This past weekend, Tyson Hugie featured as our Pick of the Day a 1957 DeSoto Fireflite being offered for sale in a 2-for-1 deal that included a matching vintage fiberglass boat.
For some, that article may have been your introduction to an era when fiberglass runabout boats, such as the 1957 Herters Flying Fish featured with the ’57 DeSoto, were designed with tail fins and other car-like features that duplicated those on Detroit’s newest products. If so, hopefully you will be fascinated to learn there’s a niche within the collector car hobby that focuses on such boats, and the cars on which they are patterned.
In fact, those boats have brought people who collect boats into the collector car hobby as well. I know this because I met a bunch of them in 2009 in Beloit, Wisconsin, where the Midwest All-Classics boat show featured just such cars and boats.
As I reported in a story I did at the time for The New York Times, tailfinned fiberglass boats can be traced to two sources, both of which were inspired by the concept cars displayed at the General Motors Motorama shows in the 1950s.
The late Robert Hammond, at the time 80 years old, told me in a telephone interview from his home in Texas that he was working for the Lone Star boat company in 1956 and wondered how those GM design cues would look on a boat, so he designed one, which went into production as the Meteor.
Hammond soon left Lone Star and started his own company, Glastron, which specialized in producing fiberglass boats with car-like features. If you remember the scene in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die with the boat flying over a Louisiana levee, that boat was a Glastron.
He said only once did a Detroit automaker (Chrysler) object to having its designs appropriated for his boats.
The other primary producer of boats with car-like details was Wisconsin-based Evinrude, which commissioned famed industrial designer Brooks Stevens to create the boating version of the concept car. That boat, with ’59 Cadillac-style fins that stood 2-foot proud, was called the Lark, with versions by Evinrude and the Sea Lark by the Michigan-based Cadillac boat company.
Some collectors of finned boats start with a car but learn about the boats and search for one that matches their car. Others, however, are boat collectors who go car-hunting to find a matching tow vehicle.
For example, Kevin Mueller, a jeweler in northern Illinois, inherited his grandmother’s 1957 Chevrolet sedan as a high school graduation present. He later collected several Chrysler classics and a red-and-white ’57 Chevy Bel Air convertible, which he uses as pull his 1958 Glastron Seaflite, a fiberglass boat with ’57 Chevy-style fins.
Mueller has become well-known within the finned fiberglass boat-collecting community and hosts the boatsinthebelfry.com website, where you can find links to other sites that focus on such finned fiberglass watercraft.
Unlike vintage wood boats that need much maintenance, Muller noted that while the gelcoat may appear terrible, the fiberglass itself typically remains intact (cars are barn-found, vintage fiberglass boats often are found submerged in lakes).
“As long as I keep it drained, I can leave a fiberglass boat sitting out for 20 years before I restore it,” he said. “Then once you restore it, it stays restored.”
Mueller said there were around 150 serious finned-boat collectors. The boats were produced from the mid-1950s into the early ‘60s.
Among other cars that inspired the boats, and thus often are seen in tandem, were the 1958 Oldsmobile (1959 Marlin Marine Glass Slipper), ’59 Pontiac (South Seas Samoan), ’59 Chevy (Reinelle Jet Flight), ’59 Dodge Coronet (CarAqua), ’58 Plymouth Belvedere (Herter’s Flying Fish), and the Studebaker Lark (Bee Line Sapphire).
For additional information, check out Peter Hunn’s book, Tail Fins and Two-Tones: The Guide to America’s Classic Fiberglass and Aluminum Runabouts.