This 1940 boat has aero engines and does 60 knots – Thunderbird, an American cult (16 m)


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Thunderbird; 1960s – Credits: Thunderbird Lake Tahoe

Tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains, on the United States’ West Coast, lies the iconic Lake Tahoe, famous for its crystal-clear waters and for being a backdrop to the mansions of many American tycoons. Among these, the Thunderbird Lodge, a mansion that once belonged to George Whittel, the mastermind behind the Thunderbird, a cult boat of 1940s U.S. shipbuilding. It is not really a Classic Boat like the ones we’ve seen in our previous articles, but it nevertheless is an iconic boat from the shipbuilding industry of the first half of the last century, a 16-meter and 60-knots fast mahogany boat born from the desire to combine an airplane with a boat.

Thunderbird – Classic Boat of Cult 1940s

George Whittel, heir to one of the richest families on the West Coast, was a big fan of technology and speed, mainly in the forms of cars, planes and boats. It was out of these fascinations that the Thunderbird was born, an 1100-horsepower masterpiece designed to resemble a Douglass DC-2, Mr. Whittel’s favorite -and personal- aircraft.

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Thunderbird – The Project

The design of the Thunderbird was born at the same time as the construction of the eponymous estate on Lake Tahoe in the mid-1930s. The commission was given to renowned naval architect John L. Hacker, with the clear stipulation that it be inspired by the plane in question, the DC-2, from which it inherited the curves and emblematic brushed stainless finish. It was built by Huskins Boat Works in Bay City, Michigan, which delivered the boat in 1940.

Douglas DC-2, the airplane from which the Thunderbird takes its inspiration - (Wikimedia Commons)
Douglas DC-2, the airplane from which the Thunderbird takes its inspiration – (Wikimedia Commons)

The hull is made entirely of double plank mahogany, and the superstructures are brushed stainless steel. The volumes that emerge are curvilinear, soft, featuring an aviation-inspired closed superstructure with exposed brushed steel. The original motorisation consists of two Kermath V-12 engines of 550 horsepower each. The total cost? About $87,000 back then, equivalent to $1.5 million today.

Thunderbird, 1940s – Credits: Thunderbird Lake Tahoe

In 1962, the Thunderbird was purchased by another American tycoon who, willing to be faithful to the original design, replaced the original engines with twin aeronautic ones: two 1100-horsepower turbocharged Allison V-12s adapted from a World War II twin-engine fighter, a P-38 Lightning. Also at this stage, a flybridge was added, again maintaining the style of the original design.

The Thunderbird under construction, 1936 – 1940 – Credits: Thunderbird Lake Tahoe

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From 1941 to the present

To shield the Thunderbird from the weather, Whittel had an enclosed shed built (over 100 feet long) in parallel with the mansion, to which it was connected by a 600-foot tunnel carved into granite. The boat remained locked in here for the whole duration of World War II, to prevent it from otherwise being commandeered for war purposes. Eventually, in postwar times the Thunderbird would come to be used less and less due to the owner’s age, until, in 1962, it was finally acquired by William F. Harrah, who used it to entertain prominent guests at his casino. Among these, figures as Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra stand out.

Harrah’s on the Thunderbird, before editing the superstructures. 1961 – Credits: Thunderbird Lake Tahoe

Today the boat has been restored once again and brought back to Lake Tahoe, where it is operated by Foundation 36, a charity that offers private excursions in exchange for donations for its projects.

The Thunderbird today
The Thunderbird today, in its boathouse on Lake Tahoe.

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Length Over All 16 m / 55 ft
Baglio Massimo 3.6 m
Original Motorization 2 x Kermath V-12 550 hp
Subsequent Motorization 2x Allison V-12 turbocharged 1100 hp
Maximum Speed 60 kn
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5 thoughts on “This 1940 boat has aero engines and does 60 knots – Thunderbird, an American cult (16 m)”

  1. Lived on lake hopatcong nj. For Manny years early on Sundays in the summer a fellow neibor would go out in his restored mahoney speed boat what a sound. I think it was crysler powerd something to see. Cris craft. Nice

  2. Saw Thunderbird at the Tahoe Wooden Boat Show in the 90s. She is unusual but awe inspiring. Glad to see that she is as magnificent as ever.

  3. I got to enjoy eight summers on Long Beach Island in NJ. 1957-‘65. My uncle always had a boat. I cherish the memories.
    I enjoyed the pics and most of this article…why spoil it with metrik?
    We are Not Europe. Not acceptable!

    1. Dear Peter,

      thank you for your comment. Actually, despite where you read the article, the magazine “Barche a Motore” is Italian, so we use the metric system for our articles.

      Thanks for following us!

      All the best,

      Barche a Motore Team

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