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Smoke on the water: the new scene of old flatbottom v-drive ski boats

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The author’s boat and boss on the Sacramento River near Knight’s Landing in Northern California. Photographs by Dan Stoner and Howard Custom Boats.

By the early Sixties — let’s say, just before the dawn of the American muscle car era, small-batch fiberglass sports car bodies had become a cottage industry. “Yeah, but,” you say, “Bill Tritt had started popping his Glasspar roadsters out of their molds in ’49!” And you’d be right, of course. But the idea of indie ‘glass shops building hot rods and roadsters really became a thing roughly 10 years later. Bocars, Devins, Woodill, Byers, Victress… the list of small manufacturers was probably longer than most realize.

Their formula was fairly simple: Design a car body that could be easily turned into a mold and produced, choose a fast motor that was easily sourced, build or use an existing rolling chassis, bolt it all up, and bob’s your uncle. The countryside wasn’t carpet-bombed by these things, but if you wanted an alternative to the known automakers of the day, you could always find an ad in the back of your favorite car magazine and write for a brochure.

By the early Sixties, more than a few of these manufacturers had set their sights on the family ski boat, too. Truth be told, some plastic car builders like Glasspar had started in boats and moved to cars, but it was easy for any of these shops to do both — the tech was virtually the same. And Southern California became a hotbed of fiberglass flat-bottom V-drive ski- and drag-boat manufacturing.

Names like Sanger, Mandella, Howard, Schiada, Stevens, Kindsvater, Aquacraft, Biesemeyer, and others were figuring out how to use wood, fiberglass, and stainless steel to build an entire industry that looked a lot like the drag-racing, hot-rod, custom, and roadster scenes over on dry land. All you had to do was find the biggest and most powerful V-8 you could, bolt it to the slab of the floating fiberglass-n-wood sandwich you just designed, throw it on a trailer, and sell as many as you could crank out of your shop. And, oh yes, it worked.

Flat-bottom “family ski boats” and purpose-built drag boats became all the rage in the Sixties, especially with folks who were buying early muscle cars and drag racing them on the weekends. If you were already down with the fast factory cars — and you lived near any body of water — chances are, a flat-bottom V-drive boat would make total sense. Of course you’d need one, right? 389 Pontiacs, 401 Buick nailheads, 428 Fords, and 327 Chevys were all common engines found in these new boats, and they were easy for their new owners to work on. Plus, the motor in each of these boats was the crown jewel: nothing easier to show off than a big Ford V-8 clad in cast-aluminum go-fast parts, polished within an inch of its life, in a flat-bottom.

Drag-boat racing became insanely popular, just offshore of the skads of dragstrips popping up all over the land, too. And it wasn’t uncommon for engine builders to build motors for both cars and boats, just like it was fairly common for dragster drivers to pilot boats, too. Lots of interchangeability when it came to these things — and that was by design. Although, we’d submit that it took a next-level of insanity to drive a drag boat: Not only was there virtually zero protection for the pilot as he literally sat on top of the damn thing, but there was the added thrill of a possible drowning if he got outta shape on his pass. Which was often, since the dragstrip, itself, was constantly moving under the vehicle. Imagine that.

But the Golden Age of flat-bottom V-drive boats was glorious. They were wild, flashy, loud, fast, sketchy, and lots of fun. By the Seventies, jet technology had improved for the boating industry, and it changed flat-bottoms a little. The V-drive didn’t go away, but flatbottoms slowly gave way to modified V-hulls of various designs that got bigger, deeper, and safer. The Oldsmobile 455 became nearly the de facto motor for the jet boats and Chevy big blocks — lots of 454s — became almost a standard V-drive mill by the Eighties. All the while, the guys who bought the first-gen flats back in the Sixties were aging and, in many cases, the boats saw much more trailer time than hours in the water.

By the 2010s, hot-rodders who’d been responsible for the retro-vintage hot-rod revival in the early Nineties had discovered that a whole bunch of those early flat-bottom V-drive owners had either become too old to use them or just weren’t around anymore. So, the boats ended up buried in garages or left out in the back yard under a tarp. Hey, they never got rusty and their motors were usually intact when they were finally uncovered and sold.

Turns out, early flat-bottom V-drives are a metalflaked bridge between the muscle car scene and the weekend boating party: The engines may sit backward in the boat, but it’s really easy to work on a Chevy distributor or get to the rear spark plugs on a Ford. The trailers can run a favorite set of custom wheels. Custom paint and a slightly-crass name on the transom is almost a requirement. Upholstery is basically the same process, but it just needs to be marine Naugahyde. The chrome and polishing bill will probably be the same, but nobody’s gonna mistake one for yet another millionth wakeboarding boat at the marina.

Full disclosure: All the photos and video in this feature are moments in the life of my own flat — a 1965 Howard with a Ford 390 V-8 in it. Picked this thing up for under $3K a few years ago, and it doesn’t look a whole lot different than when I dragged it out of a front yard in California’s Central Valley. It ain’t a show winner, but it’s tons of fun and fast enough (50 mph on the water feels like 100!). The boat is also a member of the Northern California V-Drive club — a group that keeps growing every year. Come on out next summer and get on a boat with us. This is your official invitation to find out how much fun wet muscle cars really are!