Classic build: new Chris-Craft
We are told fine art can only be found within the hallowed walls of an art gallery. But on rare occasions art escapes this vault and when we stumble upon it outside a gallery it can have a dazzling effect.
If there is any powerboat that has attained these artistic heights it is the Chris-Craft 19-foot racing runabout. The straight sheer, hard chines and barrel-back mahogany decks ooze the style and purpose of a Picasso, but without all the wonky asymmetry and loud colours.
The foundations of these striking boats came from Chris and Henry Smith who in 1881 started the company that would become Chris-Craft. Following a brief run producing military craft during the WWII, they struck gold during the massive post-war consumer expansion in the United States, producing high-end pleasure craft.
Their clientele at the time read like a Who’s Who, with Dean Martin, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley all gracing the plush, upholstered cockpits and admiring their own images in the shiny mahogany planking. At one stage Chris-Craft offered 159 different models and became the name that most Americans associated with pleasure boating.
In the United States, most 19-foot racing runabouts are restorations, as it’s easier to find a run-down one and do it up than to build a new one. Despite more than 200 of this design being built, very few ever made it to New Zealand – until a young Christchurch enthusiast, Troy Deavoll, decided that building one from scratch would be a great project.
“I’ve always worked with my dad building stuff in the garage and when I saw a red and white striped version of this Chris-Craft at the Classic Boat Show at the Nelson lakes, I thought I just had to have one,” says Deavoll.
Prior to building Finesse, as she is called, Troy worked as a furniture maker and had previously built a Starling dinghy. The professional craftsmanship is obvious in the finish of Finesse, but the other part of the equation is not apparent until you meet Troy and see his tenacity and talent at getting around the challenges of such an ambitious project. After more than 2,500 hours part-time on Finesse, this is a garage project only in location.
The first problem for Troy to overcome was that the plans he purchased from Chris-Craft were only rudimentary study plans. With the aid of local naval architect Dan Leech, he was able to convert these drawings into digital form and deduce frames and dimensions.
“Dan was able to take a lot of the guesswork out of the process and I laid down the engine rails and pinned the rest of the frame configuration from there,” says Troy.
With 22mm frames and stringers in kahikatea, Finesse has good bones. These frames are overlaid with 6mm gaboon ply and 6mm mahogany planks, sourced from D.J. Morrison furniture makers.
Unlike a Picasso, these were vertically sawn so that the grain in the hull and deck planking is book-matched across the entire boat. Each fastening hole has been painstakingly plugged – so the effect is that of a seamless solid timber finish. Covering it all are five coats of 2K Clear automotive paint and, to cap it all off, the Chris-Craft logo on the sides is finished in gold leaf.
On top of all this glowing timber and the immaculate paint job, there are several chromed bronze fittings. Most of these were sourced online and, in some cases, machined up to fit where needed. Having the authentic fittings adds to the small detail of an impressive boat right down to the lift points at bow and stern.
The Marine Power 350 V8 engine is contained in a bay midships on the Chris-Craft and, being of American heritage means there is no shortage of horsepower. It was sourced from the Sumner lifeboat and reconditioned for its new life in this exquisite cruiser.
With this setup, Finesse develops 320hp and gets it to the water through a Velvet Drive 1:1 gearbox to a 12×15-inch prop. Behind this is a small spade rudder sourced from the United States, which uses a mechanical tiller arrangement linked to the authentic steering wheel – it looks like it’s from a 1950s gas-guzzler. The gearshift involves a long chrome gear lever that looks the part and is backed up with a plush, upholstered dash with instruments and controls.
Twin cockpits are separated by the deck-accessed engine bay and contain removable panels to access even the furthest reaches of the hull. The hull itself is notable for its flat bottom, slowly tapering into a forward V with distinct chines. The reverse tapered stern – with plenty of tumblehome and barrel-back deck – completes the classic styling.
To get the boat mobile Troy designed and built a tandem steel trailer. A hinged section near the tow ball allows him to neatly squeeze the boat out of the side entrance garage. The vintage look is maintained with white-wall tyres – setting off the whole package nicely.
Finesse had her first launching at the New Zealand Antique and Classic Boat Show at Lake Rotoiti. And yes, in addition to receiving plenty of admiring looks, she secured the award for the Best New Craft.