Christopher Columbus Smith
Chriscraft 1955 COBRA 21 Ft
The Cobra was made strictly with speed in mind. This boat was a finely crafted machine and from the
very first model has developed a following like no other boat of its kind.
EARLY CHRIS CRAFT RUNABOUTS
By Tom Crew
Courtesy of the Mariners Museum
To view pictures click on photo
worldwide boat building empire, founded by Christopher Columbus Smith. He was a leader in producing
standardized powered pleasure boats. Thousands have enjoyed the cooling spray while boating on a warm
summer afternoon in a classic Chris-Craft. Many antique boat enthusiasts easily recognize the design
features and rakish style of these varnished mahogany beauties. Yet most people know little about the early Chris
Smith runabouts or their features. Documentation is sparse and photographs are rare, but through careful research
and interviews with some owners of these rare boats, the specifications begin to emerge.
It is commonly accepted that Chris Smith's runabout business did not begin until the establishment of Chris
Smith and Sons Boat Company in February 1922. In fact, as early as 1915, Smith advertised his custom boat
building services in Power Boating Magazine, urging readers to "Let Me Build You A Smith Boat." This
promotional piece featured designs for "pleasure launches, fast runabouts, express cruisers and passenger
carrying hydroplanes." It also clearly showed Smith's interest in and capabilities for building pleasure boats long
before he began the runabout business in 1922. An increasingly successful racing career probably encouraged him to
expand his business.
Competitive speedboat racing was a method by which boat builders and hull designers tested the quality of their
ideas and gained recognition among their peers, Many were propelled into the ring as popular heroes. The lust for
speed was fueled by such designers as John L. Hacker, George Crouch, and Christopher Columbus Smith, but financed
by gamblers, industrialists, and syndicates.
By 1915, Smith's proven winners, Baby Speed Demon and Baby Reliance, were awarded the American Power Boat
Association's coveted Gold Cup. His dreams for a successful pleasure boat business began to take shape. Smith's
racing career continued to flourish during the next several years.
An admiring media extolled the string of victories achieved by the Miss Detroit series and it's championship designer
the "wizard 2 of Algonac." Despite all his racing success, Smith apparently did not wish to remain a one-dimensional
boat builder. Although most of his energies seemed to concentrate on racing hulls, he continued to solicit pleasure
Stunning documentation of Chris Smith's ability and virtuosity as a hull designer and boat builder is published in
Lloyd's Register of American Yachts. This premier compilation of data regarding American and Canadian-owned
yachts offers indisputable evidence of what was perhaps Smith's most ambitious project, an 80-foot cruiser.
The record indicated a wooden-hulled vessel named Hourless measuring 80ft.x16ft.x6ft., weighing 42 gross tons, and
powered by twin, six- cylinder Murray and Tregurtha gasoline engines, designed and constructed by C. C. Smith Boat
Company, Algonac, Michigan, in 1919 for Walter E. Flanders of Detroit, Michigan. The cruiser enjoyed a long career,
continuing to appear in the registers as the Hourless until 1947. Subsequent name changes and final disposition of
the vessel are not indicated. It is, however, an astonishing historical fact that Chris Smith, undoubtedly with the
assistance of his talented sons, produced this 80- foot marvel. Their accomplishment is all the more remarkable when
you consider that their giant boat building empire never produced a standard cruiser greater than 72 feet in length.
Marine Service Corporation, Detroit, Michigan. A remarkably informative advertisement about this design
appeared in the August 1921 issue of Power Boating.
The boat was powered with a Hall-Scott four- cylinder 100 horsepower engine and equipped with electric starting
and lighting, standard reverse gear, and water-cooled exhaust. It sold for $3,950 and was available in two models, a
standard painted finish with mahogany trim or a full mahogany hull for $500 extra. Both models were built with
Smith's trademark double- planked bottom. The ad also featured a rare photograph of this runabout showing a large
rear cockpit design aft of the engine rather than the more familiar forward steering. This is clear evidence of a design
transition. Smith's design reflected the work of his contemporaries, who typically built runabouts which resembled
automobiles with steering controls behind the engine. Within two years, however, Smith redesigned his runabouts
with the more popular forward steering. This will be discussed in more detail later. There are no existing records to
indicate how many of these boats were built, but here again is clear evidence that Chris Smith was anticipating a
move into pleasure boat production before the storied
dissolution of his racing partnership with Gar Wood.
The following year, Chris Smith and his four sons, Jay W., Bernard, Owen, and Hamilton, established the new
Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company.
What was perhaps the company's first advertisement appeared in the April 1922 issue of Motor Boat
Many of us have conformed to the popular notion that the standard 26-foot runabout was the only boat model
initially offered by Chris Smith and Sons. This ad contradicts that misconception by listing four different models
available. First, there was a 24-foot, 18-mile-per-hour runabout which sold f or $2,200. There were also two different
26' models, a forward drive double cockpit and a rear drive single cockpit. They sold for $3,000 and $2,800,
respectively. These two models reflected the Smiths' transition from the traditional rear cockpit design to the
modern forward cockpit steering. It also indicated their awareness of what was in demand by the popular market.
The fourth model offered, a 33-foot Baby Gar, may be a complete surprise to many, This boat achieved advertised
high performance speeds from 50 to 60 miles per hour and sold for $7,500. It is true, the first 33-foot Baby G
runabouts were built by Chris Smith for Gar Wood.
The original table of offsets is found in the Chris-Craft Collection. Incidentally, this same advertisement may be the
first published use of the nickname "Chris Smith Craft." This was soon shortened to the better-known Chris-Craft.
So what were the first Chris- Crafts? Research into the early accounting and purchase ledgers reveal that the first hull
built by the Smiths' new company was not a runabout, but rather a racer, the Packard-Chris Craft.
him in August 1922 just in time to participate in the Gold Cup races to be held the following month in
Detroit. This powerful new entry onto the racing scene measured 26ft.x6ft.x2ft. and was equipped with a six-cylinder
Packard 200 Hp. engine which could achieve speeds up to 45.6 miles per hour. The racer had a white painted hull
with the words Packard and Chris Craft written in distinctive script on the sides. Colonel Vincent drove Packard-Chris
Craft to victory, defeating GarWood, who had won the race the previous five years.
Wood's boat, Baby Gar. Jr., was also a Chris Smith design. A third Smith-built boat known as Chris Craft II also
participated in that Gold Cup race. This boat was driven by Gar Wood's brother George, no doubt in friendly
competition, It differed greatly in appearance from its Packard counterpart because it was designed as a standard
26- foot runabout with a single cockpit and steering controls forward of the engine. It was powered by a 180
horsepower Hall-Scott model A7-A aviation engine which proved to be too small for competitive racing.
Nevertheless, its importance lay in the fact that this was the second hull built by the Smiths.
A previously unidentified photograph found in the Chris-Craft Collection provided a rare glimpse of this early
runabout. Through persistent research, the boat's Gold Cup racing number, G-31, seen in the photograph, was
verified to be the Chris Craft II.
This photograph proved an excellent source of documentation for many features found on the carly Smith runabouts.
Several notable details appear: a single cockpit forward of the engine, no windshield, no lifting rings, pleated
upholstery, a raised engine hatch, four large engine compartment vents installed on the covering boards, a large
open rear cockpit with wicker chairs, and dark seam compound instead of white deck stripes.
Another photograph of a 1922 model boat identified as hull number four, named the All Star, reveals many of the
identical features. One notable exception is that the engine hatch was no longer raised, but was redesigned and
resources, the original hand-written specifications for the 1922 model "Standard 26' Chris Craft" are
carefully preserved in The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives. This seven-page equipment and
materials list unquestionably confirms the original features, both seen and hidden, found on these boats.
The hull's overall dimensions were 26ft.x6ft.6in.x24in. The boat was powered by an eight- cylinder Curtiss OX-5
aviation engine, converted for marine use, which generated 90 horsepower at 1400 rpm. It turned an 18x24 Hyde
propeller, with a left-hand rotation to achieve a maximum speed of 32 miles per hour. A single forward cockpit
provided seating for three people including the driver, while the larger aft cockpit could comfortably carry five on a
bench seat and two wicker chairs. The standard double-planked mahogany hull bottom was designed the same as the
26-foot Gold Cup model with canvas coated in white lead laid between the layers and the sides of batten seam
construction. The interior featured pleated blue upholstery and gray linoleum flooring. Surprisingly, all the deck
hardware consisted of polished brass instead of nickel. This included all the following: cutwater, chocks, cleats, vents,
hatch handles, piano hinges, fuel filler plate and cap, bow light, stern flagpole socket, exhaust flanges, self- bailer,
and some additional items. All the instruments, however, were nickel-plated,
If you purchased a Smith boat it was also equipped with some accessories: mahogany paddle, mahogany pike, canvas
fenders, life preservers, 25-pound anchor and line, mooring lines, and tools. It is interesting to note that although the
boat was constructed primarily with Philippine mahogany, it also included significant amounts of white oak,
butternut, spruce, and ash. Construction costs for this sturdy and well-appointed runabout were calculated to be
$997.50 plus motor, installation, and overhead. The boat, therefore, retailed for $3,200.00 plus tax. The Smiths were
very pleased with the performance and design of the Chris- Craft, which was described by A. W. Mackerer as a
"splendid boat; handles easily -- dry, fast and turns."
By 1924 very few changes were evident. A slightly larger 100 horsepower Curtiss OX-5 engine was offered and the
runabout's beam was widened two inches to 6ft.8in., but the addition of a windshield as standard equipment was
perhaps the most significant improvement. This attractive curved bottom tilt windshield was eventually offered in
two sizes. On the smaller one-piece model the glass was mounted in a metal frame on fifteen-inch stanchions; on the
larger two-piece model the glass was divided by a frame molding and mounted on seventeen-inch stanchions.
Interestingly, the larger windshield secured on fifteen-inch stanchions, is found on the Miss Belle Isle in The Mariners'
Museum. After only two years in business, the Smiths runabout was beginning to make an impact on the
marketplace. Rapid sales growth of the Chris-Craft in the spring of 1924 resulted in the company's increased
production to four boats per week. By May, forty-one new boats were completed for delivery.
redesigned runabout with a new forward double cockpit illustrated full-page advertisements promoting the
ability of Chris Smith and Sons to maintain lower prices as a result of their application of "motor car
standardization and volume production methods" for their boats. The Smiths were probably the first boat
builders to apply these techniques. In an effort to stay ahead of their competition, they cleverly offered the first time
payment plan ever presented for selling boats. A potential buyer only needed a down payment of $1,340 to secure
his Chris-Craft, with the balance due within twelve months. Another sales incentive fully guaranteed the quality of
each boat against construction defects for one year. The literature declared, "It is so nearly trouble-proof that this
guarantee has cost an average of only $6 a boat." The Smiths also tried to avert any possible consumer fears of
unscrupulous dealers who would not honor the company's guarantee with the statement, "When you purchase a
Chris Craft, you deal directly with the builders, who are fully responsible for service." Several more years passed
before a dealer network was established.
Encouraged by their early success and eager to reach a national market, the Smiths registered their first boat display
at the 1926 National Motor Boat Show held in New York City. Here was a wonderful opportunity for the boating
public to comparison shop. Fortunately, the Smiths received a great boost from the show's advanced publicity found
in Yachting Magazine.
world's fastest boats. This new model assures the Chris Craft owner a complete unit, economical to operate,
fully guaranteed, and setting an envious pace for safety, comfort, speed and smartness." what a
recommendation! The 1926 model did offer two new features, a larger 150 horsepower Kermath engine and
a reinforced tilt windshield. This redesigned and strengthened windshield had a solid wood base. It replaced
the stanchion- mounted model, which lacked rigidity.
Despite only four years in business, the young Chris Smith and Sons Boat Company had achieved a reputation for
excellence. Their standard 26-foot runabout known as the Chris-Craft was speedy, strong, safe, and stylish.
Continuing improvements, along with an expanding product line, attracted an increasing share of the boating
market. The ambitious Smiths made a calculated risk in starting a pleasure boat company, but their love of boats and
history of success carried over from racers to runabouts. A boating dynasty was begun.Tom Crew was The Mariners' Museum Archivist for 14 years, from 1982-1996, and responsible for arrangement,
preservation, and administration of the manuscript and photographic collections of The Mariners' Museum, and has
acquired a national reputation as an expert on the history of the Chris-Craft Boat Company.
Feel free to contact Jerry Conrad, the current Chris-Craft Archivist of The Mariners' Museum at (757) 591-7785,
Monday to Friday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.
I would like to thank the Mariners and their Web Master for granting permission to use this article.
Click picture to view changes to Chris Craft Corp from 1874