9 June 2016

My Chris-Craft boyhood dream brought to life

At the 1959 New York Boat Show, I grabbed a Chris-Craft “Dream Builder” brochure. And although they would manufacture more than 8,000 boats that year, the Silver Arrow model was one of four featured on the cover. She was marine progress, embodied, as she sported fiberglass atop her wood hull. The other three models were all wood, top to bottom. They suddenly seemed old-fashioned.

More than 50 years later I realized a dream that began while I gazed at that brochure. Its fulfillment arrived as a classic Chris-Craft Silver Arrow. It commanded the lake that afternoon.

My spirited ride on a Pennsylvania lake that almost-warm October afternoon was the high point of my love affair with the Silver Arrow. She was Chris-Craft’s hull number SA-19-066 (the 66th hull built out of a two-year production run of 92). My friend Dick Hickman owned, restored and regularly used her on that lake. On the water she was more substantial than the lightweight boats that Chris-Craft was then famous for.

Her weight was due to the V-8 hiding under her engine box (rather than a six) and fiberglass-covered cedar-wood hull. The Silver Arrow was the first and only boat that Chris-Craft made that way. Want to check? On any Silver Arrow, look forward under the dash panel and up far in front of the foot kick panel and you’ll see the framing of a wood hull.

That extra heft (about 20% more weight) splits and flattens out cruiser wakes and large wind-generated waves for an outstanding cruising experience. She is not a water ski boat, however, due to the lack of rapid acceleration needed for her to plane quickly. As a result, the Silver Arrow did not compete well against rivals like Century and Correct Craft water-ski boats, which were then nipping at Chris-Craft’s heels.

A Silver Arrow also has anti-trip chines that allow it to bank into a turn better than most runabouts. Her twin exhaust pipes easily turn heads and her styling keeps folks staring. My ride was smooth, cushioned, powerful and great fun as Hickman capably handled this boat that he restored himself. 

Models like this Silver Arrow were built heavy deliberately, addressing the early durability issues in Chris-Craft’s fiberglass boats. But the weight coupled with the according increased production costs limited sales. The high costs and low sales quickly ended the Arrow’s run as a star Chris-Craft model. Simultaneously, as Chris-Craft struggled to change its marketing strategy and manufacturing processes to adapt to the new and popular boat-building material, Sea Ray and Wellcraft sprung up and eclipsed Chris-Craft as leaders in fiberglass production boats.

The restoration of this 19′ Silver Arrow was a long and complex labor of love, since Hickman wanted her to be an award-winning work of art. She required accomplished wooden boat restoration experience plus fiberglass boat refinishing skills. Since her metal trim was impossible to replace, Dick had to straighten, polish, and buff all the unique trim pieces on this boat to the same level of shine that Chris-Craft achieved in 1959. He studied, tackled and achieved historic accuracy in his restoration. It was an honor for me to enjoy this handsome boat and its wonderful ride.

One final note about the Silver Arrow’s signature styling: those classic tail fins! According to noted Chris-Craft writer, Jack Savage, rumor has it that the fins were influenced by the design of the 1959 Buick. That Buick was conceived by Bob Cardaret for GM, who was a good friend of Don Mortrude (Chris-Craft’s outside contract designer for the Silver Arrow model). Apparently, they often dined at the GM studio while that Buick was in the room, under development.

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