Style, Stories, History: Why I Collect Classic Boats

Bolo Babe is a 33 ft Baby Gar powered by a WWI 400 HP Liberty Aircraft engine, making it the fastest boat on Lake Champlain. Courtesy Steve Lapkin

Cars were my first love. As a young boy in the 1960s, I spent most days on my grandfather’s used-car lot, the California Car Company, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. My favorite car at that age was a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country Convertible; so much eyeball and style. Accordingly, when I began collecting in the mid-1990s, woodie cars were my focus. The first collector car I acquired was at the 1995 Barrett Jackson Auction, a 1946 Ford Deluxe woodie wagon. For me, it was cabin culture personified and the perfect cabin car for my then-young family of five as we spent our summers on Gull Lake in northern Minnesota. The family woodie was, as I had hoped, the perfect historical addition to the cabin. Fitting, as to know me is to know that history is my territory, and the love of history is fundamental to all my collecting.

My passion for classic mahogany boats goes back, again, to when I was a young boy. I spent summers pulling crab traps on commercial fishing boats on the Eagle River chain of lakes in Wisconsin. Throughout the summer I’d watch the wealthy lake residents speed by in their classic mahogany boats. The seductive lines, the flashing of the brilliant chrome hardware, the deep-throated rumbling of the powerful engines puncturing the Northwoods silence. I was hooked. I told myself that, someday, I would have one.

Fast-forward 30 years, to the summer of 1995, the inaugural summer at our family cabin, Timberstone. The first classic mahogany boats that I had seen in years were those belonging to the Lee Anderson collection. Lee already had an impressive and growing collection of significant classic boats and he would arrive in different boats at the restaurants and functions around the lake. That’s when I really got bitten by the bug and realized classic boats turned my head, spun my youthful memories, and connected me to the essence of what once was.

I didn’t waste much time, quickly purchasing a 1929 28-foot Gar Wood Triple Cockpit. It was in Louisiana, where heat and humidity resulted in the boat needing a complete restoration. The restoration was handled by Mike Mahoney in Clayton, New York, and it turned out beautifully. I still have it in my collection, and while I’m unlikely to ever sell it, I’m also unlikely to return to Louisiana for boat business. These days, I do the bulk of my prospecting in Canada, northern Michigan, New Hampshire, and New York.

John Allen boat collector Greavette on water action
1955 26-ft Canadian Greavette Streamliner, named Pocahontas. Hull 1, powered by a 1955 Hemi marine engine. Designed by Douglas Van Patten and famous for its fully rounded hull design, grated floors, and unique chrome fittings. These boats were often called the aristocrats of family runabouts. Courtesy Steve Lapkin

Today I own 30 boats, many of which are quite famous in the classic boating world. One of the most notable is Bolo Babe, a 1926 Garwood 33-foot Baby Gar. Baby Gars are considered the “Holy Grail” of classic boats and Bolo Babe is likely the most famous, and certainly most infamous, of the fewer than eight Baby Gars still in existence.

Joining Bolo Babe at Fort Mahogany, my Adirondack-inspired boat museum, are some other boats of note. Miss Algonac, built in 1922, is the oldest existing Chris-Craft in the world; Wyndcrest, a 1931 Purdy racer powered by a Harry Miller Indianapolis 500 straight-eight race engine; and the 2023 ACBS Antique Boat of the Year, restored: Bunky, a 1931 32-foot custom-designed Belle Isle.

John Allen boat collector Chris Craft on water action
1922 26-ft Chris Craft, named Miss Algonac. The oldest Chris Craft in existence, contract number 4, predating the Roman Numeral Chris Crafts. Powered by an A-7-A World War I aircraft engine. Restored by Bo and Kathy Mueller of Sunapee, New Hampshire. Courtesy Steve Lapkin

Soon to arrive at Fort Mahogany are three new boats. First, Teaser, a 1924 Nevins 39-foot commuter racer, powered by a Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror V-12 aircraft engine. In 1924, Teaser raced the 20th Century Limited train from New York City to Albany in front of millions, beating the train by a significant margin. Second is Horace Dodge’s famous Sister Syn. The 35-foot race boat, powered by a V-12 World War I Wright Typhoon, was built in 1927 for Dodge’s sister Delphine to race, hence the name Sister Syn. And lastly, another Horace Dodge custom build, Lotus, a 1946 40-foot race boat powered by dual World War II Allison aircraft engines capable of delivering 3200 horsepower.

John Allen boat collector Ditchburn on water action
1928 27-ft stepped-hull Viking Ditchburn. Won the 1930 Muskoka Lakes Raceboat Regatta. The Viking design emanated from Ditchburn’s fleet of 1920s-winning Gold Cup Rainbow Raceboats. One of seven of the original 20 Vikings produced. First purchased by Canadian businessman Fred Burgess in September of 1928 at Ditchburn’s Toronto showroom for $5870.50. Courtesy Steve Lapkin

What I love about antique boats is they allow you to experience them exactly as they were experienced a hundred years ago. It feels the same for me as it did for the very first person to ever pilot the boat. When people ask me why I collect, I tell them it’s because few hobbies are so rich in style and stories and history. You can’t travel back in time, but classic boats, whether driving, showing, or simply admiring them, deliver you into years gone by.

The Land O’ Lakes Antique and Classic Boat Society Chapter will host the ACBS International Boat Show, Woods and Water II, at Bar Harbor Supper Club on the shores of Gull Lake in Lake Shore, Minnesota. September 8–15, 2024. For more information, visit

John Allen boat collector
1926 21-ft Hacker built Tampa Baby Racer. Powered by a Scripps Gold Cup engine. The last surviving Tampa Baby racer that promoted Tampa’s Davis Island and Marina development with seasonal races from 1926 to 1929. Courtesy Steve Lapkin




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    Great article. My grandfather owned a place on Catfish Lake, the Isle of B back in the 50’s and early 60’s. He owned several wood boats, at least one Chris Craft and a Gar Wood. The one claim to fame is that Neil Armstrong came to visit them one day (he used to go fishing on that lake). Alas, my grandfather sold the place in 1965 and shortly thereafter, the new owner burned the cabin to the ground. Since it was an island, the fire department could do nothing from the shore but watch.

    I pulled many crab traps on Catfish! Legend has it that someone long ago had a Baby Gar on the Eagle River chain in a fabulous boathouse. Your Grandfather??

    Fresh water lake crayfish. Cleaned and boiled with dill and sold to local Green Bay Bars. A Wisconsin delicacy!

    Staying at the Lake Placid Lodge (upstate NY) some years ago, my wife and I were sitting in Adirondack chairs outside our cabin next to the lake about 4:30 pm. We heard engines starting all around the lake and soon, there were countless mahogany boats backing out of boat houses and heading our way. Old gents wearing navy blazers and captains hats arrived at the dock below the Lodge. They all disembarked from their boats and headed to the bar. Curious, we did too. What a delightful bunch of guys as they told us stories about their grandparents (they were now all grandparents) who built these summer cottages around the lake, as well as the boats they were caretaking. We got to visit a couple of them in their cottages and rejoiced at the tradition being kept alive. Fond memories!

    Very nice article and from the few photos you shared, you have some truly great boats! I have been cottaging on Lake Muskoka my whole life! So I have been spoiled with classic boats. The Greavette Streamliner’s are on my top 5 greatest shape / design transportation vehicles (Supermarine Spitfire is Number 1).

    I am also in the process of rebuilding/restoring an old boat. It is not a wooden boat as these are above my maintenance threshold.

    The boat I have is a 1963 Glastron V143 JetFlite, which I have owned since new. The rebuild/restoration will not be a precise factory presentation, as, having owned the boat for so long, I became aware of the limitations of design and build imposed by the marketplace at that time.

    As an automotive engineer, I am making many changes to the build but will be retaining the period look of the boat, what is termed in the enthusiast automotive arena as a “Restomod”.

    I am looking forward to its completion so I can use it again.

    When I was a youngster in 1958, I worked at Skyline Motors which sold boats and had a boat dock on the Beaver River, Pa. That small river ran into the Ohio River. One of the boats docked there was a Chris Craft which had a Cadillac motor in it. I believe it had twin carburetor’s on it. One day my boss said the owner was having some of his friends come down for the weekend. He wanted the boat fueled and cleaned up. After cleaning as I was putting it into it’s berth, I asked myself, I wonder how fast this would go. In stead of going out in to the Ohio River, I roared full throttle up and down the Beaver River. I parked the boat and went home to clock out. As I got there, my boss yelled Jr, come here. He asked If I got the boat ready. I said yes, it’s all done. He then asked me if I happened to take it for a ride. I thought to my self, I’m in deep dodo. I bowed my head and shook it up and down. He then said, he received several calls about that boat roaring up and back down the river, almost washing some of them onto the bank. He didn’t fire me and then said,

    The Cadillac engines were optional in the 1957 to 1959 Chris Craft 21′ Capri and the 21′ Continental.

    My wooden boat experience was many years after these classic inboards, but with an equally interesting outboard of the 1950s. As an extremely lucky 10 year old, I received a 1956 Aristo-Craft “Torpedo 14”–a very sporty mahogany speedboat (they’re still in production–google the brand). Unfortunately for my thirst for speed, the motor matched my age: a 10 hp Johnson. Even so, I wasn’t complaining; that dearth of horsepower, still allowed me to pull a water skier. I had many years of fun with that boat–living in Ft Lauderdale I could take it out as often as weather and homework load allowed.

    If you visit the Maritime Museum in Newport News VA, they have a “Typhoon 12” on display, with a much more appropriate vintage 40hp Mercury Hurricane engine.

    Love this! I grew up in New England and spent my summers on lakes in Maine and Vermont until moving to Houston 10 years ago. I was reminded me of the old mahogany Chris Craft I used to drive.

    I love to look at someone else’s wooden boat and imagine the time and money that went into it. My own wooden boat days are behind me. But there’s a scent and sound to wooden yachts that is just magic.

    Interesting article as I have been a boater since my land locked youth in Columbus, Ohio. We would camp out at East Harbor State Park on Lake Erie and rent row boats to fish for yellow perch, the very best! I would ask my Dad when we would get a boat and he would always say, “Good Lord willing, next year” (we were rich but not in the monetary sense). When I was 17 and working at a Marathon station, there was an old wood boat at the Texaco across the street with a for sale sign on it. As I recall, it was a Chris Craft, maybe 15-16 feet, double cockpit with a 25 hp Johnson outboard that had a broken recoil starter. I bought it on payments (I think it was $200 including trailer), put some paint on it and took it everywhere, including out to the Casino on Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie. It was the first of many boats but it was my last wood boat, I admire them but as I like to say, you can only have so many expensive hobbies. Which brings me to commenting on the aircraft engines in some of the boats you mention, many of which I recognize as aviation has been my passion and profession (to include the Navy) just as long as I have loved boats. Were these boats specially built with the aircraft engines or modified afterwards?

    One of my probably never to be realized dreams is to build a boat. Something along the lines of “Miss Algonac”, 26-28′ engine in the center. Of course I’d power it by something more modern, like an AMC six (since I’m an AMC guy…). A 195 hp AMC/Jeep 4.0L would move a lot faster than that old Hall-Scott A-7-A (40 hp — gross hp, not NET rated like the 4.0L). Actually an older 232 would be more suitable (145 gross hp.. still just over 3x the Hall-Scott). Or a modern four of even small size, but a boat needs low speed torque, making the AMC six a good choice even if it has to be de-tuned.

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