Chris Craft, the “Riva of Americans” turns 150 years old


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Chris Craft turns 150 years old. History of an American shipyard that made history in the stars and stripes of yachting and beyond.


1884, Michigan, USA: In the year that time zones were first adopted, a pioneer boater named Christopher Columbus Smith decided to launch his first speedboat. Indeed, with a name like that, his could only be a career closely linked to sailing. To be precise, Christopher built his first boat in 1874 when he was 13 years old, ten years before he partnered with his brother and threw himself headlong into his venture
Chris Smith & Sons Boat Co.
. It makes one wonder that at that time the internal combustion engine was still in its infancy and that Mr. Smith, two years before German Carl Benz invented the first automobile, was already moving his motorboats with a combustion engine as we understand it today.

Chris Craft’s story

At Chris’s time, a mechanical organ such as the clutch had not yet been invented: this had enabled the early experimenters to make the most of the potential of the new propulsion system, since a propeller immersed in water does not suffer from the problems related to the moments of inertia that an automobile has. Against this backdrop, in 1884, the shores of Lake St. Clair became the stage for the launching of Christopher Smith‘s first signature boat. It just so happens that this basin is located near Detroit, America’s most famous motorsports district.

The legend began: Chris Craft, the world’s oldest shipbuilding company dedicated to recreational boating, had been born. At first these were rudimentary constructions, an almost amateur activity, and it took time for some organizational capacity to be set, but the seed had been sown and the plant did not take long to grow.

The first motor boat mentioned above was none other than a “duck boat,” a boat for duck hunting, a popular hunting activity along the falcons near the Canadian border of Lake Michigan. The history of Chris Craft is also closely linked to that of one of our own nautical excellence, the Riva shipyard.

Riva VS Chris Craft

First and foremost, the two brands are the symbol of boating at both ends of the Atlantic Ocean and can boast a tradition rooted in a time long past (
Riva dates back to 1842
). Then both shipyards sprang up on the shores of a lake, and most importantly, Carlo Riva always said that for him the Chris Craft brand was a strong source of inspiration.

Some of the Engineer’s boats,
including the iconic Aquarama
, mounted General Motors engines marinized by Chris Craft. As mentioned, the first Chris Craft boats were hunting boats, produced for about fifteen years. They were appreciated so much that they soon reached high production numbers for the time. In the early 1900s, the Smith brothers shifted their focus to customized pleasure boats for wealthy patrons, such as Henry Ford or William Randolph Hearst.

Toward recreation

In the 1920s, their creations were transformed once again, mutating into fast and cheap runabouts for the middle class (the so-called commuters) and making Christopher Smith one of the first boat manufacturers: at the time, Chris Craft was the largest mahogany powerboat builder in the world. We come to the tumultuous years of World War II, when Chris Craft, under the leadership of Chris’s son Jay, turned his attention to rugged military ships.

Chris Craft Commander 19 Supersport (XK19)

Using the knowledge he learned in pleasure boat building, Chris Craft signed contracts with the U.S. Navy. From here it began mass-producing a variety of military boats, including patrol boats, spears and rescue ships. By 1945 production amounted to more than 12,000 units. After World War II ended, during the postwar economic boom, Chris Craft became the hallmark (and dream) of recreational boating. The wooden boats that collectors still appreciate today were born.

From the golden years to the present

In their heyday, high-end Chris Craft ships captivated famous people, including Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis. The Smith family sold the company in the late 1950s, at the height of its fame. Over the years, ownership has changed hands several times.

Chris Craft Catalina 28
Chris Craft Catalina 28

Today the Chris Craft company is based in Sarasota, Florida, and continues to build a variety of luxury powerboats. Production includes modern runabouts with lines reminiscent of the Smith family tradition. The latest addition is the 27 Launch, celebrating precisely the shipyard’s 150th anniversary.

Federico Lanfranchi




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