What Riva speedboats are to the well-heeled of Europe, the Chris-Craft is to the flush on the other side of the Atlantic. And it all started with a 13-year-old boy in 1874. That's how old the aptly named Christopher Columbus Smith was when he built his first wooden boat at the aft end of the 19th century. It must have stayed afloat, because he went on to make a living at it. With brother Henry and some other partners, he formed the Smith Ryan Boat & Engine Company in 1910. A mouthful of a company name could never complement a product this sleek, so it was changed to Chris-Craft in 1924.
The company followed a familiar pattern in those first 14 years of business. Based in Algonac, Mich., just across Lake St. Clair from Detroit, it made beautiful mahogany-hulled high-end racing boats, with the likes of Henry Ford and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst as clients. Then it began mass production, finding a market in the burgeoning middle class, when that handy invention known as money really came into its own. One particular model-the Cadet, a 22-foot runabout launched in 1927-was even available on an installment plan. It was full steam ahead for Chris-Craft.
And then the Great Depression blew a hole below the water line. The company made cheaper vessels and did what it could to save itself from sinking into history. A lifeline came with the advent of the Second World War, when the U.S. Navy commissioned it to produce small patrol boats and launches.
The wind of fortune was again at Chris-Craft's back. Once the war was over and the 1950s got under way, with America living the good life, buying cars, refrigerators, record players and all manner of consumer goods, C-C had a range of 159 models. Top-of-the-line examples went to big names like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Katharine Hepburn. But even the average Jonah could feel like a movie star since less expensive versions still had mahogany, teak and brass fittings. A Chris-Craft was the boat to be seen in.
Apart from looking great and being made well, a Chris-Craft was easy to pilot, something much appreciated by its moneyed customers (who were hardly vulgar boatmen). This helped it become part of the modern culture; C-C boats have starred in many films, including House Boat, Donovan's Reef, The Godfather: Part II, The Dirty Dozen, On Golden Pond, Mission: Impossible III, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The 2001 turkey Pearl Harbor features a 1950s Capri model, which just goes to show how much the filmmakers cared about historical accuracy.
Any fans of The Sopranos may like to cast their minds back to when Tony Soprano was talking to Bobby, sitting in an old Chris-Craft on the lake: "You'll never see it coming. Everything will just go black." Now does that controversial ending make sense?
In a move that makes perfect sense from a diversification point of view, if apparently illogical, the company bought into TV stations during the late 1950s. This involvement lasted until the '90s. A more obvious expansion was the 1962 purchase of the Old Crown Brewing Corporation in Fort Wayne, Ind.
As the tide of technology washed away old methods, it became clear that Chris-Craft would have to use modern materials like fiberglass, hence the Corsair's debut in 1963 and the Commander express hardtop's unveiling at the 1964 New York boat show, first as a 38-footer and subsequently ranging from 19 to 60 feet. Yet the reputation and aura remained intact.
Company ownership has passed from one party to another over the years, but the current owners are Stephen Julius (who once owned Riva) and Steve Heese. Headquarters and production are now based in Sarasota, Fla. Both Harvard Business School alumni, Julius and Heese have also acquired the Indian motorcycle company, another iconic American marque.
These days, as tough economic times bite, there are 19 Chris-Craft, um, craft available, from the 20-foot Silver Bullet to the Roamer 40-footer. Prices currently start at $40,000 for a Lancer 20. A quick look on the Los Angeles Craigslist found a Scorpion 216 going for $6,500. But get this-some members of the Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club have been paying dues for those compadres who are feeling the pinch more. What camaraderie. Imagine Ferrari drivers doing anything like that.