This 289-Powered V-Drive Was a Speedboat Sinkhole

1960s V-Drive boat at speed
John L. Stein

I’ve been enamored with V-8–powered ski and race boats since childhood, and several years ago I spied this one on Craigslist. Loopy over the prospect of finally owning an authentic aquatic hot-rod, but too busy to drive 150 miles to inspect it, I bought it over the phone. I’ve suffered ever since.

1960s V-Drive boat on trailer profile
John L. Stein

Homebuilt in the 1960s from plans (“…a bundle of greased lightning,” the catalog enthused), the 16-footer was intended for small-block V-8s; mine had an early-production Ford 289. There were a few key ingredients to the boat’s performance. For starters, it was lightweight: The hull, constructed of hardwood, marine plywood, and fiberglass reportedly weighed just 550 pounds. It also had a flat bottom, which reduced the hull’s “wetted area” at speed. Finally, there was the rearward engine placement. I couldn’t wait drop into the vintage diamond-tufted seat and drive it. But first…

1960s V-Drive boat trailer John L. Stein
John L. Stein

The boat had issues. It had been stored since 1976 and was incomplete once I got it. Missing were the carburetor and ignition system, and worryingly, the water-cooled aluminum headers, wiring harness, and driveshaft were disconnected. Had the engine been on its way out, or going back in? Its crusty appearance suggested the former. Undeterred, I sourced parts and reassembled the powertrain and electrics, learning much along the way. When the 289 fired up again after 46 years, orange rust and black carbon blasted from its unmuffled exhausts. The V-drive gearbox (shared with rear-engine wheel-standers like the Hurst Hemi Under Glass) rattled ominously, and the vessel morphed in my mind from infatuating to frightening. As I told friends, it seemed like a Cobra engine in a potato chip.

1960s V-Drive boat Cobra 289
John L. Stein

More drama came during “sea trials” at various lakes: Trip 1) The trailer blew a wheel bearing and tire; Trip 2) The water pump impeller disintegrated; Trip 3) The starter motor failed, then a blown head gasket turned the oil into a frothy chocolate shake; Trip 4) Cracked fiberglass caused a transom leak; Trip 5) A cavitation plate tore loose, bending the prop and rudder and turning the boat violently right; and Trip 6) The trailer broke a torsion spring.

Long after acquiring the “flattie,” I still hadn’t enjoyed one good drive. But then, unexpectedly, with every known problem diagnosed and solved, this overpowered underdog suddenly became stone-cold reliable. Now fast and fun, it’s a totally analog driving experience coupled with a mighty wallop of sound—a visceral throwback to the origins of modern speedboating. Hey, why not join the fun and go buy the worst one you can find, likewise sight unseen? I highly recommend it.

Narrator: He does not, in fact, recommend it.

1960s V-Drive boat on the water
John L. Stein




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    I’ve only ever owned one “speedboat” in my life (the use of quotes is to indicate how loosely the word describes this particular craft). I won’t try to upstage John’s story regarding issues, but suffice it to say, I agree 100% with the narrator’s last words above!

    Have you (or someone younger) skied behind that boat? We own a 1989 Ski Centurion with 351 in the middle we’ve had since the mid-90’s. All of these types of boats from that era were hand made. We are doing some new upholstery–done by a special needs organization–they do a nice job! My 67 year old wife can still slalom the three mile length of the lake. Guess I will have to too!!! Love the V8 rumble and through hull exhausts. And it’s a much better looking boat than the wakeskate monsters they make now–as is yours.

    Super cool boat, great story! I think you made out well. But as my boat-owning late father-in-law used to say, “The two best days of owning a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it.”

    About a million years ago I built a Glen L “missile ” which this boat looks very similar. We put a 525 Buick from a dragster. Loud and fun!

    Boat stands for bust out another thousand! with trailer boats maintain, the trailer is critical as you found. The 289s are good motor. You can replace it with a 302 or a 351 Windsor quite easily.flat bottom V-drives are a kick in the ass. A river rat friend of mine had three Raysoncrafts powered by 427 Ford. I ran jet boats powered by 455 Olds with Berkeley pump and place diverter. my boat addiction is still strong, I have three currently. My newest barn find is a 98 cobalt 233 with a 454 Chevy Merc, bravo three. by the way, the only ominous thing about your boat was the leak at the transom -likely stress cracks at the corners -better fix that well.

    Saw a yellow boat on Lake Mead back in ’67 that was running fast and loud with a skier behind. When the boat came in, the valve covers had twin thunderbird emblems with “390” imprinted on ’em. Can not remember the name of the boat but it was a beauty. Might have been quite the challenge to ski behind if running at full throttle.

    Ay, Ay skipper! Boat, hole in the water you throw money into! Airplane, hole in the air you throw money into! Hot Rod, pot hole in the pavement you throw money into! Motorcycles, you throw money into the wind as you head wherever. If I’d bought the stock in all of these I’d probably be a million $ ahead. Still having fun with two of the above. Would I do it again, probably! Can’t take any of this with you after this go around, LOL!

    When my daughter was pressuring me to buy a Laser (sail)boat for her, I used that old line about the two happiest days in your life are the day you buy a boat and the day you sell it. Her response: Why would you miss out on the two happiest days of your life?

    My father built a Glen L Missile in 1960, including the V drive box which was assembled from an old junkyard transmission ( reverse gear was a paddle!), 283 Chevy engine did the job.
    We all learned to ski, and spent many happy weekends together as a family and the old Missile came through until 1976 when the fiberglass finally peeled off. What I can say is the boat never let us down and for the amount of joy it brought us never received one bit of maintenance, oil change, fuel change or anything yet came through always!

    We bought a 1986 Donzi 2+3 Classic in 1994 right after we got married. Paid $12,500 for it, used the heck out of it for 3 summers in MI, then sold it for $12,500. I’m sure that’s rare.

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