Welcome to the revolution. It happened 50 years ago …
Two weekends ago, we attended the Ninth Annual Switzer Craft Reunion in Channanon, Ill. It was a wonderful experience courtesy of Tom and April Arambasich and their extended family of relatives and friends who worked tirelessly to put on the event. But it was more than a gathering of “Remember when?” folks with a fondness for a particular brand of “classic” powerboat. It was, as it always is, a celebration of something truly innovative and unique among people who are beyond passionate.
Why the almost cult-like devotion of Switzer Craft owners? The history of this relatively modest Midwest boat company, which became a performance giant, tells the story.
Starting in the late ’40s and meandering through decades of ingenious designs, the Switzer brothers, Bob and Dave, created many cornerstones of today’s high performance boat designs. Dave, the quiet genius, and Bob, the enthusiastic racer/promoter did more with less than you can imagine, standing the boating world on its collective ear repeatedly. Switzer Craft started as a family sailboat project, in Crystal Lake, Illinois while older brother Dave went off to war.
Upon his return, the Switzers got serious and built custom wood racing runabouts for the burgeoning stock outboard classes in the ’50s. Their early success gave them the impetus to build larger pleasure designs all bearing the, often quirky, vision of Dave Switzer. The models ranged from sleek runabouts with ’50s-style tail fins, to larger cabin cruisers and fishing boats. In those days travel and delivery costs kept the majority of sales in the Midwest and isolated dealer-centric pockets elsewhere in the country.
One particular model, the Shooting Star, took on a life of its own as it gradually morphed from a highly stylized runabout into the fastest single-engine race hull on the planet over a period of only 3-4 years. Dave began to experiment with aerodynamics on this series and the final “tunnel/flat” design proved breathtakingly fast. Although turning and choppy water created definite racing limits, variations of the hull set most of the single-engine kilo records in both the APBA and NOA OPC classes at speeds easily 10 mph higher than the competition. Each hull was handcrafted in wood allowing Dave’s imagination and styling acumen to mature in an unfettered environment, which resulted in some of the most beautiful lines ever seen on the water. And then came……..
In 1961, the APBA announced a marathon race on Lake Winnebago (Mercury Marine’s backyard) in Wisconsin which, for the first time in years, featured an unrestricted class in which employees of both engine and boat manufacturers were free to enter. The Switzer’s learned of this only two weeks before the event and knew that they faced the vaunted troops of Carl Kiekhaefer on his terms. In eight days flat, Dave pulled out everything he had learned, imagined and or dreamed over the previous 10 years and created a design so unique that it still remains as the fastest air entrapment design based on weight to horsepower.
.Called the “hydro-cat” or more commonly “The Wing, ” the design put the Switzers at the top of the high-speed food chain. The first true four-point hydroplane it also featured 18-foot sponsons separated by an actual 15-foot-by-5 foot section of an aircraft wing including an aileron to lift the aft steps clear of the water. It not only worked the first time it ran, the design eclipsed 100 mph with only two 100-hp motors, easily 25 percent faster than any other design.
In the four years following the development of the first wing in 1961, The Switzer Craft line was converted entirely to fiberglass. This marked the end of Dave’s gorgeous one-off flights of fancy, but provided a consistent line of products that met the needs of the newer performance boater and the ever increasing power from the outboard motor manufacturers.
Kiekhaefer, knowing the potential of the Switzers, bought the exclusive rights to the 18-foot fiberglass wings and ordered a total of 34 of them to cement the deal. These went to the top racers in the country. This was the first outboard design that could race with, and beat, the vaunted West Coast flat bottom marathon (SK) designers like Rayson Craft, Mandella, and Nordskog. Dave, watching the startling improvements in outboard, power, lower units and propellers, realized that his 18-foot design was becoming marginal and in danger of exceeding its speed envelope. In addition he had constant requests from Mercury’s competitors for Wings of their own.
To satisfy both issues, he created the 20-foot Wing design, which was not protected under his agreement with Mercury and was capable of handling the bigger motors he saw in the future. What he didn’t see coming was a fire in his factory which destroyed both wing mold sets, and the decision by the outboard motor manufacturers to limit factory racing to single-engine tunnel hulls only, thereby rendering the Wing and most other multi outboard hulls obsolete.
After the fire, the Switzers turned to more marketable v-bottom designs and created the first “huggers” and Super Sports which created a whole new market and a rejuvenated dealer network. Within a decade the brothers had produced hulls ranging from 15 to 28 feet that spawned many of the loyal fans represented at the reunion. In fact a lot of Switzer owners were and are only dimly aware of the length and breadth of the builder’s racing designs. However, a walk through this year’s event left this observer amazed at the number of separate and unique tools that factory created. They obviously copied no one.
The enthusiasm remains unabated today, and some 30 years after Bob and Dave sold the company and retired, the hardy boat owners gather together in a simple yearly get together that seems more like a wholesome family picnic than a boat collectors’ event. The food and camaraderie are great and the chance to spend quality time with Bob Switzer, who comes to almost all of these events, is priceless. The passion and effort that have gone into some of the restorations rivals anything you might see at Barrett-Jackson, while newly discovered original Switzer classics all find eager buyers ready to apply the same treatment.
Sadly, it seems that all of the five prototype wooden wings have been destroyed, but the value of one of those is unimaginable, should one still be hiding in a crevice or barn somewhere. Even the 14 remaining fiberglass versions (one of which belongs to my son, Darren) continue to increase in value and interest as new fans are exposed to them at events like these. Next year marks the tenth anniversary of this event, and while it features no $100,000 paint jobs or exotic turbocharged V-8’s or turbines. The Switzer designs hold their own with anything created since that era, and the proud boat owners respect and understand what they have, and how lucky they are to share in a part of this long and honored history.