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Snakebitten

Kate Yeomans

The Small “Antique Boats” sign on the open metal door is thus far the only indication that this small warehouse on the shore of the Farmington River in Canton, Conn., is the right place, but the scent of wood dust and varnish emanating from within the building reaffirms my hunch. Inside, John Carl, a master of woodworking, offers a greeting as he stands beside an upside-down hull with his young son. When I ask for Boyd Mefferd, Carl tells me he is out back somewhere, and then he points toward a dimly lit hallway and suggests I head that way.

The hall leads to another workshop, this one as dark as the corridor, its floor covered with heaps of boat parts, steering wheels, vinyl cushions, spare lumber, cardboard boxes, and dust-covered cans of paint. Amid this clutter, beneath the one overhead fluorescent light, Mefferd kneels on the deck of a small runabout that, when it comes into full view, stops me short and elicits a gasp. I had done my homework and had seen the photos, but the pictures did not do justice to Mefferd’s restored 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra, a 21-foot mahogany boat that, with its golden fin, gleaming varnish, and polished chrome, represents an absolutely stunning example of mid-20th-century imagination and craftsmanship.

 

Jaw-dropping, wide-eyed responses such as mine are just what Chris-Craft was hoping for when it launched this boldly and uniquely shaped model 50 years ago. The company by then had become the nation’s largest builder of recreational boats, and while it had competition from other builders, Chris-Craft was adept at delivering what the masses wanted in a boat: something the entire family could enjoy at an affordable price.

As the legend goes, in 1876, 15-year-old Christopher Columbus Smith and his brother Hank built duck boats for themselves and then for a few local hunters. One boat led to the next, and eventually Christopher formed the Chris Smith & Sons Boat Co. in 1922. The company continued to grow, and by 1949 it had become the world’s largest builder of mahogany boats. In the early 1950s, Chris-Craft, with an eye on the auto industry, saw a need to modernize its designs.

“The sales manager was an automotive man, and he heard Ford was coming out with a two-seater, and GM was coming out with a two-seater, and Chris-Craft was not going to be outdone by Detroit,” remembers Chris Smith, grandson of the company’s founder. “So he talked the management into coming out with a two-seater boat.”

Created by a designer who had worked for General Motors, the Cobra—with a bull-nose bow, a low transom, and a raised motor box culminating in a fiberglass dorsal fin—was Chris-Craft’s answer to Corvette and the two-seater craze that it expected would follow the roadster’s release. Indeed, Chris-Craft used a number of car parts for the Cobra; the dashboard, horn button, steering column, and steering wheel all came from a 1949 Chrysler model. “But Cobras were a complete failure for Chris-Craft,” Smith says, laughing. “They built an 18- and a 21-footer and tried to sell a few, but they weren’t even in production for a full year.”

Chris-Craft was adept at building boats in a quick and cost-effective manner, but because of the Cobra’s design—particularly the bull nose of the bow and the flare of the hull, which were difficult to plank—the boat’s construction consumed lots of labor hours. Thus they were expensive to build and carried hefty prices, which turned away many potential customers. Also, because the boat could seat only two or three adults, it was not regarded as a family boat, a selling point that had benefited so many earlier Chris-Craft models. The company therefore ceased production in less than a year, building 108 Cobras (56 21-footers and 52 18-footers) before refocusing on more traditional and profitable designs.

Despite its disappointing sales, Smith notes, the Cobra did serve a purpose for Chris-Craft. “If you can imagine this scenario,” Smith says, “a grandfather, out with his teenage grandson, passes by a showroom. The teenager sees the Cobra and says, ‘Hey Gramps, let’s take a look at that!’ and so into the showroom they go. While the grandson is captivated by the Cobra, a salesman steers the grandfather to something like the 17-footer that could seat five adults and have room for a picnic basket and even water skis—so that he can take his grandson waterskiing. Chris-Craft sold more than 2,500 of the 17-foot Sportsmans, and they were in production for four or five years.”

 

 

Rare Indeed, but the Cobra possesses other qualities that collectors value. “Anyone who’s into classic boats knows the Cobra story,” says 60-year-old John Russell, who owns a number of office buildings in Portland, Ore., and who purchased a 21-footer a few years ago. “They are the icons of the mahogany speedboat. The only auto equivalent might be the ’55 Mercedes Gullwing.”

While Russell possesses three other classic boats, his Cobra is his most cherished; an artist’s rendering of her hangs prominently in his office. Like other Cobra owners, he shares her story as though the boat is a member of the family. Chris-Craft originally delivered his Cobra, hull number 21-046, with a Chrysler Hemi engine—capable of propelling the boat to 50 mph—to American industrialist Henry Kaiser, who planned to use it at his home in Hawaii. (Kaiser purchased three Cobras, one for each of his three homes.)

The boat remained in Honolulu despite changing hands several times, until its most recent owner prior to Russell, intent on restoring her but realizing he had neither the expertise nor the time to do so properly, contacted Dave Lobb of Northwest Classic Boats in Seattle. Lobb had recently completed renovating for Russell a 1941 Chris-Craft barrel back, which then won Best of Show at Wooden Boat Week at Lake Tahoe—the vintage boat world’s equivalent of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Russell purchased the Cobra through Lobb but had it restored by Jim West of West Coast Boat Restoration in Portland, so that he could be more involved in reclaiming this vessel that had fallen into such a state of disrepair. “It was trashed,” Russell recalls. “It was a boat that was only good enough to be used as a pattern to build a new one, but the fin was intact.”

Realizing her potential value, Russell purchased the Cobra for $35,000 and then spent another $120,000 to have West restore it in time to be presented this past summer at the 2005 Lake Tahoe event, which included the Cobra as a featured marque in recognition of its 50th anniversary. “The standard at Tahoe is, ‘as it came out of the showroom,’ ” Russell explains. “Then the question is, ‘Well, how did it come out of the showroom?’ What color were the spark plug wires? What color was the engine? Those were difficult questions, since the boat is 50 years old, and the engines have been subject to years of use and oils and the marine environment.”

Russell and others rely on a network of like-minded antique boat aficionados when researching the answers to such questions. He learned that the original color of the Hemi engine was turquoise, so Russell had the company in Cleveland that was restoring the engine paint it turquoise, an extra measure that no doubt contributed to her warm reception at Tahoe. Now that it has been restored, Russell intends to take his Cobra on the boat show circuit in 2006, and while he could also use it for family outings, he hesitates for fear of damaging her pristine condition.

Although he regularly zips around Sand Lake in Orlando, Fla., in his Cobra, Terry Fiest, a 63-year-old executive with a company that makes weapons training and simulation systems for the U.S. military, regards his boat as fondly as Russell does his. Now living and working in Orlando, Fiest grew up in western Montana, where he spent time at a nearby lake filled with wooden boats. He had heard about t he Cobra, and he bought the first one he ever saw, in 1994, for $9,500. A previous owner, one of only two, had painted the mahogany hull to make it look like fiberglass, and had installed a Corvette engine in it, but the rest of the original parts remained in place. For three years, the boat sat untouched in Fiest’s garage while he researched Cobras, intent on learning as much as he could about the model so that he could restore his properly.

 

Fiest discovered that many of the 80 Cobras that still exist remain in the same families that purchased them brand-new, though those descendants do not always recognize what treasures they possess. Lost Cobras that resurface—often referred to as project boats, gray boats, or pattern boats—usually appear more suitable for dumpsters than restoration. Someone with a skilled eye, however, can pluck one from among the weeds in a corner of a backyard or from a storage shed and recapture its beauty.

 

Satisfied that he had done his homework, Fiest began his restoration part-time in the evenings. After 20 months, he had stripped, repaired, and revarnished the mahogany hull. He also spent about $50,000 in materials, and he has no regrets. “The combinations of the blond and traditional red mahogany varnish, the gold fin, the influence of the Art Deco period, the crown hull and its tapers and multiple lines, the black alligator dash, the gold cushions, and chrome accents—it’s an incredible piece of work,” he says with a sigh. “It’s a piece of art.”

In new sewickley township, Pa., Frank Miklos, a part-time web designer, photographer, and vintage boat restorer, usually works on boats made by Century, a Chris-Craft competitor, but when he saw a Cobra for sale, he could not resist. “If the Cobra wasn’t a unique boat, we wouldn’t have bought it,” says Miklos, who purchased it with his father and brother. “The Cobra is just a neat boat.”

His 18-foot model was discovered in a barn in Altoona, Pa., where it had been stored and forgotten from the late 1960s to 1988, and was offered at half the price of what it probably was worth. Miklos brought the boat home and stored it for 10 more years before finally beginning its restoration, which he hopes to complete in time for next summer so that he can present it at the 10th annual Conneaut Lake Classic boat show in western Pennsylvania. Miklos contends that, regardless of its state of disrepair, when a Cobra resurfaces it can enjoy a second life. “Any of them can be rebuilt, if the right person comes along,” he says.

While folks such as Russell and Fiest have spent considerable money on their restorations, Miklos insists that it costs only about $3,000 in materials to build a wooden boat from scratch. The rest of the price is measured in labor, time, and expertise. “Materials are usually only 5 to 10 percent of the job cost,” he says. “The labor is what costs the most, the know-how on how to put it back together. If you do the work yourself, it’ll only cost you about 10 percent of what it would cost to have someone else restore it.”

Miklos says most restored Cobras sell for about $80,000, but, he adds, that figure is flexible. “There are people in the classic wooden boat world that will pay whatever it takes to get the boat they want. There really are no set prices,” he says. “It’s more a matter of how much you want one versus what it’s worth, or how much someone is willing to sell it for.”

In Connecticut, Boyd Mefferd’s 21-foot Cobra is for sale for $110,000, and he will not budge on this price. He carefully lays open a folder on the bow of the Cobra and invites me to look at some photos depicting her condition when Mefferd first saw her. She had no bottom, rotted sides, and barely enough internal structure to keep the hull intact. A client gave Mefferd $30,000 to purchase the boat, which he then hauled from Pennsylvania to his workshop to begin the restoration.

Chris-Craft had shipped this Cobra new, equipped with a Cadillac engine, to Washington, D.C., where it sold for $5,800. At some point, she traveled to Florida, then to New Jersey, and on to Pennsylvania, where Mefferd found her. The owner who commissioned the restoration of the Cobra had insisted on a delivery date, which Mefferd rarely agrees to. When he missed the deadline, Mefferd appeased the client by giving him his money back and putting the boat up for sale himself.

 

Mefferd, a former sculptor who has been restoring boats since 1981, spends most of his working hours dressed in varnish-stained khakis and leather boat shoes, the left one revealing a blue-sock-covered toe. As we talk, I circle around the Cobra, unable to resist the temptation to run my fingers along the smooth varnished deck. He follows behind, compulsively wiping off smudges with his right index finger.

He figures the restoration of this Cobra took 1,700 hours. His business partner, John Carl, did much of the woodwork, and they hired an auto body specialist to work on the fiberglass fin, a job that took 40 hours. The new bottom is cold-molded, and the new engine is a fuel-injected Chevy. Mefferd, who also serves as a judge at antique and classic boat shows, says some people will not even look at an antique boat with a modern engine, while others have no interest in antique boats unless they have modern engines.

Mefferd, with hazel eyes and thinning gray hair that falls in casual tight curls to just above his shoulders, invites me outside to look at some other projects that he has yet to begin. Because it costs so much to restore the boats, he does not do any on speculation; he will sell boats as is, or restore them on demand. We turn the corner of the shed and there, in the side yard, is a row of old wooden boats. In various states of disrepair, they lie under blue and green tents, ensnared in ragweeds and poison ivy vines and in some cases serving as shelter for yellow jackets’ hives. None is a Cobra, but most are vintage wooden Chris-Crafts. “Chris-Crafts turn up more than anything else,” Mefferd says. “They survive better than anything else.”

The sight of these boats is a jarring contrast to the vision inside the workshop, where the Cobra and the other five fully or nearly restored Chris-Crafts are sheltered. Mefferd by this time has recited to me the stories of each of the finished runabouts—when they were built, where they spent their time, and where they were rediscovered, often in barns and backyards after the original owners had passed away.

I lament that there could be a few Cobras right now somewhere, in similar condition, just waiting to be found. It is a shame, I tell him, to see these boats in such tough shape. Mefferd smiles and says, “They’ll all get restored. They always have.”

Boyd’s Antique Boats
860.693.4811
www.boydsantiqueboats.com

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