Electric Elcos making waves again

The old becomes new again – like the return of the electric cars that were so popular early in the 20th century – and we are the better for it. Few companies illustrate that better than Elco, the onetime builder of luxurious electric yachts, now making gentle waves once again with an updated line of elegant electrically driven launches.

Elco, the venerable boat builder that began by supplying luxurious electrically powered launches to the 1894 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Later, they supplied submarine chasers to the Royal Navy in World War I and PT boats to the United States and its allies in World War II.

But times got tough when the war ended and trying to remain solvent, the company – by then a division of nuclear submarine builder Electric Boat of Groton, Conn., – supplied hardwood trim to the Chrysler Corporation for its Plymouth woody wagons, and even manufactured flooring and pins for bowling alleys. But nothing replaced profitable wartime contracts building small wooden boats, and returning veterans had more on their minds than buying recreational boats. They shuttered in 1949.

Before the division’s chief designer, Glenville S. Tremaine, locked the doors and relinquished the keys over to Electric Boat executives, he quietly culled drawings, blueprints, designs and advertising brochures and stashed them in a fireproof room in another division’s plant, nearby.

When that plant burned in 1963, cartons full of designs were saved by a night watchman and responding firefighters. The night watchman stored them in yet another building’s basement, where they were forgotten until they were rediscovered in the late 1980s, and sent to the library at Mystic Seaport for archiving.

Enter Joe Fleming, a lifelong aficionado of classic boats, who focused on reviving Elco.

“I have a friend who owns one of the original Elco Launches from the 1890s,” said Fleming, now in his 80s, “and he let us take the lines off his boat and borrow the hardware to make exact copies.”

Before long, the revived Elco started producing a line of elegant Launches based on that one survivor. The company, based in the Hudson River town of Athens, N.Y., offers modern classics in lengths from 19 to 34 feet that can carry eight to 20 people.

The hulls are made of fiberglass now, instead of wood, but they are powered once again by electric motors. As the original Elco did, the revived company offers a wide range of options, like mahogany decks, wicker chair seating and canvas canopies, along with modern conveniences like audio systems, GPS and depth sounders.

The company also offers a line of inboard and outboard electric motors and battery systems, delivering the equivalent of six to 100 horsepower, along with hybrid systems to keep batteries charged with either dockside current or onboard diesel generators. Prices depend on the size of the boat and which of three trim lines is selected, along with the choice of many available options.

Pre-owned modern Elco Launches are rarely for sale, but when one pops up they command prices one might expect of a much older boat kept in immaculate condition. For example, a 30-foot version built in 1990, featuring a full canopy and seating for up to 14, powered by a 5-horsepower electric motor that its seller says allows it to cruise “at a sedate five knots,” is presently being offered in Minnesota for $125,000.

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