When the Cobra in the shed is not a car

John L. Stein

Years before Shelby American adopted the Cobra name, Chris-Craft, the Algonac, Michigan, boatbuilder, trumped its competition with a design for the ages. With tapered and stylized forms, a decadent single cockpit, an alligator-skin dashboard, and a daring gold engine hatch and tailfin—reportedly the first use of fiberglass in a production boat—the Cobra looked part unlimited hydroplane, part Navy torpedo, and part sea nymph. Just 106 were built in 18- and 21-foot lengths.

Which explains why, in 1981, after learning about a pair of the exclusive models for sale at a Nashville boatyard, I was electric with excitement and hurriedly booked a flight to go see them. I found the Cobras languishing in an outdoor shed, unquestionably real but undeniably distressed.

1955 Chris-Craft Cobra on trailer, front
John L. Stein

The 18-footer was stripped of its exterior finish, and the glorious hardwood boards had dried and shrunk, gaps opening between them. It also carried a replacement flathead KBL marine engine, a big blow against originality. Encouragingly, the 21-foot model retained its original dual-quad Cadillac Crusader V-8, but its precious mahogany hull had been fiberglassed to resolve leaks—troubling back in ’81 and blasphemy of the highest order today.

I had some money, though, and after returning home I wrote a $7000 check for the 18-footer, prepared an envelope, and walked toward the door to mail it. Then I paused, weighing the intense neediness of an old mahogany runabout against my station as a young guy with no workshop, no particular boat nor woodworking skills, and no bumper crop of free time. Somewhat in disbelief, I watched my hands tear the envelope and check into pieces.

This seemed like a prudent choice in period, but revisiting it today, I wish I’d found some garage space and tools, so I could have let my dreams live. Not only because Cobras are currently worth $100,000 or so, but because by now I’d have enjoyed owning, driving, and showing one for four decades. The best time to plant a tree and all that …

So, the moral, I suppose, is this: If you’re young and in love with a project idea, maybe take to heart that old Rolling Stones song, “Time Is On My Side.” In 40 years, you’ll be glad you did.


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    Fortunately, I wrote the checks for 2 different boats; a Berkeley jet drive from my uncle and a RaysonCraft v-drive from my grandfather. After about 30 years of fun with them, I’m prepping them for turnover to the younger members of the extended family (if there are any interested in ancient technology).

    I have a fried that still has a RaysonCraft v-drive with a 454. His father used to have a Berkeley jet drive as well. The RaysonCraft is best on a smooth lake. The Berkeley was so much fun. It could pivot and do a 360 just by cranking on the wheel.

    There is another Rolling Stone song that shows prudence as well, “You can’t always get what you want”, but you get what you need. I understand the sentiment, but if you didn’t have the time, place etc to complete the project, you probably made the correct choice at the time.

    On the other hand!! I’ve spent some time around Marinas in the Pacific Northwest and have seen reasonably restorable Chris Craft cabin cruisers go to the crusher because nobody would roll up their sleeves and do a bit of deferred maintenance. When I was a kid my father built a kit boat (a Glen L Missile) with a nice little 283 solid lifter engine and a home made V drive. The reality was the boat was from a collector point of view worthless, HOWEVER my family memories of learning to water ski, weekends all summer at our (close to worthless) cabin, family picnics in the cove with the boat all more than made up for a few headaches in the beginning.
    Let’s face it the beauty and amazement of America have there roots in cast away junk.

    Similar to back in the mid 1970s, I found a 1966 GTO on the local Pontiac lot. Pretty decent shape , I think they wanted $750 for it.
    Dad said no.😢😢
    Ended up with a $500 1968 Sprite……
    What that GTO is worth now.

    You wouldn’t have enjoyed anything without the place and skills to repair it in the first place! Sounds like it would have been a project that languished for a long time and possibly deteriorated further before anything was done or it was sold to someone else. You got to know your limitations! You probably did the right thing all those years ago.

    In 1995, I had a really nicely preserved ’66 GMC G10 Handi-Bus with a blown head gasket, and a desperate need for reliable transportation. With no tools and no off-street parking, I traded it in for $500 towards a used Ford Festiva. I’ve regretted not figuring out how to hold onto it ever since.

    When I was around 17 I needed wheels to get to work. This was in 1979. Driving my mom’s car was fine but… So a friend of mine who at the time wasn’t into Porches and told me about a customer of his who had an old one for sale. It came with a spare engine and an extra set of factory chrome rims. The whole deal was $1000. At the time a grand was a ton of money that if I could pull it together HAD to go to something I could drive on day one because I wouldn’t have money or time to buy a project car. While this one looked drive-able it still was just beyond my financial and technical abilities. But boy I sure wish I bought it.

    It was a 356 coupe.

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