“Plywood Outboards”

by Chuck Petersen

With the Higgins Boat Company featured as the marque class for the 2003 Red Wing show, I thought a look at my favorite segment of the classic outboard era, plywood boats, was in order. While Higgins must have produced some models in their history, I could not find any information to pass along. While Bob Speltz lists Higgins, Inc., New Orleans, LA in his “Biglist” of plywood builders, no specific models were found. Since I find the sleek, sporty lines of the mid-50’s performance craft most appealing I will mention three of the industry leaders for that era.

In terms of pure performance, the late 1940’s and early 1950’s were dominated by the St. Joseph, MS-based Speedliner Boat Company. The 12’ Rocket, The 13’ Thunderbolt, and 14’ Trophy were light and fast. The original company was actually called the “General Marine Company” and started out in Chicago, IL. Bob Speltz features some excellent photos in the Volume Four Outboard Edition. While these boats were fast, the steep chine angle would have limited turning ability when compared to later designs. Very few vintage examples survive today due to their “rode hard and put away wet” lifestyle and light construction.

Early Switzer Craft hulls built by the small McHenry, IL family business resembled the Speedliner in most aspects. By 1951-52 however, the distinctive “Bullet” design featuring flared “non-trip” chines hit the racing scene with a vengeance. In 1952, Bob Switzer won the famed Winnebagoland marathon race help in Oshkosh, WI in a prototype D class Bullet. Truly impressive however, was that three of the next four finishers rode standard Switzer D marathon hulls. My dad, “Silver Fox” Petersen, attended the race and proclaimed on the spot, “I need one of those.” His 1953 model is still in mint condition and has been shown at the Clayton Race Regatta. Switzer also produced sport runabouts and even cruiser models. A sport or “gentlemen’s” plywood boat would contain more creature comforts (like seats!) and perhaps a deeper “V” bottom for a safe if slower ride.

No builder bridged this gap better between performance and comfort than Clyde Turner of Aristo Craft Boat Works in Atlanta, GA. I happened upon a mint 1954 14’ Torpedo model in 1987 that remains my most prized boating possession. While it will not keep up with the lighter, flat bottom Switzer, the upholstered seats and eye popping lines make up for the 10 mph or so. Some nice replica versions of this boat are seen often in the Mt. Dora area. Bill Turner has done a great job in bringing back this legend. The Torpedo did race in the “OPC” stock class with some success, but was really suited to warm Wisconsin weekends of cruising and impressing the ladies!

I hope to see many of you at the 2003 Red Wing show. Please seek out “Big Bob” Johnson and ask him about “Miss Higgy”. Mitch LaPointe and I are still sore from that 1990 epic adventure. Perhaps she will resurface at the 2003 rendezvous?