The 1955 Chris Craft
Cobra is a breathtaking fusion of prewar wooden
handcraft and postwar American modernism. In the mid 1950s, the Michigan-based Chris Craft boat company were makers of some of the finest wooden runabouts and speedboats in the world. Celebrities of the day such as Dean Martin, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley all owned Chris Craft boats, making it one of the most respected names in luxury pleasure boating. But in that heady postwar time, wood was becoming old fashioned and “Plastics” was the word on the lips of many people. Molded fiberglass was revolutionizing everything from furniture to automobiles. With the world’s first fiberglass production sports car, the 1953 Corvette, clearly in mind, the designers at Chris Craft created the Cobra as their top of the line speedboat. They started with one of their fastest racing-inspired wooden hull designs and a range of Detroit’s most powerful V8 engines
. On top of this, they added a wrap-around panoramic windshield and fiberglass engine cover complete with dorsal tail fin. Only 106 of these very rare vessels were produced, all in 1955. Today, they are among the most sought after wooden speed boats due to their speed, style, and rarity.
The Cobra’s slippery hull design and ample power –up to 285 hp with the optional Cadillac engine—allowed the Cobra to easily break 50 mph, but it became unstable at high speed. The example pictured here fell victim to this instability in a high speed crash many years ago. After years at the bottom of a lake, it was retrieved and restored to its former glory.
The terrific sound and smell of the boat is much the same as a powerful sports car of the era. Upon riding in the boat, I was instantly reminded of the sound and torquey punch of a Jaguar XK140, also from 1955. This effect is further enhanced by the fact that the interior is appointed in a very automotive rather than nautical fashion: The steering wheel used by Chris Craft is actually from a 1949 Chrysler, and the gold vinyl upholstery would not look out of place in any car of the era. Although fiberglass would eventually replace wood as a primary materials in speedboat hulls, the sensational wooden Cobra was an enduring design classic that added prestige and allure to the Chris Craft name at just the right time.