Chris-Craft:1924, Chris-Craft is Born

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It is widely accepted that the formation of the Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company in 1922 is the unofficial start of the Chris-Craft Company. Indeed, this was a company that was wholy owned by Smith family members, and staffed by Chris, himself and his four sons, Jay W., Bernard, Owen, and Hamilton. As well, the Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company was the first iteration of a Chris Smith managed operation to focus on runabout pleasure craft manufacturing rather than just race boats for a few wealthy financiers.

One of the first known advertisements for the Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company appeared in the April 1922 issue of Motor Boat magazine. According to former Mariners' Museum Archivist, Tom Crew, "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 for $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 Gar runabouts were built by Chris Smith & Sons Boat Co. 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."

Close inspection of early advertisements and photos reveals that the raceboat, Packard Chriscraft built for Colonel Jesse G. Vincent, founder of the Packard Motor Car Company, may be the first "Chris Smith Craft" to sport the Chris-Craft moniker. The name Chris Craft was coined by Jay Smith's youngest brother, Hamilton. Packard Chriscraft was delivered to Mr. Vincent in August 1922, just in time to participate in the Gold Cup races to be held the following month in Detroit. The racer had a white painted hull with the words Packard and Chriscraft written in distinctive script on the sides. Colonel Vincent drove Packard Chriscraft to victory, defeating Gar Wood, 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. Not only did Packard Chriscraft win the Gold Cup, but it etched the name Chris Craft into the minds of all who had an interest in power boat racing and pleasure boating.

In the years 1922 to 1924, production volume of Smith built boats grew steadily. They produced 33 motorboats in 1923, and 48 hulls in 1924. It was during this time that their new marque Chris-Craft appeared frequently in promotions and advertisements for their standardized 26-foot runabout.

The boats were marketed as a "standardized" design. Full-page advertisements promoted 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 successes of 1924 marked the "beginning of the end" of the formal working relationship with Gar Wood. With 1925 volume increasing to 111 units, the timely production of Wood's Baby Gar hulls was often compromised. Wood decided that it was time to build the Baby Gar runabouts in his own Algonac boat shop, severing the formal working arrangements with the Smiths for the first time in a decade.

It was not until 1930, however, that the "Chris-Craft" name was officially adopted by the corporation, replacing the previous name of "Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company".

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