The REAL Runabouts

By Robert Speltz

I guess I’’m a fanatic. Growing up in the early 1950’s, I always seemed to be interested in just one type of pleasure craft, the inboard speedboat. Like so many others in my generation, I was awestruck by the sight and sound of a sleek and shiny Gar Wood, Hacker, Dee Wite, or Chris Craft. I regret having missed the ‘Golden Age’ of luxurious speedboats, and I’ve often wished that I’’d been born in the 20’’s or 30’’s, when I could have really enjoyed the thousands of flashy, high-powered inboards that roared across the nation’s waterways.

The International Mari-time Dictionary defines runabout as “A small open or decked motor boat with a length ranging usually from 16’ to 30’ designed particularly for fast day runs of not more than a few hours in sheltered waters,” but the sight of a 30’ runabout today is a rare one indeed, when most of us think of the runabout as the small out-board speedboat.

The origins of the true runabout are somewhat clouded and vague. Current authorities on the subject seem to disagree on when the first true speedboat appeared, and my own observations have led me to conclude that the era was ushered in around 1924, and that its peak was reached around 1951 or 1952. Prior to 1924, most so-called “runabouts’ were really only glorified launches, being displacement or at least semi-displacement hulls. The hulls of the real runabouts were the semi-vee planing type.

The famous builders – Chris Craft, Dee Wite, Hacker Craft, Sea Lyon, Ramely, Gar Wood, Belle Isle Bear Cat – all started their businesses during this period. Christopher Columbus Smith, for example, was building small wooden duck boats on the shore of his beloved St. Clair River in 1900. By 1930 he and his four brothers operated five huge plants using techniques adapted from Henry Ford’s revolutionary assembly line process. These techniques were helpful in making pleasure boating a sport in which thousands could take part.

John L. Hacker had a similar beginning, opening his own boat building plant. In 1920 near Detroit, MI. Some of this nation’s finest, most stylish speedboats came from John’s factory. In fact, to this very day. some old boat collectors prefer the ‘Hacker’ because of the quality workmanship and materials that went into each model. John Hacker did not survive the Depression, as the market for sleek, 45’ double-ended speedboats with huge V-12 engines simply disappeared. The Hacker Boat Co. survived until about 1953, though John himself spent his remaining years as a superb marine designer and had no personal connection with the boat building firm that still bore his name.

One could go on and on covering histories of famous boat builders, but it was usually the same: most had
humble beginnings, reached a peak along the way and in most cases finally disappeared altogether.

Why were they so popular once, yet today almost non-existent? Well, let’s take a look.

The late 1920’s and early 30’s were a wild and woolly period, full of fads, big cars and fast living. The inboard powerboat had grown beyond being a rich man’s toy – something you putt-putt around the lake on a hot summer evening. Now it had become a sleek, mahogany work of art, covered with chromium hardware, coats and coats of shiny spar varnish, and genuine leather upholstery. By 1930 inboard runabouts were the rage, and builders knocked themselves out trying to outdo each other in length, style and horsepower. Those Americans who were wealthy enough, even though in the throes of our nation’s worst depression, still were making money and wanted all the luxuries money could buy. If you owned a Hacker, Gar Wood, Sea Lyon, Chris Craft, Dee Wite or any other inboard speedboat you were considered to be the ‘cat’s pajamas!’ The speedboat phenomenon, as it soon became commonly known, swept the nation like wildfire. The Eastern Seaboard states, especially in the lake resort areas probably still boast the largest number of wooden
speedboats in use.

Having a big, streamlined runabout tied down at the pier made one the envy of many other less fortunate souls! The boat builders all knew this, and in their literature they quietly played up these points.

A quick review of the 1930 Chris Craft catalog shows the firm offering some 20 runabouts from 20’ to 28’ in length. Engine options ran from a small 75 hp up to 250 hp. Options available to customize your Chris covered several pages. Most large runabouts had twin windshields, and  convertible or sliding landau roofs. These allowed owners to use their boats under almost any weather condition.

“You will find yourself falling in with youthful plans,” explained a 1930 Chris Craft advertisement. “You too will enjoy picnics and shoreline excursions. You will do it easily and without fatigue, for a Chris Craft glides swiftly, like a fine motor car, while cushions are deep and
luxurious.” The women were targeted too in these early advertising campaigns. Here is but a sample: “The gay regatta, the afternoon tea, the dinner-dance all are close by. Count the Chris Crafts at Newport, on the Riviera or at Buenos Aires, your most delightful people are Chris Craft owners!” On and on it went. The brand name was different, but life would become one gay, carefree chase once you owned a shiny new inboard runabout.

The most popular size range was 22’ to 28’ in length. Construction most often was double-planked mahogany on oak framing. Some firms used canvas between layers of planking to prevent leaks, but this soon became unpopular, as the boats began to leak when the old canvas shrank or rotted away. Decking style varied from firm to firm. Most were applied in strips about the width of four ‘planks,’ but three seams were not real, being cut into the surface of the deck and filled with white seam compound to match the real seams. The use of two-tone decks soon became stylish, with the king plank and covering boards either stained or natural varnished oak. White deck seams came in the early 1930’s, too. Up to that time, seams were finished in natural tan or brown. Finally, builders started painting in the deck seams with white to add detail and visual contrast to their
creations. To this day the practice of painting in deck seams on runabouts is very much in vogue.

Speedboat buffs in the late 1920’s considered any inboard with the engine behind the driver to be a “suicide boat.” No person in his right mind would ever want to sit ahead of a gasoline engine. Times started to change though, as engines became larger and heavier and boats became faster. The trim Ditchburn was built about the end of the launch era, when that of the runabout began. The engine compartment was installed ahead of the passenger area. She was built in Canada and powered by a rather small Red Wing Marine engine. The convertible top was a far cry from today’s vinyl ones, but the detail work on seats, deck and hardware really set her off as a classic.

As launches faded from popularity, runabouts whose engines began more and more to be placed behind the driver captured the attention of buyers. By the 1930’s, hulls were no longer the round or flat-bottomed displacement type. The wide planing type with relatively deep, V-shaped forward sections and straight flat after sections had come of age. “Rumble Seats” were in fashion and all controls and instruments were within easy reach of the driver. All the way up through the 1950’s and even the early 1960’s Chris Craft and other inboard builders still offered the three-cockpit runabout. Most “Boat Taxi” and “Speedboat Ride” operators preferred this style runabout, because they could carry more paying customers per trip and offer a smoother ride.

Early cabin cruisers were much influenced by the runabout. Chris Craft, Hacker, Robinson, Sea Gull and most other builders of that era styled their cruisers much like the inboard runabout, simply adding cabins. The true flying bridge, as we know it in 1976, was still years in the future. The Chris Craft double cabin sedan cruiser was popular in the early 1930’s, and many still are in use today. Can you imagine having a 46’, all varnished cruiser today and being able to afford to have it revarnished every spring? In the 1930’s most inboards were varnished, as labor was cheaper, and skilled craftsmen were more plentiful. The style was toward shiny topsides.

A new type speedboat began to make slight inroads into inboard boat sales about 1930. The “Utility” or ‘Sportsman” type boat had a large, open area, rather than small, upholstered cockpits. The true runabout buff had little time for this open inboard, but before long people realized that having the rear section of the boat open made the boat more readily usable for various pastimes. Fishing, swimming, or even Aqua Planing could now be done with ease.

Ultimately, Chris Craft, Gar Wood and Century all offered more “utility” than “runabout” models down through the years since with less decking covering the boat there was less refinishing; so costs were lower when revarnishing time rolled around.

Not all runabouts were built alike. The Ventnor racing runabout had a sleek hull, low windscreen and driver’s controls in the stern, making this little beauty appear to be flying even while tied to the pier.

Styles of custom inboards ran from the sublime to the ridiculous. Such builders as Hacker Craft, Dee Wite and Gar Wood built hundreds of fine custom speedboats. Dee Wite, with their series of “Lodge Torpedoes” in sizes from 20’ to 40’, were really examples of how much wood could be shaped, sanded and finished to produce a boat that gained attention wherever it went! Authorities have told me the double-ended Torpedo did not operate as well as it should have at high speed, and the price was very high, so demand stayed quite low. Hacker Craft built some 40’ and 45’ inboards in the late 1930’s and 40’s, some of which are still very much in use today. MISS LAKE GEORGE is a fine example of custom inboard building. She is 38’ in length and was built in 1933 as one of a pair, the other of which was sold to the King of Siam. She is designed so that you can walk between the two massive engines with ease, even though they are 300 hp each. Seating for 20 passengers was provided. Still operating on Lake George, New York, she is a rarity today, because many of the larger fine old runabouts were destroyed as the operating and maintenance expenses simply became too great.

About 1952 was the peak of the inboard’s popularity in this country. The decline of the mahogany speedboat began after the end of World War II, as factors limited their widespread popularity. During the War all pleasure boat construction ceased. Even after the war it took a while for builders again to procure the quality grades of mahogany, oak and cedar they wanted. Quite a few speedboats in 1947 and ‘48 came from the factory painted, not varnished as in the past. This was done to cover up the quality of woods used, short planks, many seams, etc. Aluminum boats appeared on the scene in 1947, and shortly after that the first Winner fiberglass boat appeared at the New York Boat Show. In the mid-1950’s outboard motors were well refined, some even as large as 40 hp. Electric starting and remote controls made an outboard as easy to drive and maintain as any inboard ever was. Some of the major boat builders held off entering fiberglass boat construction longer than others, but finally, by the mid-1960’s such names as Chris Craft, Century and others, were phasing out of wood and into glass. Chris Craft started using fiberglass in 1955 on the rear tail fin and deck assembly of their now classic and scarce “Cobra.” “The ‘Silver Arrow,” an all glass inboard, also appeared at that time. Chris Craft still built mahogany inboards ‘til the early 1960’s, but by then only the hulls were still wood with decks and interiors made of other materials. Today a person who really wants a true mahogany inboard speedboat must buy a used one and restore it if necessary, or contract with one of the few remaining small custom builders and have one built to his specifications.

Since about 1960 we have witnessed a considerable revival in the popularity of wooden runabouts in this nation. Prices today have steadily edged up as demand for remaining boats has risen. There are dozens of firms who specialize strictly in restoring and selling older wooden inboard boats. Some specialize in only one make of boat such as Chris Craft, Hacker or Gar Wood.

The true runabouts once allowed literally thousands of enthusiasts to enjoy boating at reasonable costs. They played a major part in popularizing recreational boating and shouldn’t be forgotten. Today there are at least five major clubs for those who are interested in older wooden powerboats, and it appears as if the enthusiasm is gaining momentum.

Editors Note: Reprinted from The Wooden Boat magazine, issue Number 10 (May/June 1976)