Barrel Back Beauty
360: Life From Every Angle, Spring 2007
by Christina Frank
Fiberglass motorboats are the way to go if you want a boat that can pull waterskiers or hold freshly caught trout with ease. But if you're looking to slice through the cool blueness in serious style, nothing but a vintage wooden Chris-Craft will do. With their gleaming mahogany hulls and sleek style, these boats hearken back to the glamorous feeling of an old movie--one that probably stars the young Katharine Hepburn.
The Chris-Craft company, founded by Christopher Columbus Smith, has been making boats since the early 1900s. Some models, known as "utilities," were relatively affordable and practical, but the aptly named "runabouts" were intended for the wealthy. "They were designed for joyriding and for getting you from point A to point B in style and luxury,
" says Don Ayers, a boat historian.
Among the most desirable models: the Art Deco-style 19-foot barrel backs, made from 1939 to 1942, so named for their gracefully swelling sterns. They are loaded with snappy details, like fine leather upholstery in Spanish maroon, pigskin, and aquamarine; "banjo" style steering wheels; and Bugatti windshields that split and fold down.
Only 389 barrel backs were produced in that three-year time frame, and, currently, just 43 percent of those are accounted for, according to Ayers, who says that when fiberglass came along in the late 1960s, many of the wooden boats were burned or left to rot. At any given time, only three or four are available for purchase.
To get your hands on one of these beauties, Ayers recommends checking out websites like antiqueboat.com or joining the Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club (chris-craft.org). What you'll pay depends entirely on the condition of the boat and the number of original details it has. Barrel backs in "project condition" (meaning they need susbtantial work to make them seaworthy and/or pretty) go for $18,000 to $25,000; boats in decent condition that don't have original hardware or engines generally cost $45,000 to $75,000. For perfectly restored, show-quality models, expect to shell out $95,000 to $125,000--a bargain, really, for something that will make you feel like at least a million bucks.