(One mans thoughts about the Chris Craft Commander.)
I've looked at literally, untold thousands of boats during the last 40 or so years, and I've been on some of the finest yachts around. Ive attended (and/or helped organize) many in-the-water boating events over the years too.
I've been on the finest steam launches on Lake Geneva, many customs and rare exotics on Lake Tahoe, numerous wood and fiberglass boats all over the Great Lakes, fabulous heirloom boats on Lakes George and Geneva, classics and antiques on the St. Lawrence River Thousand Island district. I've run the Intercostals in a variety of boats from 47 to 80 feet, been all over the east coast from the New York Yacht Club to Ocean Reef Florida, cruised and dived the Gulf and Yucatan, and of course I've been all over the fresh water lakes and rivers of the heartland. I've rarely EVER seen a better looking fiberglass cruiser than a classic Chris Craft Commander, at any price.
Being totally immersed in the antique and classic boat movement from childhood, including being involved with numerous boating organizations along the way, Ive learned to recognize and identify fine boats at a glance. These include the Ditchburns, Greavettes, Fay & Bowens, Shepherds of Canada, and the Hutchinsons, Gar Woods, Sea Lyons, Darts, Dodge, Century, Ventnor, and of course the Chris Craft model lines too. My experience is shallow by some of the individuals I've met through this forum, but everyone I encounter seems to have especially high regard fot the entire Commander series.
Using my wood boat association as a reference point, I recall the first fiberglass Commander I ever saw. Coming from a dyed in the wool antique and classic background, Janet and I were walking the docks and we came across this rakish looking 38 boat with the stylish pointed transom. There was a man on board and he was tending to some sort of issue, perhaps checking his engines, whatever. I remember we did a double-take. The more I looked the more I liked. I started following the teak toe rail around, and as it turned into the side walkway I was very impressed at the level of detail at the drain, where the textured walkway met up with the teak and the side of the cabin. As we walked forward looking around, I noticed the cast in vent wings aft of the side window glass, the big operable windshields, that long forward deck, and the flair of the hull. WOW, this is SOME BOAT I thought to myself. I had been referring to fiberglass boats as "Tupperware" but now I was looking at one that REALLY looked good by any standard.
We walked back and talked to the guy, who turned out to be Ronnie Pearce. I have lost contact with Ronnie, but he ran a business called Pearce Diesel, and he was running a 38 Commander with twin 427 motors. I am not sure today if it was a SF or Express model, or even a Sedan. In any case, I attempted to purchase that boat for many years thereafter, and Ronnie finally agreed to sell it, for one-hundred-thousand-dollars. At that point I laughed and said hey, I can take a hint, and I never called back. I later found the boat many years hence, in disappointing condition compared to what I remembered at the time we first saw her. Perhaps it was best that it passed me by.
What caught my eye was the classic lines and the execution. Everything about the boat just came out and GOT our attention. Years later we were aboard a cruiser on Lake Wilson, serving as the mother boat for a wood boat rendezvous (for about 35 runabouts at the time) and I began thinking to myself, you know, this isnt too shabby. Here we were, sitting there sipping cocktails while the Captain motored down the lake way behind all the runabouts that took off in a flash and raced the entire length of the course. We were just taking our time enjoying the sunshine, company, and life, aboard a large Chris Craft Constellation. At that time I started thinking about a cruiser.
A few years later we literally stumbled onto our 35 wood Sea Skiff, which just happened to be there, for sale, right in front of our noses. We closed the deal the afternoon we first saw her without negotiations, and as it turned out we bought it right out from under some other guy who had been haggling for that last dollar of reduction for over a month. We enjoyed that boat for quite a few years, and it eventually was published in a six page spread in the 1966 January/February edition of Classic Boating Magazine.
While we still owned that fine boat, which at the time we had improved her to very good condition status, we began looking for that boat we saw a few years ago". Yes, we began looking for a Commander, not really knowing much of ANYTHING about the boat or the model line. I wanted out of the wood cruiser business, because I didnt like trying to get to sleep at night knowing I had 12,000 pounds of wet wood holding up a lot of expensive motors and electronics. Having been there and done that, with regards to scraping the bottom, installing new planks, and new white oak steam bent ribs, I thought Id had enough for one lifetime (unless I won the lottery). I still intended to own a wood runabout, but began looking for a fiberglass boat that had the same style and pedigree as our beloved Chris Craft Sea Skiff.
My parents shocked us one day when they announced they wanted a cruiser like ours, and that's when the first Commander entered the family. It was a pristine 31 Chris Craft Commander Sedan. It was (and still is) in exquisite shape. The chrome and fiberglass is just about flawless, and the motors run great too. That continued the TRADITION of our family, just buying and owning Chris Craft boats. When my parents bought their Commander, that put us at 117-feet of Chris Crafts.
As we put out the word, in came a few prospects, and we drove to Cincinnati, Ohio to look at one. We eventually bought it for low dollars and shipped it to Nashville, Tennessee where it has spent the last ten years of beneficial life under our ownership. It is FXA 38 3004 R, which means it was the 4th Express model built in 1966 (which is the third year of production for this boat).
ABOVE: TRADITION as purchased 10-years ago on the banks of the Ohio River, near Cincinnati, Ohio.
Power was (and remains) by 427 Fords. At the time we also owned a 35 Sea Skiff, which we went about putting onto the market and eventually sold for a good price to an appreciative new owner.
ABOVE: TRADITION, as featured in the June 2006 edition of Motor Boating Magazine, article link below.
Our new 38' Commander was only three feet longer than the Skiff, but it weighed 8000 or so pounds more. Response to the helm was totally different. I was distressed at first, because I thought it handled like a barge compared to the nimble Skiff, and quite frankly the Skiff could run circles around the Commander. Later when I began to understand the feel of the larger and heavier boat, I also began to appreciate how nimble it really was for all of its heft, and I began to understand what that heft was for too.
The hull has been absolutely WITHOUT WORRY. No blisters, no leaks, almost no maintenance at all. Its true, the early Commanders are bullet proof. The early model Commander has enough wood inside the cabin, around the helm station, and around the toe rail to satisfy even the dyed-in-the-wool antique and classic boat enthusiast like me, and we have enjoyed showing off those great lines we first saw ourselves many years earlier. Now Im the guy on board the boat doing some chores, when some new fella comes walking down the docks and stops to stare and offer a few comments. Yes, its a Chris Craft Commander, built in 1966, and it has a pair of NASCAR big block Fords too. They generally gasp, shake their heads, and look again. On occasion Ill invite them aboard and even start up the motors. This is great fun, by the way, for me and for them! Once a kid, always a kid.
For any prospective owners of the Chris Craft Commander line, you can do A LOT worse than buy an old Commander! The Chris Craft name is almost royalty in the American boating scene, and the quality they put into the early boats is enduring, still impresses me, and it will live on long after our boat eventually falls into new ownership in the future.
The old saying they dont build them like they used to, is never more appropriate.
ABOVE: TRADITION as she is today, plying the waters of the Cumberland River, in the heartland of Tennessee. Thats Alan Jacksons fish camp in the background, and as some may know, hes more than Country Music Entertainer of the Year, hes a Chris Craft Commander owner and fan!