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Century is featured boat at Concours D’Elegance

MIKE WOLTERBEEK, Sun News Service

The distinctive growl of a big-block American engine turns into a roar, as the 21-foot wooden hulled boat digs into the water.

A foamy spray of water blasts from behind as the craft leaps from the lake, pressing the passengers into their seats. White-knuckled hands tighten on the flashy chrome handholds while the boat skims away from the beach.

When a wooden boat thunders past on Lake Tahoe, there’s a good chance it will be a Century Boat. Dubbed the “Thoroughbred of Boats” in its heyday, the Century may be flashier and more colorful than its cousins, the Gar Wood or Chris Craft. Even within each model line, the Century may have a distinctiveness that parts from pure wood.

“(Century) has a standout design. It’s unique in that it’s really a period piece. Just like cars in the ’50s and ’60s they might have fins, vinyl-covered decks, crazy upholstery, wild paint schemes and wild chrome hardware,” said Philip Ballantyne, local wooden boat restorer and co-chair of this year’s wooden boat week organized by the Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation. Wooden Boat Week starts today in North Lake Tahoe.

It may not have the stylized lines of the Italian RIVA wooden boats with their sloping stern or the elegant inlaid wood decks of the Gar Wood or Chris Craft, but the powerful Century has been selected this year as the Marque Class (featured class of boats) at the annual Concours d’Elegance.

“There were hard tops, gull wing doors and retractable hard tops. The Century might be called the Chevy of wooden boats while the Gar Woods and Chris Craft were the Pontiac and Buick,” Ballantyne said. Several Century models were named after horses and the color schemes went along with that theme.

The Rhone had red paint, the Arabian had blue stain or vinyl on the deck and the Palomino might even have a cow print upholstery with a vinyl-covered deck, he said. Other Century pleasure boat model names include Raven, Sabre (featuring a mix of fiberglass and wood in 1962) and the Viking.

“I’ve seen red, white, silver and gold upholstery on a 21-foot Coronado. Truthfully – it was pretty ugly. Especially the bigger ones were flashy, with more chrome,” he said of the later vintage Centurys.

“They’re an incredibly gaudy boat,” said Herb Hall, general manager of Sierra Boat Company. Sierra Boat Company in Carnelian Bay is the birthplace of Century boats at Tahoe and on the West Coast.

The Century Boat Company began production in 1926 in Milwaukee, Mich., while Gar Wood and Chris Craft boats were hitting it big at Tahoe. The Michigan company built canoes, sailboats, fishing boats and small racing outboards. In 1928 their Century Kid, a small three-four passenger race boat, became popular on the East Coast and mid-West, with people even water skiing behind the 12-foot long speedster at 25 mph. Soon after, the Thunderbolt, a 14-foot inboard, was added to the line as a race class boat.

The Century plant moved to Manistee, Mich., in 1929 and remained until 1985. The company then moved to Florida, its present location. Century survived the Depression years while producing the little cockpit style runabout Sea Maid. The Sea Maid series remained in the line until the 1950s. The Utility series was introduced in the 1940s and then the Resorter series of boats in 1947. Advertisements of the time touted the Resorter’s new convertible tops and speeds of up to 42 mph for the all-mahogany planked craft.

During World War II, Century, as well as other boat companies, produced thousands of small landing craft for the Army and the Navy. Century expanded its production facilities and built more than 3,500 10-person assault row boats and eight-person 50-horsepower outboard storm boats for the military, earning a coveted E flag. The flag signified high achievement in production, a distinction given by the Defense Department. Only 3 percent of war plants earned the honor at the time.

“With the bigger production facility the company got into pleasure boats in a big way after the war, especially in the ’50s and ’60s, and were competitive with Chris Craft,” Ballantyne said.

The Resorter boats were wider and 15- to 21-feet long. Its open hull, compared to the dual cockpit configuration of the Sea Maid, allowed for more movement in the boat, and it soon became popular for families and water skiing. The Resorter became the official tow boat for national and international water ski competitions through the end of the 1950s.

“The other brands were higher end, more expensive. The Resorter series was used for water skiing, Century’s popularity has a lot to do with the Resorter,” Ballantyne said.

The boat’s new hull design also allowed for a bigger, 300-horsepower engine to be placed in the boat. This design feature remained with Century boats into the 1960s. Even today the old Resorter “is one of the best boats to water ski behind. If there was wakeboarding back then, this would be the boat to have. The group I grew up water skiing with liked big air and Maharajah skis,” Hall said. He now owns a 1963 17-foot Resorter.

It was after the war that Sierra Boat Company, built in 1948 and purchased in 1952 by Stan Dollar, became the exclusive California dealership for the East Coast-based Century Boats.

“1954 was the first year of the new product line. We really developed the name for Century here at Tahoe,” said Dick Clarke, manager of Sierra Boat Company from 1963 to 1990.

Clarke, now 79 years old, helped the small marina grow as boat sales exploded.

“We went from a one-story building to a two-story building company. Century was our main line. Obexer’s had Gar Woods and Tahoe Boat Company had Chris Craft,” he said.

While Clarke said the Gar Wood may be a premier, well-built classy boat, he also believed in the Century company enough back then to help bring the total number of Century boats sold at Sierra Boat Company to as many as 500, up until the boat building company turned to fiberglass construction in 1968.

Chris Craft turned to fiberglass boats in 1962 and most of the boat manufacturers soon followed suit. Century was the last holdout with wooden hull construction.

“(Clarke) bought every single one he could get his hands on from the company and from other dealers when he found out wooden boat production was ending,” Hall said. Most of those were the 21-foot Coronados.

“That’s why we see so many 1968 models here at Tahoe. It took him until 1970 to sell off most of those boats,” Hall said.

Clarke worked as shop foreman since 1952 at Sierra Boat Co. before becoming general manager of the marina in 1963.

“He was a heck of a good salesman. He really jumped on the Century thing and did a great job of selling them,” Hall said.

The Centurys are also noted for extreme horsepower, at least for the boat world and especially at high-elevation Tahoe. The Coronado line first came out with a Chrysler Hemi in the late 1950s and early 1960s – and have a monstrous wake, he added.

Engines of different sizes were available, but Tahoe boaters leaned towards more horsepower – the more the better, said Hall. Cadillac engines in the Chris Craft were considered the top of the line, but the Chrysler Hemi used in Centurys were more durable, although with a little less horsepower, according to Hall.

“Generally we ordered the biggest available horsepower we could get. In the 1960s that was the Ford Interceptor 427 with 300 horsepower. It’s a premium engine, hot-rodders now seek these engines out. In boats those engines run forever, most we see have never been apart,” Hall said.

Even the smaller 16- and 17-foot Resorter series Century carried high-power engines, with the Ford 354 engine serving up 275 horsepower in the pre-’60s models.

The powerful boats are meant to be used, but clean up well for what is the longest running annual wooden boat show in the country.

The cream of the crop of wooden boats will be all-a-glitter at the Sierra Boat Company for the Concours d’Elegance, but if one hears that dull roar drifting in from the lake, look away from the showpieces for a second and a Century Boat towing a water skier just may come into view.

Note: Some of the historical information for this article was obtained from the Century Club of Michigan.


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