6 February 2015

Fintastic FUN

Fiberglass Runabouts of The 1950s are Pure Americana

I am warning you right now. The boats seen here, if studied long enough, will bend your mind, stretch your smile lines, frag your internal logic meter, and make you dizzy with delight. This is not because they are among the earliest fiberglass boats, which in the span of a decade replaced the centuries-old process of hand-crafting boats out of hardwood. It’s also not because they are finished in decidedly rebellious colors like turquoise and pink, or that they boast enough gleaming trim to shame a 1958 Buick. These boats are a mix of Jet Age car design and boat functionality — a short-lived cocktail that blossomed and browned in just a few years. So after even the briefest dive into this offbeat little collector segment, these boats make you wonder: What kind of beer goggles were they wearing in the 1950s, anyway?

While Harley Earl was shaping GM’s 1950s Motorama dream cars out of fiberglass in Detroit, industrious boatbuilders were using the same new material to create freewheeling designs that would have been highly impractical or nearly impossible with wood. Hard-to-create compound curves, soaring fins and unlikely shapes suddenly became doable with the miracle of woven fiberglass cloth, polyester resin and molds of your own design. Got a swell idea for an aqueous version of North American’s F-86 Sabre jet or Buck Rogers’ rocket ship? In the 1950s, the DOT and EPA didn’t exist, so you could create it in your backyard.

Many did. According to early finned fiberglass boat expert Bill Anderson, there may have been up to 100 manufacturers. Some were larger, existing companies, such as Lone Star and Glastron, and some were small startups. “There were just a handful of successful companies, and dozens more that did not survive,” he says.

Although Lone Star and Glastron were Texas-based, many of these finny boats were made in the Midwest, with others built in the East or on the West Coast, such as Washington-based Reinell boats. The website fiberglassics.com, Anderson’s billscars.com and Kevin Mueller’s boatsinthebelfry.com all offer interesting glimpses into the genre.

Unified Themes
Whether the models are the fanciful Cadillac Sea Lark, Glastron Seaflite, Herter's Eldorado or Lone Star Meteor, characteristically these “fiberglassics” share a few common traits. First, they are usually smallish in size, often 14 to 17 feet, sometimes with skiff-like flat bottoms. This means they were bred for smaller lakes and waterways, while also requiring fewer materials, less money and simpler engineering to build. The flat bottoms, narrow beams and light weight also required less horsepower to plane. Second, they were usually powered by outboard motors, although the Chris-Craft Silver Arrow was an exception. Typically, motors were 35–45-horsepower two-stroke twins and fours, sometimes used in pairs for more punch, until Mercury introduced its game-changing six-cylinder outboard in 1957. And third, their design inspiration was clearly the personal innovation of individuals rather than committees. What else could explain the 1957 Red Fish Shark’s soaring tailfins, the Reinell Jet Flight’s ’59 Impala taillights or the Lone Star Meteor’s bow design that looks like a cross between Kermit the Frog and a Karmann Ghia?

As objets d’art, these boats live in the shadows, but as expressions of 1950s operational art, they’re all heroes. “Car enthusiasts know every car,” Mueller says. “But when you’re going down the road with one of these boats in tow, people go nuts. They can’t believe what they’re seeing.”

Indeed, everyone knows of the automobile “finned” era that ran from roughly 1948 to 1963, with peak years of 1955 to 1961. It turns out that boats, rather than always following their automotive cousins, may have actually led the way in some cases. Witness the 1958 Cadillac Sea Lark, with its tall taillight-adorned fins that are extremely similar to the fins later seen on that most audacious of Cadillacs, the 1959 Coupe de Ville. In other cases, be-finned boats seemed to have followed the automotive design trends by a couple of years.

The models that stand out today are those that committed fully to wild styling, with big fins, radical front-ends, bucket-seat interiors, sweeping interior cowling, spacey instrument panels, and sometimes even coupe-like top structures.

Best Boats
Due to their low build numbers and lower survival rates, these special models are the ne plus ultra of fiberglassics today. Anderson offers a short list of the most desirable models, headed up by the Cadillac Sea Lark, the ’59 Caddy look-alike with two known to exist. (Incidentally, the Cadillac boat company was not affiliated with GM’s Cadillac division. Rather, based in Cadillac, Michigan, it was thus able to use the name.) He says there are also three known spectacularly winged twin-hull South Seas Samoans, which were highly prescient of the 1959 Pontiac and 1960 Buick. However, Anderson reports there are between 60 and 70 known Lone Star Meteors. There are also more modestly styled, and more plentiful, finned fiberglass models extant, with the Cutter Jet de Ville a prime example.

In contrast to the U.S. auto industry’s juggernaut production in the late 1950s, fiberglass boat output was infinitesimal. For instance, Mueller says the Glastron company produced 3,878 boats of all types for 1958, compared to 4.6 million cars for the auto industry. Even though Glastron was actually one of the larger players, he estimates that perhaps only 3,000 wore fins.

From a value standpoint, the beautiful thing about fiberglassics, Mueller adds, is that they’re way under the radar for car collectors. That makes sense, because they are less practical than any car, unless you live on the waterfront; you can’t drive them to cars and coffee, take a weekend trip or hit cruise night on Woodward Avenue. As such, prices are amazingly low for the entertainment they provide. Mueller figures values range from a few hundred dollars for a destitute hulk to nearly $40,000 for a perfectly restored desirable model. Compared to many of the good things in life, that’s more than reasonable.

Aside from the limited market, another factor helps keep the prices for these unique boats down. They are simple, with very few mechanical parts compared to a vintage car. The engines, whether a period Johnson, Scott, Evinrude or Mercury, are equally affordable. And in this regard performance was not as Jet Age as appearances would suggest, with top speeds of 30–35 mph probably typical, given the two- or four-cylinder power available in the day.

Sign of the Times
In sum, these boats were made by visionaries, able at the time to turn a wild personal idea into reality. Which raises the questions: Who would buy them, and why? Because the boats were fully usable for family recreation, Anderson figures buyers were just ordinary folks who liked a bit of excitement in their weekend boating. “The real big exotic-finned boats were few and far between, but they were still normal boats,” he says. “In my view, they were no different than a ’57 Plymouth, and plenty of regular people bought those.”

I believe the broader answer lies in 1950s culture. The Jet Age was on, and the Space Age was looming. Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1 had already broken the sound barrier, the secret Lockheed U-2 spy plane was a reality, and Alan Shepard would soon go into space. And so, at the time, the sky was quite literally the limit, with designers like Raymond Loewy, Harley Earl, Virgil Exner, Brooks Stevens and others all shaping a host of products that captured a national fervor for flight, speed and performance in everything from cars, trains and bicycles to toys, radios and toasters. This super cauldron of excitement naturally fused with boating, too.

So began the short-lived wake-jumping flight of the fiberglassics, a footnote in boating, Americana and design. Although experts in this small universe believe most of the really unique boats have already been found, there is no certainty about this. Unlike with the laser-accurate Shelby, Ferrari and Porsche registries, the wonderfully mysterious thing is that nearly 60 years later, it isn’t clear how many of these boats were even built, or how many remain hidden in woods, barns and backyards.

“Every Tucker car ever built is known, so you can’t find a Tucker in a barn,” Mueller points out. “These boats are a different category, because no one has remaining production figures, except for Glastron. And therefore, nobody really knows how many are left. Although the discovery rate on the exotic stuff has dropped way down from 10 years ago, there are still important nice boats to be found.”

Since I’ve given up finding a Hemi ’Cuda at a neighborhood garage sale, I’m hitting the Lake Tomahawk PennySaver right now.

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