Anytime anyone really wants to know if a Chris-Craft is a good design, just remember THIS photo of Walt Walters (left) and Jim Wynne (right) out doing what they seemed to do best, and that is build and race boats that won races.
If you really wanted to race, it would have been wise to pick some other race that these guys were not in, lol.
Many an expensive boat met its demise at the hands of these two guys, because finishing in second place really has little charm in the racing world. These are the guys who designed the Lancer hulls, and of course the XK-19 and XK-22, and the 19 and 23 Commander hulls as well. If you want to go fast in these hulls, just keep adding more and more power. The hulls come from a pretty well tested formula (pun intended).
The Restoration of the Original Cigarette Speedboat
CHRIS CASWELLJUN 13, 2014
Back from the Dead
The story of the restoration of the original Formula 233 The Cigarette is one that could change the face of historical boat collecting forever. Witness the rise of the “glassic.”
The annual Vintage Weekend at Key Largo’s luxurious Ocean Reef Club is a gathering of impressively restored boats, cars, and planes on display. And normally that’s more than enough to wow the crowd—but this year there was a surprise.
The entries in the nautical arena included the likes of a former presidential yacht from the ’30s, not to mention classic Trumpys, Chris-Crafts, Burgers, and Ryboviches lining the piers. All had their mahogany and teak varnished to a syrupy brilliance, their brass polished to a sparkle. Brilliant crystal ornamented the tables.
Original Cigarette engine
But the truly knowledgeable—the cognoscenti—among the boating visitors bypassed these opulent offerings and made a beeline to one boat, where they stood in awe, discussing her amongst themselves in hushed tones. What was this diamond among the jewels?
A small white plastic boat.
If you were a mouse eavesdropping on the comments, they ran something like this: “Can you believe it? That’s the boat that started it all!” or “So that’s where the name came from!” or “That was his very first boat!”
When one thinks of classics in the boating world, the word conjures up acres of varnish and a pedigree dating back to the early 1900s. This boat had barely enough wood to make a respectable cutting board. She was built just 50 years ago in 1963 and—egads!—she’s fiberglass.
Aronow’s first race boat in like-new condition.
See more photos of The Cigarette here ▶
So what was this magnet that caused such a stir? She was The Cigarette, a Formula 233 that was the debut fiberglass boat from Don Aronow’s first company, Formula Boats. Aronow, a wealthy real estate developer, had retired to Florida as a 33-year-old millionaire, where he was bitten by the offshore-powerboat racing bug. He entered a wooden raceboat in the 1962 Miami-to-Nassau Race but, after seeing a 17-foot racer co-designed by Jim Wynne (inventor of the sterndrive) and Walt Walters, he hired them to design a larger, fiberglass version.
The company was intended as a thinly disguised tax shelter for Aronow’s racing ambitions and there are two versions of the naming. The first is that when Wynne and Walters were discussing the plans with Aronow, he would ask them a technical question and one of the two designers would answer, “You know, there’s a formula for that.” According to Aronow’s son, however, the name was chosen because the combination of designers Wynne and Walters with fiberglass builders Buddy Smith and Jake Trotter was the “formula” for success. I like both choices.
The first hull out of the mold was a prototype, but Aronow grabbed the first production hull for racing, following the Detroit precept that “what wins on Sunday, sells on Monday.” He named her The Cigarette in honor of a successfully fast Prohibition-era rum runner of that name from his native New York. Entered in the Miami-to-Key West race, he proved the boat by winning his class, and actually finishing second overall to a much larger and more powerful racer. The boat, bearing Aronow’s lucky race number and The Cigarette name on the stern, returned to the shop and Aronow moved on to larger projects. Other 233 racers followed, however, with Wynne winning the Miami-Bimini-Miami race in a sistership.
The Formula 233 proved very successful, with production lasting more than 20 years and hundreds of boats. And, over the years, one editor noted that he could identify more than two dozen other boats built with lines stolen from the popular 233.
So where was The Cigarette, and how did it languish for so long before becoming the classic “barn-find” so cherished in the world of automobile restoration?
Aronow had sold The Cigarette to another budding racer, George Peroni, a few months after that first race. The boat carried a list price of $8,600 but, because Aronow had raced the boat, he discounted it to $6,090.
Shortly after the sale, however, Aronow called Peroni and asked to borrow the boat back for an afternoon, saying he had “some guys who want a ride in a fast boat.” Peroni loaned him the boat, and Aronow used it to take The Beatles out for their first speedboat ride just as they were about to become insanely famous in America.
Peroni eventually changed the boat’s name to Empirical and raced her from 1964 until 1972, filling his shelves with silverware including an overall win in the Gateway Marathon from Palm Beach to Grand Bahama and back. In the Gateway, he drove alone, standing for the entire three hours!
But ocean-racing equipment and speeds soon left the Formula behind and the boat was retired to family use. At one point, Peroni and his son decided to restore it, but tragedy struck first when his son was killed in a car accident. The boat was put in the backyard under a canvas cover and there it remained for decades.
Fast forward nearly 40 years from 1963 to 2002, when Bob DeNisco, Sr., visits his old friend, George Peroni who, along with Jim Wynne, had all gone to high school together in Miami and remained close over the years.
Ticket to Ride
How’d that famous boat ride with The Beatles come about, and how did they like it? Well, The Beatles were in the United States for the first time making their historic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. On a day in between their first and second performances, the boys from Liverpool decided they wanted to have some fun, and were put in contact with Don Aronow—not surprising considering all of Aronow’s celebrity clients and contacts. The five men tooled around Miami for the day at speeds none of The Beatles had ever come close to on the water. By most reports, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison got a touch of seasickness. But Ringo Starr? He apparently had the time of his life. And that’s saying something when you’re a Beatle. Drummers; they really do have all the fun. For more on Aronow, see Kevin Koenig’s award-winning oral history, here. ▶
In Peroni’s backyard, DeNisco saw the very tired Formula 233, covered in mold and with a palm tree literally growing out of her. DeNisco remembered riding with Peroni on the boat decades earlier, when Peroni both raced it and used it as a pleasure boat. In classic barn-find style, DeNisco asked Peroni if he wanted to sell it and the two cut a deal: the “valuable consideration” for the sale was one dollar, but DeNisco had to promise to restore the boat.
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.