By Chuck Petersen
While attending the 1997 Antique Motorboating Symposium at the wonderful facility in Newport News, I noticed two examples of Chris Craft outboards produced in the 1950s. They were the first and only survivors of this rare brand I have run across over the years. While few specific details concerning the engineering development of these motors exist, I thought a brief history would prove interesting.
In the late 1930s, Jay Smith began working on an outboard motor design to complement the planned production of an outboard line of boats. The
company indeed produced several plywood models most notable of which, the 12 foot was the Meteor two-seater. These were sold as kits for very
reasonable prices (the eight foot rowing pram sold for $48.00 plus shipping). Most were home built but a few were assembled by dealers. These kits went out of production around 1959 as fiberglass took over.
To power the smaller hulls, Chris Craft offered the 5-1/2 hp. Challenger motor in 1949. The larger 10 horse Commander debuted in 1950. These sleek metallic blue engines sold well and 15,000 copies were manufactured in 1950. Production suddenly was halted at the end of 1953. Some say fear of copyright litigation from industry giant, Kiekhaffer Mercury, was to blame. I did notice a striking similarity to the KG-4 model pictured here.
In 1954 the farm machinery concern, Oliver Corporation, bought the former Chris Craft production facility. In addition to the small 5-1/2 and 10 hp models, a 35 hp model was released in 1955. Unlike the earlier models, Oliver offered full shift gear cases and electric starter (35 hp model). While never gaining a significant market share, Oliver did make a design statement with their colorful, fiberglass one-piece cowling.
Production briefly moved overseas to England in 1960 in an attempt to reduce costs. By 1961 all production stopped for good. One interesting side note: In 1958 a toy version of the 35 hp Oliver Olympus was offered by the famous K & O Firm of California. These are now some of the rarer models prized by toy collectors. I ran across one at an Antique store in Escanaba, Michigan. I really like these little guys, but the price tags usually scare me away. Perhaps a future article?
See you in Red Wing.