8 April 2016

The Chris-Craft Cobra was built to turn heads

Boaters’ heads turn whenever a Chris-Craft Cobra passes by—whether on water or land. So too do others’ who simply appreciate fine quality and sleek design. Taking it all in, the common reaction is “Boy, would I love a boat like that!”

The first three things catching your eyes are the huge, gold fiberglass tail fin, the fine varnished wood and, finally, the alligator pattered cockpit trim. Starting with a proud “bull nose” bow and smoothly tapering to an extremely low transom easily shifts one’s perception from ‘boat’ to ‘sculpture’.

Imagine the Chris-Craft family’s conversations and strategizing during the Cobra’s pre-production planning stages. With only a single row of seating (rare except on race boats) this boat design was clearly impractical. Adding a fiberglass fin and high-end wood and vinyl finishes made it exotic. For Chris-Craft it was definitely a risky venture. Yet Chevrolet succeeded with the Corvette, which was also exotic and impractical. And they won press and showroom attention as a result of their bet.

Like Chevy, Chris-Craft created a halo-vehicle for its industry. At each major boat show, Chris-Craft wanted women remembering it, kids stopping in awe and men absolutely needing it. Other Chris-Craft models’ profit would cover any Cobra production losses.

A.W. Mackerer led his team within Chris-Craft on the Cobra’s naval architecture. They already had a successful Mackerer hull that ran exceptionally well for their ‘sports-car’ boat. But that Racing Runabout’s design had run its course soon after the post-WWII era. For the mid-‘50s, sales required forward-looking styling.

Mackerer’s team collected design ideas and styling cues from Don Mortrude, a Chris-Craft freelance industrial designer. Writer Jack Savage says Mortrude was responsible for the blond king plank on some decks, as well as the bull-nose bow shape that no wooden boat builder would even conceive, as fashioning it inside a production boat plant would be so difficult. Savage says the Cobra tail fin also resulted from Mortrude’s work.

So, Chris-Craft added new styling to the deck and hull design above the water line. The boat grew as a result of the restyling: The 21′ Cobra is 8” wider and 23” longer than the 19′ Racing Runabout, although both share a common hull. They then added either a big block Cadillac or Chrysler Hemi V-8. It was one fast classic boat!

As an aside, the 18′ Cobra is built on a different hull and is 17′ 8” by 6′ 2” and was only available with a six-cylinder engine. This results in a 600-pound weight savings over the 21′ Cobra.

Now, let’s consider the two Cobra models’ sales:

  • The Racing Runabout was a success in the number of units sold (503) and the number of model years it was offered (1948-1954).
  • Only 55 of the 21′ Cobra were sold along with 51 of the 18′ Cobra. Both production runs ended within a year.

Why? Some say it was the price. Others think the Cobra was too different. Some believe Chris-Craft limited the number of Cobras built due to costs that had to be absorbed by the profits from Chris-Craft’s regular production run. Once they reached break-even on the Cobra models they stopped.

And it may have been a design issue. Cobras only had one bench seat; the Racing Runabout had two benches in two cockpits. The 21′ Cobra will seat four across while the 18′ seats three in one row.

A few Chris-Craft Cobras (17-18 units?) topped the engine choices with a powerful 285 horsepower Cadillac Crusader from Detroit car dealer Cal Connell. Hemi engines powered 21 boats. Only 10 of the 55 boats built had Chris-Craft 6-cylinder (158HP) engines in them. Seven boats were shipped new by Chris-Craft without an engine.

Pictured here is the top Chris-Craft Cobra. But both the 21′ and the 18′ stop people in their tracks. They are FAST boats but somewhat impractical except at a classic boat show. If you spot one, try befriending its owner and get a ride! You won’t regret it.

9 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jim Childresd Gainesville, Ga April 9, 2016 at 11:54
    Love wooden Chris Craft runabout. I have a 20ft 1963 Chris Craft Holiday with the optional 275 hp engine. In process of restoring myself now.
  • 2
    karl charleston April 13, 2016 at 16:19
    Love the old woodies... "works of art". Bought a Classic 18 Donzi instead of constant work
  • 3
    Kirk Wentland Lodi, California April 13, 2016 at 17:05
    These are very beautiful boats indeed. I have boat #35 and it is for sale at this time. 21 foot, Cadillac Powered, completely restored to perfection, none finer. I am the second owner since purchasing it from the original owner in 2000. Mooring cover, custom build trailer in fin gold. Ready to show or go! $185.000 Kirk 209 969-9696
  • 4
    J Desmond Mass April 13, 2016 at 19:15
    Got an original Classic Glass 15.5" Chris Craft from about 1962 or so. Anyone have any info about these beautiful early fiberglass outboard Chris Crafts that were this small?
  • 5
    Don Perry Kaneohe Hawaii April 13, 2016 at 20:36
    I remember seeing one of these beauties back in the sixties on Kaneohe Bay, It was fast and beautiful, with a metallic blue fin, it was powered by a Hemi, I believe it was owned by professional wrestler and a very nice guy, Mr. Lucky Samanovich. Have not seen it since..
  • 6
    Dave Pyle Houston TX April 13, 2016 at 20:58
    What were the prices of the 21' and 18' new and today?
  • 7
    James McColley United States April 14, 2016 at 01:20
    This article in order to be complete should have included pricing information as well top speed for the various models.
  • 8
    George Mich. April 16, 2016 at 08:58
    It has been reported that the 21' Cobra and 19' Racing Runabout share a common hull. I have a friend that makes half models and according to him the 21' Cobra has a different bottom. The "V" on the bow on the Cobra carries much further back than the R.R., this makes the riding characteristics very different, add the fact that the Cobra is wider and longer it's apparent the hulls are not the same.
  • 9
    robert lamson Spider Lake Wisconsin May 2, 2016 at 15:33
    I was the caretaker of a 18' #45 for a couple of years. Styling was cool 50's look but you got wet riding in it. Have a 20' Continental now. If you can see one enjoy!!

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