Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 4, 2016

When Chrysler Ruled The Waves

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Miss Chrysler Crew unlimited hydroplane

Mad Magazine had a parody of Reader’s Digest, as I recall, back in the 1950s with a fake cover headline that read, “We Drove Our Chrysler To Hawaii”. Sadly, there was no story inside (apropos of Mad’s sick humor); because I wanted to see how that turned out.

I have always considered Chrysler a land yacht, not an aquatic one. But I was wrong! Theoretically, it might have been possible to take a Chrysler to Hawaii (although I doubt anyone ever tried); but it probably could have been done – because there was a time when Chrysler ruled the waves.

Almost from its inception in the 1920s, Chrysler, the automotive giant, had an interest in boating. Its founder, Walter P. Chrysler, was keen on boat racing and a fan of the storied Gold Cup event on the Detroit River.

So it was not a complete surprise to see two 100-horsepower, 289-cubic-inch Chrysler Imperial “Red Head” L-6s powering an entry in the 1926 Gold Cup events. A second place finish only whetted Chrysler’s interest; more horsepower, more engines and more successes followed apace. Competitors such as Chris-Craft, Garwood and Sea Lyon were soon vying for Chrysler engine contracts.

Chrysler’s vaunted engineering expertise, quality construction, assembly line methods and volume pricing provided a stimulus that had been lacking to a nascent industry of pleasure boaters. Over the next several decades, Chrysler Marine products would come not only to fuel the birth of that industry, but to dominate it.

But by the 1960s, Chrysler saw it was something of a victim of its own successes: Its engines were better – particularly from a durability standpoint – than most of the boats they were being installed in.

So, over the next 15 years, Chrysler began to augment its extensive lines of inboard and outboard motors, with a full array of Chrysler-branded boats, and even its own trailers. They offered a wide range of small fishing boats, large cabin cruisers and speedboats like the Conqueror. Models often shared the names – not to mention parts, like steering wheels and upholstery – of its cars, such as Fury, Charger, and Valiant. The boats featured industry-leading streamline designs said to ride “atop the water” and foam-filled spaces between decks and hulls that made them almost unsinkable.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.13.06 PMChrysler offered dozens of different engines, from tiny trollers to big displacement racers; “Miss Chrysler Crew”, powered by dual 1,000-horsepower Keith Black-built 426 Hemi V8s, was a terror on the late 1960s unlimited hydroplane tour. For a time, it was possible to buy a Chrysler vehicle, boat and trailer all painted in matching racing team livery.

Chrysler even produced a very popular line of sailboats.

But it all came to an end – for Chrysler anyway – by the early 1980s when Chrysler had to divest itself of its entire marine operation – as a condition of a government bailout needed by its automotive operations. Its engine and boat designs have lived on, in a number of other manufacturers’ products.

But these days, despite thousands of boats sold during its heyday, you would be hard-pressed to find a Chrysler-branded boat. Only a handful still exist.

“Chrysler-branded boats were once No. 1 in the marine industry,” noted David Kain, a boating enthusiast from Saginaw, Mich., who has become something of a keeper of the flame for Chrysler’s once hugely popular branded boats of the 1960s-70s.

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Brochure cover for inboard- and outboard-powered Chrysler boats of the early 1970s.

Kain never could find anyone specializing in the field. So, he took the task on himself. He also has a burgeoning business now – Hurrikain’s Marine Products – he calls the one “true source” for Chrysler Marine parts, restoration work, maintenance and memorabilia.

Time “and the elements” are the enemies of these boats, he says. Most all were early fiberglass – which struggles to stand the test of time. Original molds are long gone, so a viable hull is a “must-have” starting point. The floors, stringers, bulkheads and whatnot can be replaced with modern wood and hand-formed resin. But it is a labor-intensive job, with modest rewards. Even the most collectible boats, like his V8-powered S-III Conqueror, only sell for about $6,000 – fully restored.

But he says traces of Chrysler’s marine heritage can still be found. The V10 engine in the Viper sports car had its origins in the architecture of the 360-cubic-inch (5.9-liter) V8 that powered the last Chrysler speedboats. An enthusiastic, but sadly dwindling community of “old Chrysler car guys who also loved the boats” still show up at Chrysler events like the Mopar Nationals to hawk and collect marine memorabilia, Kain notes. And Chrysler products, like the Miss Chrysler Crew, still hold records in boating industry speed trials – including one as the only unlimited hydroplane to win a race with an automotive engine.

That led me to ask Kain whatever happened to the also-vanished Miss Chrysler Crew? Kain said he’s not sure, but he heard a story that the guy who owned and drove it, Bill Sterett, eventually dug a huge hole on his property in Owensboro, Kentucky, and buried the whole thing in there when its racing days were over. No one seems to know exactly where its final resting place is; Sterett died in 1992. His son, Bill Jr., was killed in 2004, piloting a replica of his father’s boat on the Ohio River near Owensboro.

Jerry Garrett

May 4, 2016

[Editor’s Note: For more information and a different take on this story, see here: https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/Articles/2016/04/28/Chrysler-Marine ]

 

 

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