Once a fixer-upper, classic Chris-Craft proves to be a winner
About four years ago, Mike Janota, who runs the Community Sailing program at Sea Star Base Galveston, decided to get a little motor boat so that he and his wife, Jeannie, could cruise leisurely up and down the waterways of Bayou Vista, where they live. He was glad to find a 17-foot classic Chris-Craft for sale in a warehouse in the Clear Lake area.
Throughout most of the 20th century, the name Chris-Craft was almost synonymous with motor boating for pleasure. This Chris-Craft was in what boat dealers call “project condition,” equivalent to a “fixer-upper” in real estate. It needed a lot of fixing up. But the price was right, so Janota bought it and looked around for someone who might restore it for him.
“It turned out there were guys all over the country rebuilding these boats, but as I asked around, one name kept coming up: Rick Thomson, who runs The Wooden Boat shop in Lockhart, Texas,” Janota said.
He contacted Thomson, undoubtedly the expert on Chris-Craft restoration, but soon realized that it would cost far too much to have him do the work. Janota decided to take on the “project” by himself, but Thomson graciously offered to coach him as it went along. It turned out to be a two-year project.
“I got daily advice via computer from Rick,” Janota said.
He was working on it in a garage when two men came by and asked him what year the boat was built.
“When I bought the boat, it was listed as having been built in 1959,” Janota said.
“No, no,” said one of the men. Both turned out to be Chris-Craft aficionados. “She’s a war baby, built in the ‘40s.”
“He pulled out the rear seat — I didn’t even know it came out — and showed me the builder’s number and date inscribed in the beam behind it: 1942,” Janota said.
His visitors’ knowledgeable eyes had discerned telltale details: the two-part flat windscreen, rather than the single, curved ones of the post-war models, and the fittings and hardware about the deck.
“So after that, her name was War Baby,” Janota said.
In 1942, when War Baby was ordered and construction begun, Chris-Craft had been building small recreational boats for more than 60 years. The company, founded in Algonac, Mich., by Chris Smith and his brother, Henry, was one of the first to apply modern manufacturing techniques to the production of boats. Pre-cut interchangeable parts were assembled on a production line, including gasoline engines after a merger to form the Smith-Ryan Boat and Engine Company.
What Henry Ford did for the automobile, Chris-Craft did for pleasure boating, making it available to a wide range of working- and middle-class people. Though the company’s offerings included high-end models popular among the elite — Henry Ford himself had one — it also built smaller “entry level” boats designed to be affordable to anyone with a job.
Mike and Jeannie Janota’s boat was one of those — a “sport utility” boat and, as it happened, one of the last of its kind. During the Depression years of the 1930s, the pool of potential customers diminished, but the consistent quality of Chris-Craft’s mahogany-built boats kept the company alive.
When the United States entered World War II, Chris-Craft, already set up for the kind of mass production that proved crucial to victory, turned to building boats for the Navy. The company supplied a wide variety of small craft, from patrol boats to launches and rescue vessels. The boat now called War Baby was apparently sidelined for the duration.
She was finally completed and delivered in 1959, the date Janota had been given for her vintage. Her true date of initial construction qualified her, after years of careful restoration, to enter the “Antique Classic” division at this year’s Keels & Wheels competition at Lakewood Yacht Club in Seabrook.
“We won, but we got second place in the division,” Janota said. “The judges were from all over the country, and they really knew about Chris-Craft. I think I got points off because of the new floor I had put in the bottom. It really looked good, I thought, but it was not quite the same as the original. These guys are really sticklers.”