By Tom Crew, former Archivist, The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia
The Chris-Craft name is synonymous with both speed and craftsmanship. For more than sixty years, this worldwide boat building empire, founded by Christopher Columbus Smith, was a leader in producing standardized powered pleasure boats. Thousands have enjoyed the cooling spray while boating on a warm summer afternoon in a classic Chris-Craft. Many antique boat enthusiasts easily recognize the design features and rakish style of these varnished mahogany beauties. Yet most people know little about the early Chris Smith runabouts or their features. Documentation is sparse and photographs are rare, but through careful research and interviews with some owners of these rare boats, the specifications begin to emerge.
It is commonly accepted that Chris Smith’s runabout business did not begin until the establishment of Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company in February 1922. In fact, as early as 1915, Smith advertised his custom boat building services in Power Boating Magazine, urging readers to “Let Me Build You A Smith Boat.”
This promotional piece featured designs for “pleasure launches, fast runabouts, express cruisers and passenger carrying hydroplanes.” It also clearly showed Smith’s interest in and capabilities for building pleasure boats long before he began the runabout business in 1922. An increasingly successful racing career probably encouraged him to expand his business. Competitive speedboat racing was a method by which boat builders and hull designers tested the quality of their ideas and gained recognition among their peers, Many were propelled into the ring as popular heros. The lust for speed was fueled by such designers as John L. Hacker, George Crouch, and Christopher Columbus Smith, but financed by gamblers, industrialists, and syndicates.
By 1915, Smith’s proven winners, Baby Speed Demon and Baby Reliance, were awarded the American Power Boat Association’s coveted Gold Cup. His dreams for a successful pleasure boat business began to take shape. Smith’s racing career continued to flourish during the next several years. An admiring media extolled the string of victories achieved by the Miss Detroit series and it’s championship designer the “wizard 2 of Algonac.” Despite all his racing success, Smith apparently did not wish to remain a one-dimensional boat builder. Although most of his energies seemed to concentrate on racing hulls, he continued to solicit pleasure boat contracts. Stunning documentation of Chris Smith’s ability and virtuosity as a hull designer and boat builder is published in Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts. This premier compilation of data regarding American and Canadian-owned yachts offers indisputable evidence of what was perhaps Smith’s most ambitious project, an 80-foot cruiser. The record indicated a wooden-hulled vessel named Hourless measuring 80ft.x16ft.x6ft., weighing 42 gross tons, and powered by twin, six- cylinder Murray and Tregurtha gasoline engines, designed and constructed by C. C. Smith Boat Company, Algonac, Michigan, in 1919 for Walter E. Flanders of Detroit, Michigan. The cruiser enjoyed a long career, continuing to appear in the registers as the Hourless until 1947. Subsequent name changes and final disposition of the vessel are not indicated. It is, however, an astonishing historical fact that Chris Smith, undoubtedly with the assistance of his talented sons, produced this 80- foot marvel. Their accomplishment is all the more remarkable when you consider that their giant boat building empire never produced a standard cruiser greater than 72 feet in length.
By 1921, Smith was marketing a standardized 26-foot express runabout through a boat broker, the Central Marine Service Corporation, Detroit, Michigan. A remarkably informative advertisement about this design appeared in the August 1921 issue of Power Boating. The boat was powered with a Hall-Scott four- cylinder 100 horsepower engine and equipped with electric starting and lighting, standard reverse gear, and water-cooled exhaust. It sold for $3,950 and was available in two models, a standard painted finish with mahogany trim or a full mahogany hull for $500 extra.
Both models were built with Smith’s trademark double- planked bottom. The ad also featured a rare photograph of this runabout showing a large rear cockpit design aft of the engine rather than the more familiar forward steering. This is clear evidence of a design transition. Smith’s design reflected the work of his contemporaries, who typically built runabouts which resembled automobiles with steering controls behind the engine. Within two years, however, Smith redesigned his runabouts with the more popular forward steering. This will be discussed in more detail later. There are no existing records to indicate how many of these boats were built, but here again is clear evidence that Chris Smith was anticipating a move into pleasure boat production before the storied dissolution of his racing partnership with Gar Wood. The following year, Chris Smith and his four sons, Jay W., Bernard, Owen, and Hamilton, established the new Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company.
What was perhaps the company’s first advertisement appeared in the April 1922 issue of Motor Boat magazine. Many of us have conformed to the popular notion that the standard 26-foot runabout was the only boat model initially offered by Chris Smith and Sons. This ad contradicts that misconception by listing four different models available. First, there was a 24-foot, 18-mile-per-hour runabout which sold f or $2,200. There were also two different 26′ models, a forward drive double cockpit and a rear drive single cockpit. They sold for $3,000 and $2,800, respectively. These two models reflected the Smiths’ transition from the traditional rear cockpit design to the modern forward cockpit steering. It also indicated their awareness of what was in demand by the popular market. The fourth model offered, a 33-foot Baby Gar, may be a complete surprise to many.
This boat achieved advertised high performance speeds from 50 to 60 miles per hour and sold for $7,500. It is true, the first 33-foot Baby Gar runabouts were built by Chris Smith for Gar Wood. The original table of offsets is found in the Chris-Craft Collection. Incidentally, this same advertisement may be the first published use of the nickname “Chris Smith Craft.” This was soon shortened to the better-known Chris-Craft.
So what were the first Chris- Crafts? Research into the early accounting and purchase ledgers reveal that the first hull built by the Smiths’ new company was not a runabout, but rather a racer, the Packard-Chris Craft. It was contracted by Colonel Jesse G. Vincent, founder of the Packard Motor Car Company, and delivered to him in August 1922 just in time to participate in the Gold Cup races to be held the following month in Detroit.
This powerful new entry onto the racing scene measured 26ft. x 6ft. x 2ft. and was equipped with a six-cylinder Packard 200 Hp. engine which could achieve speeds up to 45.6 miles per hour. The racer had a white painted hull with the words Packard and Chris Craft written in distinctive script on the sides. Colonel Vincent drove Packard-Chris Craft to victory, defeating GarWood, who had won the race the previous five years. Wood’s boat, Baby Gar. Jr., was also a Chris Smith design. A third Smith-built boat known as Chris Craft II also participated in that Gold Cup race. This boat was driven by Gar Wood’s brother George, no doubt in friendly competition, It differed greatly in appearance from its Packard counterpart because it was designed as a standard 26- foot runabout with a single cockpit and steering controls forward of the engine. It was powered by a 180 horsepower Hall-Scott model A7-A aviation engine which proved to be too small for competitive racing. Nevertheless, its importance lay in the fact that this was the second hull built by the Smiths. A previously unidentified photograph found in the Chris-Craft Collection provided a rare glimpse of this early runabout. Through persistent research, the boat’s Gold Cup racing number, G-31, seen in the photograph, was verified to be the Chris Craft II.
This photograph proved an excellent source of documentation for many features found on the carly Smith runabouts. Several notable details appear: a single cockpit forward of the engine, no windshield, no lifting rings, pleated upholstery, a raised engine hatch, four large engine compartment vents installed on the covering boards, a large open rear cockpit with wicker chairs, and dark seam compound instead of white deck stripes. Another photograph of a 1922 model boat identified as hull number four, named the All Star, reveals many of the identical features. One notable exception is that the engine hatch was no longer raised, but was redesigned and widened to give a smoother appearance. This boat was originally owned by Dr. W. E. Sanborn.
So did the Smiths follow any standards in building these carly runabouts? In addition to photographic resources, the original hand-written specifications for the 1922 model “Standard 26′ Chris Craft” are carefully preserved in The Mariners’ Museum Research Library and Archives. This seven-page equipment and materials list unquestionably confirms the original features, both seen and hidden, found on these boats. The hull’s overall dimensions were 26ft.x6ft.6in.x24in. The boat was powered by an eight- cylinder Curtiss OX-5 aviation engine, converted for marine use, which generated 90 horsepower at 1400 rpm.
It turned an 18×24 Hyde propeller, with a left-hand rotation to achieve a maximum speed of 32 miles per hour. A single forward cockpit provided seating for three people including the driver, while the larger aft cockpit could comfortably carry five on a bench seat and two wicker chairs. The standard double-planked mahogany hull bottom was designed the same as the 26-foot Gold Cup model with canvas coated in white lead laid between the layers and the sides of batten seam construction. The interior featured pleated blue upholstery and gray linoleum flooring. Surprisingly, all the deck hardware consisted of polished brass instead of nickel. This included all the following: cutwater, chocks, cleats, vents, hatch handles, piano hinges, fuel filler plate and cap, bow light, stern flagpole socket, exhaust flanges, self- bailer, and some additional items. All the instruments, however, were nickel-plated, If you purchased a Smith boat it was also equipped with some accessories: mahogany paddle, mahogany pike, canvas fenders, life preservers, 25-pound anchor and line, mooring lines, and tools. It is interesting to note that although the boat was constructed primarily with Philippine mahogany, it also included significant amounts of white oak, butternut, spruce, and ash. Construction costs for this sturdy and well-appointed runabout were calculated to be $997.50 plus motor, installation, and overhead. The boat, therefore, retailed for $3,200.00 plus tax. The Smiths were very pleased with the performance and design of the Chris- Craft, which was described by A. W. Mackerer as a “splendid boat; handles easily — dry, fast and turns.”
By 1924 very few changes were evident. A slightly larger 100 horsepower Curtiss OX-5 engine was offered and the runabout’s beam was widened two inches to 6ft.8in., but the addition of a windshield as standard equipment was perhaps the most significant improvement. This attractive curved bottom tilt windshield was eventually offered in two sizes. On the smaller one-piece model the glass was mounted in a metal frame on fifteen-inch stanchions; on the larger two-piece model the glass was divided by a frame molding and mounted on seventeen-inch stanchions. Interestingly, the larger windshield secured on fifteen-inch stanchions, is found on the Miss Belle Isle in The Mariners’ Museum. After only two years in business, the Smiths runabout was beginning to make an impact on the marketplace. Rapid sales growth of the Chris-Craft in the spring of 1924 resulted in the company’s increased production to four boats per week. By May, forty-one new boats were completed for delivery.
This new growth prompted a media campaign in 1925 to expand the public awareness of the Chris-Craft. A redesigned runabout with a new forward double cockpit illustrated full-page advertisements promoting the ability of Chris Smith and Sons to maintain lower prices as a result of their application of “motor car standardization and volume production methods” for their boats. The Smiths were probably the first boat builders to apply these techniques. In an effort to stay ahead of their competition, they cleverly offered the first time payment plan ever presented for selling boats. A potential buyer only needed a down payment of $1,340 to secure his Chris-Craft, with the balance due within twelve months. Another sales incentive fully guaranteed the quality of each boat against construction defects for one year. The literature declared, “It is so nearly trouble-proof that this guarantee has cost an average of only $6 a boat.”
The Smiths also tried to avert any possible consumer fears of unscrupulous dealers who would not honor the company’s guarantee with the statement, “When you purchase a Chris Craft, you deal directly with the builders, who are fully responsible for service.” Several more years passed before a dealer network was established.
Encouraged by their early success and eager to reach a national market, the Smiths registered their first boat display at the 1926 National Motor Boat Show held in New York City. Here was a wonderful opportunity for the boating public to comparison shop. Fortunately, the Smiths received a great boost from the show’s advanced publicity found in Yachting Magazine. Its editor awarded Chris Smith and Sons Boat evolved and built what are today recognized by many as the world’s fastest boats. This new model assures the Chris-Craft owner a complete unit, economical to operate, fully guaranteed, and setting an envious pace for safety, comfort, speed and smartness.” what a recommendation! The 1926 model did offer two new features, a larger 150 horsepower Kermath engine and a reinforced tilt windshield. This redesigned and strengthened windshield had a solid wood base. It replaced the stanchion- mounted model, which lacked rigidity. Despite only four years in business, the young Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company had achieved a reputation for excellence. Their standard 26-foot runabout known as the Chris-Craft was speedy, strong, safe, and stylish.
Continuing improvements, along with an expanding product line, attracted an increasing share of the boating market. The ambitious Smiths made a calculated risk in starting a pleasure boat company, but their love of boats and history of success carried over from racers to runabouts. A boating dynasty was begun.
Tom Crew was The Mariners’ Museum Archivist for 14 years, from 1982-1996, and responsible for arrangement, preservation, and administration of the manuscript and photographic collections of The Mariners’ Museum, and has acquired a national reputation as an expert on the history of Chris-Craft boats.