There are investments, and then there are investments. The very word brings to mind the dispassionate purchase of stocks, bonds or mutual funds which, no matter how cleverly you manipulate them, still aren't much fun.

More and more investors, however, are finding ways to make investments that give them pleasure such as fine art, stamps, coins, or even baseball cards. But if you want to live grandly, you might consider the antique and classic boat field, where there is still money to be made at a rate that makes it competitive with more mundane choices.

According to Al Schinnerer, whose California company provides replacement metal castings for classic speedboats, "Collecting vintage speedboats is about where old car collecting was 15 or more years ago, and we all have tales of the cars we should have bought back then". Because there are far fewer classic boats available, and because ownership and restoration relies on less common skills, such as woodworking, it's no surprise that vintage runabouts took so long to catch on as a collectible product.

Bob Speltz, whose six-edition "Real Runabouts" series of books serve as bibles and catalogs for this growing field, now sees "a lot of antique car people getting into boats, because they're still affordable."

Long, lean and growling with power, these are the traditional mahogany speedboats that you probably remember from summer days at a mountain lake when they left sparkling white wakes while towing water skiers across the blue waters. There is some dispute amongst collectors as to what the differences are between a classic and an antique, but any pre-World War II runabout is a collectible, as well as many that were built long after the war.

Chris-Craft is synonymous with the style, and they certainly built more of the varnished mahogany speedboats than anyone, although they had literally hundreds of competitors across North America including companies such as Gar Wood, Hacker, Century, and Dodge. Like dinosaurs, these builders faded from the scene, some from financial woes and others bowing to the inevitability of fiberglass. Gar Wood ceased production in the late 1940s, Hacker survived into the 50s, and Chris Craft and Century built their last wooden speedboats in the mid-1960s.

Dick Clarke, manager of Sierra Boat Company on Lake Tahoe, is the leading restorer of wooden runabouts in the world, with hundreds to his credit, including more show winners that he can recall. "When Century Boats switched from wood to fiberglass back in the '60s, I bought up all the remaining wooden boats that I could find from other dealers, who were happy to see them gone because they thought fiberglass was the answer. I sold every one of those boats within a year to people who wouldn't ever own a plastic boat, and I wish I still had some of them to sell!"

But, you ask, how can such an enjoyable acquisition provide a reasonable return on your investment? Well, let's look at some instances. Several years ago, Al Schinnerer bought a rotting mahogany speedboat for $100. The stern had been sawed off, an ungainly cabin was bolted to the peeling deck, but it had once been "Miss Dee Wite II", a powerful runabout that had competed in the prestigious Harmsworth Trophy Races as well as setting the 1936 world speed record of 76 mph. The boat remains in the same unrestored and ragged condition, but Schinnerer has several interested buyers for the boat.....at an asking price of $75,000! Of course, that's an example of an expert finding a diamond in the rough, and the buyer will probably spend another $200,000 in restoration, but the result will be a one-of-a-kind investment.

On a more realistic level, Chris-Craft offered a line of mahogany speedboats in the mid-1950s called Cobras, which were a waterborne version of the Chevrolet Corvette: powerful two-seaters with rakish lines. They also marked the beginning of the end for wooden runabouts, since they had large tail fins made from a new-fangled material called fiberglass. In 1955, a Chris-Craft Cobra sold new for under $6000, even with the optional Cadillac V-8, and you could still pick up a good Cobra in the 1970s for well under $10,000 in good condition. At the end of 1987, a tatty 21' Cobra sold at auction for over $30,000, and there is another presently on the market for $75,000, although it will probably sell for somewhat less.

Dick Clarke warns that an investment in a boat shouldn't be considered on a short-term basis. "We'll restore a boat and the owner may win the next show but, when you add it all up, he can't sell it the next year for what he has in it. Of course, you can't do that with a car, either. But five years from now, there's no way you can lose money on that boat"

"In the meantime," Clarke grins, "he'll have some fun with the boat. We're not museum people....we're users". Unlike stamps or coins or fine art, a vintage runabout is something that your family and friends can enjoy....a real working investment. Schinnerer agrees, "If you have a boat and don't use it....then what's the point?" Both caution that there are peripheral costs, such as insurance and annual maintenance, that aren't found in more conventional investments, but you also can't waterski behind stamps or coins.

Where do you start to find an investment classic? Clarke notes that there are two types of collectors: those who buy the "exotics", and those who buy the more common runabouts. The exotics might include Gold Cup racers or the larger three-cockpit runabouts from some of the smaller companies, with correspondingly high price tags. For most people, however, Schinnerer recommends something like a pre-war two-cockpit Chris-Craft called a "barrelback" because the stern rolls inward like the side of a barrel. "You can find a good unrestored barrelback Chris, that we'd call a 'user' because it's not show condition, for less than $15,000. Keep it for a few years and you'll certainly earn money on it".

Clarke agrees with Schinnerer, adding "The old pre-war barrelbacks were very attractive boats, and Chris-Craft has always been synonymous with a decent wood boat. It's not as rare, because there were so many built, but it's certainly a good solid purchase".

Clarke notes that the rarer boats have grown impossibly scarce, while boats that would have been burned a decade ago are now being restored. He recently bought a 1940 Gar Wood three cockpit runabout for $23,500 and another 25' Gar Wood with trailer (but not the original engine) for $25,000, which he feels is a lot of money, "but they just aren't available now". He found them at an auction that was advertised in a national automobile magazine and, though he was expecting a number of wealthy collectors to participate, they didn't show and the prices were surprisingly low.

"Restoration", says Clarke, "is a very loose term. It can range from simply getting the boat running to making it a championship show boat that is completely original right down to the electrical connectors. I've bought several boats that were said to be fully restored, and we spent another $10,000 to $13,000 just getting the details right. At Sierra Boat Company, our feeling is that a restoration is from the attic to the basement, but some companies only do the areas that are visible".

Speltz says that one way to get started is to go to some of the antique boat shows and start talking to owners. "They're friendly and they are always really helpful to newcomers. Once you've decided what type of boat interests you, find out about the 'marque' clubs that are formed by the owners of that particular boat.....you can hear about boats for sale through their newsletters". All the experts said that the quick profits in the business have attracted some disreputable companies, and Speltz suggested dealing only with restorers that have been in business for five or more years.

Speltz also disagrees with Clarke and Schinnerer that all the good unrestored boats are gone. Of course, there may not be the proverbial Duesenberg found in a barn, but there are still boats to be discovered. "A day doesn't go by that someone calls to tell me about what they found in some garage. Of course, there are a lot more people out looking for them, too, but boats are being found in the most unusual places".

One such case took place on the East Coast recently when, at an estate sale far from water, a surprised buyer found a Century mahogany runabout on a rack in a dusty garage, covered with a moth-eaten cover. With a Johnson 25 hp outboard on the stern, it had been bought new in 1955.....and never used. For whatever reason, the owner had simply left it sitting in a state of perfect preservation for more than 30 years until a lucky buyer happened upon it at the estate sale. It sold, by the way, for considerably less than the 1955 price, and the new owner won't have to wait a few years for his investment to "mature" before he cashes in.

Why are classic runabouts growing in value? According to Clarke, it is the fact that there aren't very many of these vintage craft. "In the '30s, we had the Depression, and we didn't get rid of that until World War II, so we're talking very small numbers of boats when compared to the automobile industry. There are a finite number of these boats in the world".

Aside from the general condition of the boat, two of the most important factors in vintage values, according to the experts, are originality and rarity. Originality means that the original parts, from windshield brackets and cleats to the actual engine, are just as they were delivered from the factory. After several decades, parts are likely to be missing and they can be expensive to replace. Schinnerer tells of buying the Dee Wite hull and finding that the entire instrument panel was missing...an irreplaceable setback for an authentic restoration. A friend mentioned seeing boat instruments on the wall of a restaurant and, when Schinnerer followed up on the tip, he was amazed to find the missing panel from his boat in perfect condition. By the same token, however, it can cost as much as $7500 to replace missing Gar Wood or Hacker fittings on a runabout, so check for missing parts carefully.

Rarity might mean that this is one of few boats built by a builder, or it might mean that this particular boat has a history (such as being in a Harmsworth or Gold Cup race) that makes it more valuable. A 1940 23' Chris-Craft, which sold originally for $3995, can now be worth as much as $50,000 because there are only a dozen others like it.

All of the experts agree that prices will continue to ascend. "Boat values have doubled in the last 3-4 years", says Schinnerer, "and I'll predict that within 10 to 15 years, we're going to see big classic speedboats in the million dollar range, just like Duesenbergs".

In the meantime, there's something particularly satisfying about an investment that can take you speeding across a lake, the wind in your hair, the tingle of spray on your face, and the warmth of flawless varnish under your arm.

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