The Chris-Craft Custom Runabout, known colloquially in our world as the "Barrel Back," is the boat that most folks who have never owned a vintage boat ask about. Why are they nicknamed "Barrel Back"? If you see one in the water, from behind, it’s obvious. The transom is so round above water that it looks like a floating barrel. While Chris-Craft never officially adopted the moniker, it stuck anyway.
Built from 1939 through 1942, there were 425 of the 17-foot version constructed, 433 of the 19-footers, and only 57 of the 23-foot version. The 17-foot version is easiest to buy, with a perfect example commanding about $50,000. A restored 19-foot Barrel Back will require an investment of approximately $90,000 in today's market. Then there's the 23-foot, triple cockpit version, which command a significant premium and are scarce enough that one usually has to find a restorable hull and perform the work.
Which we did. It was among the most challenging projects we have ever taken on. It literally came to us in boxes and bushel baskets. It had been an aspirational project for a gentleman who'd given it 20 years of occasional work. He had the bottom done professionally, then attempted the rest of it himself. Part way along, he realized he had a problem with the hull sides: They weren't the same shape! His answer was to laminate plywood to one side of the boat, then try to fair the plywood to get the shape correct. Thank goodness he stopped there because the weight differential, side-to-side, would have caused the boat not to "sit on its lines", or float off kilter in the water.
We brought it into the shop, leveled and disassembled it, and then set to re-assembling the boat properly. We were fortunate to have the help of our friend and noted collector Carl Mammel, who graciously allowed us to measure his 23-footer, "Sans Souci". Those measurements were transferred to clear mylar overlays, which allowed us to capture the correct deck shapes.
Being an early production boat, the forward section of the beautifully curved covering boards were constructed of one piece of mahogany. Even the wood for that piece was difficult to source, requiring two chunks of 6/4 mahogany three feet wide and 12 feet long!
All the other details were addressed in the same fashion. We rebuilt the "rebuilt" original model MS Chris-Craft six-cylinder engine and transmission. We converted the electrical system to 12 volt, which we recommend as a matter of course for safety and reliability. We also updated the fuel system to current American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) standards, which requires the use of modern, US Coast Guard-approved rubber fuel line. While that's not original, we have found over the years that original style copper tubing vibrates and ends up splitting over time. Of course, the chrome-plated cast brass trim was re-plated, and the interior refurbished, as original, with hand-tied coil spring seat bases, biscuit stitched kapok cushions, and cotton over horsehair seat backs. Topped off with correctly reproduced Chris-Craft labels, the interior is as original as can be accomplished today.
This restoration required just under one year to complete, achieved due to the five qualified craftsmen able to put the manpower into the "heavy lifting" as necessary. My personal philosophy is that any restoration that Freedom Boat Service performs, no matter how complex, must be finished within one year. If it isn't, the boat gets too comfortable in the shop and just doesn't want to leave!
We consider ourselves very fortunate to have customers willing to undertake projects like this, really without much regard for what the boat is worth when it's completed. Recognizing the craftsmanship required, preserving another piece of our nautical history and knowing exactly what you've got when you're done is rewarding above dollars and cents.
Editor’s note: The author, David Bortner, is “captain” at Freedom Boat Service.