest in dancing. Not even the cloud of Prohibition could dampen Americans’ spirits. By the middle of the 1920s prosperity was widespread and with it came an unbridled urge to live the good life.

The country’s elite took to the roads in the most luxurious automobiles of the day, but along the shores of their lakefront summer homes, it was the mahogany runabout that distinguished their aristocratic status. With deep, rich woods and powerful engines, those runabouts epitomized luxury and leisure. While much has changed since the Roaring Twenties, the mahogany runabout has not faded; and it remains as popular today as it was during America’s golden age.

Original Designs

Located on a rail line halfway between Manhattan and Montreal, Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York became a summer enclave for America’s aristocracy during the early 20th century. On par with Newport, R.I., and the Hamptons, the 44-square-mile lake and its surrounding areas attracted the likes of the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers, many of whom chose to build sprawling mansions along its shores. Today, the lake is home to the Hacker Boat Co. (www.hackerboat.com), the country’s oldest mahogany-boat builder.

Founded by John Ludwig Hacker in 1908 in a town just south of Lake George, Hacker-Craft, as the company more commonly is known, was the pioneer in the wooden runabout industry. Hacker’s company, along with two other mahogany boatbuilders founded in the early 1920s—Chris-Craft and Gar Wood—quickly solidified themselves as the big three of the leisure boat industry in the United States. All three had operations near Detroit, which allowed each company to benefit from the advancements and growing popularity of the automobile, though they were run by men with very different skill sets. Garfield Wood, who founded the aptly named Gar Wood company, cashed in on his reputation as one of the country’s best speedboat racers. Chris Smith, who founded Chris-Craft, was known as a shrewd businessman and parlayed his earlier efforts building race-winning boats for Garfield Wood into a successful company of his own. John Hacker, by contrast, was not known to possess any tactical business sense. What Hacker brought to the table was beautiful, cutting-edge design.

“The boats sweep from the bow to the stern, and we’ve made very few changes on the basic design,” says Dan Gilman, a vice president of Hacker-Craft. “That’s the magic of them. We still have the original sales material from 1929, and if I showed you our boats today, you’d notice that they haven’t changed very much.”

The look of a Hacker-Craft runabout may not have changed much over the past 80 years, but during the 1920s, Hacker completely reinvented the runabout style. After consulting with Henry Ford, Hacker designed a craft that moved the controls and the windshield toward the bow and—taking design cues from Ford’s Model As and Model Ts—he moved the steering column to the port side. With its runabouts measuring only 7 feet 3 inches across the beam, Hacker-Craft’s newly positioned, left-hand steering column was revolutionary but not earth-shattering. It was the positioning of the controls near the bow, however, that had the biggest impact, since it allowed Hacker to design a second cockpit in the stern.

Today, the company builds 20 to 30 runabouts a year and offers customers the chance to completely customize a boat from beginning to end. For customers who prefer not to wait the 16 months that it generally takes for such a customized boat, Hacker-Craft offers them the chance to customize up to 20 percent of all of its production models, which take six to seven months to complete. However, to minimize wait times, the company continuously is building hulls of its most popular sizes—27- and 30-footers—which can reduce production times by 40 percent. Base prices range from $140,000 for a 22-foot runabout to $260,000 for a 35-foot twin-engine.

From underwater lighting to full entertainment systems all concealed to preserve the classic look of the boat, Hacker-Craft is building modern luxury vessels with vintage appeal. And, as Gilman explains, it’s that connection to the past that remains the company’s greatest asset. “The fact that we can build boats that are based on some of the most famous Hacker boats ever built is a big selling point for us,” he says. “A lot [of our customers] buy our boats because their fathers took them out on one. I’ve literally seen men tear up thinking of the times that they spent with their fathers on a wooden boat, and that’s a big thing for our clients.”

Classic Styles, Modern Techniques

When Grand-Craft (www.grandcraft.com) was founded in 1979, not far from the shores of Lake Michigan, it was established to accomplish two things: to restore the vintage Chris-Craft runabouts that once were so prevalent along the open waters of the Great Lakes, and to build modern boats in a style that reflected the aesthetics of those same vintage Chris-Craft models. The company’s passionate stance on wooden boats is anything but subtle, as much of its marketing effort invites potential customers to compare “the warmth and pattern of wood to the distant feel of molded plastic.”

“Some people feel that they’re traditionalists and purists and have to have something that was made in the ’30s,” Grand-Craft’s president, Jeff Cavanagh, says, explaining why the restoration and preservation department remains profitable. But Grand-Craft is equally known for producing new boats with Roaring Twenties style, and Cavanagh points to his company’s ability to outfit those classically styled vessels with “all the modern elements of luxury and convenience,” as a real selling point for customers looking to own a mahogany cruiser.

Convenience takes the form of more than just modern equipment and accessories on a Grand-Craft boat. The mahogany runabouts of the ’20s and ’30s may have looked great in the water, but making them seaworthy every season was no easy task. The wood planking would contract during the cold winter months when the boat was out of the water, which created gaps in the hull. Those gaps would let water into the boat when it was reintroduced to the lake each boating season, which meant—during the first few days that a boat was in the water—it sat in a slip, with pumps on board to keep it from filling with too much water and sinking.

With its new mahogany runabouts, Grand-Craft incorporates a technique called cold molding, where many thin strips of mahogany are saturated with epoxy and bound together. After 16 coats of varnish are applied by hand, a Grand-Craft boat is impervious to the wooden fluctuations that plagued vintage models. “We build our boats with the wood grains crossing each other for strength, and it makes a solid and strong boat with a smooth and soft ride,” says Cavanagh. “It still has the wood boat beauty but you don’t have the hassle of the maintenance of putting it in the water.”

Over the course of Grand-Craft’s 32-year history, the company has built 180 boats, and in that time, Cavanagh says that the 24-foot luxury sport model has proven to be the most popular. “It is the epitome of the Grand-Craft runabout,” he says, adding that it amounts to less than $200,000 with all the bells and whistles. “It’s perfectly sized to people’s needs. We build all of these boats as people wish, with all of the particulars to make them truly theirs. Most people hold on to these boats; they want to keep them in the family.”

Cavanagh acknowledges that, due to the element of nostalgia, he receives more inquiries about the classic runabout styles, even though most customers end up choosing a luxury sport model because it sits higher in the water and can more easily handle rough seas. Still, he says a classic runabout can offer just as much enjoyment; it just requires more understanding. “They [the owners] just have to know how to run them,” Cavanagh says. “If you’re sitting in the backseat and you hit some waves, you’re going to get a little wet. But that’s half the fun. That’s how it was back in the ’30s.”

Restoration Efforts

Whether you’re seeking a concours-ready preservation or simply an aesthetic and functional restoration for weekends on the lake, you want to know that you’re putting your boat in the hands of a qualified and informed specialist. Such a specialist can be found through the Antique & Classic Boat Society (www.acbs.org), a nationwide collective of highly educated classic mahogany boat experts. Some, such as Herb Hall of Sierra Boat Co. (www.sierraboat.com) in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Dennis Ryan of Antique Boat Center (www.antiqueboat.com) in Cincinnati, Ohio, helm classic wooden boat restoration centers. “We understand what people are looking for in a quality wooden boat because of the ACBS rules that the boats are judged by,” says Ryan. “We use proper fasteners and proper chrome and stainless steel trim so the boat looks more original when we’re done with it.”

Ryan says that only about 20 percent of his customers are seeking concours-level restorations, but even in those cases, an important element of that restoration work involves the implementation of a new bottom. Contrary to common logic, a classic wooden boat with a modern-day bottom is not penalized at a concours event. Rather, because it is viewed as an element of safety, that is the one area of a classic boat that can be modernized. Ryan says that a lot of his work also involves updating and improving trailers, since original runabouts were never meant to be transported that way. All told, a complete concours-ready restoration at Antique Boat Center typically ranges from $60,000 to $100,000.

More than 2,000 miles to the west, at Sierra Boat Co., Hall does more preservations than restorations, since Lake Tahoe’s cool and dry climate has provided a safe haven for many of the classic boats that are docked in its waters. With 35 years of restoration and preservation experience, Hall, the president of Sierra Boat Co., says that even though the company segued into selling fiberglass boats decades ago, it never abandoned its work on classic wooden vessels. And as concours events became more popular, the scope of his company’s work began to grow. “Once we started getting into serious judged boat shows, the bar was raised,” he says, “and we went from doing basic maintenance to more serious restoration work, tearing a boat down to its frames—or further. In some cases, we’ve built a brand-new boat.”

In the most extreme cases, a restoration or preservation project can take 9 months for a 24- to 30-foot classic, and based on the boat and its condition, the cost of that process can range from $50,000 to $200,000. Even though there are many new mahogany runabouts that evoke the classic styles of almost a century ago, Hall says there’s something about those original models that just can’t be re-created. “You can’t duplicate the original woods that these boats had,” he says. “Modern boats don’t have the character and grain structure that the boats from the ’20s and ’30s did.”

Best in Show
Attendees of the Lake Tahoe Concours are guaranteed to see only the most authentically restored classic runabouts.

Since its inception in 1975, the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance (www.laketahoeconcours.com), a classic wooden boat show organized by the Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation, has garnered a reputation for its stringent criteria when reviewing incoming applications. While not as exclusive as some classic car events, like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance—where participation in the event is determined by invitation only—the Lake Tahoe Concours is just as committed to producing a lineup of mahogany runabouts and cruisers that reflects only the best examples of boats that are as true to their original designs today as they were the day they left the factory. “For people who have been to every other boat show in the country, the Tahoe concours is considered be the finest collection of boats that you’ll find anywhere in the country,” says Herb Hall, president of the Sierra Boat Co., which hosts the event each summer.

In what could be viewed as the main event of the show, the Lake Tahoe Concours promotes a “best marque class,” a specific category or brand designation that serves as the headlining competition. For the 2011 concours, which takes place August 12 and 13, the marque class is the Gar Wood brand. A notable entry in this category is a 33-foot Baby Gar named Challenger. As one of the earliest Gar Woods entered in the show, Challenger is a rare Baby Gar—a smaller and more streamlined runabout that the brand’s founder, Garfield Wood, built in response to rule changes in the Gold Cup racing circuit of the early 1920s. Equipped with its original, World War I–era, Liberty V-12 engine and boasting all of its original wood, the boat previously won the best marque class twice, first in 1990 in the “gentlemen’s race boats” category and again in 1994 in the “triple-cockpit runabouts” category. “This boat is considered to be one of the most original Baby Gars in existence,” says Hall. “It’s a pretty special boat.”

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