PRE-LOVED - 1955 Chris-Craft custom Mistral

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JOHN DEAN tracks down a glamour Chris-Craft in the Apple Isle that’s a unique DIY kit-boat, fully restored and repowered, and now up for sale…

PRE-LOVED - 1955 Chris-Craft custom Mistral
PRE-LOVED — American Beauty

Back in the early 1950s — a large wooden crate left the USA and made its way to the quiet rural town of Longford, nestled in Tasmania’s northeast. Carefully packed inside were a marine inboard motor, gearbox, water-cooled manifolds, alloy engine mounts, instruments and a set of full-scale plans for building a sleek 22ft open runabout.

The consignment came from The Chris-Craft Corporation, the world’s leading manufacturer of mahogany motorboats, but with sales on the decline it desperately sought to make ends meet by offering Build-It-Yourself packages to customers both at home and abroad.

With the crate’s contents unpacked and cosseted within the walls of a rustic woolshed on his family’s farming property, Ron McKinnon, sustained by filter-tipped tailor-mades and cups of hot tea, spent countless man-hours carefully working majestic lengths of Tasmanian King William pine into an elegant craft that would eventually receive the name Mistral.

A handful of rare colour photographs (shown hereabouts) taken at the time reveal just how beautiful a job he made of her. She was years in the making, but finally, with her amber deck glistening like leatherwood honey over her crisp white hull, Mistral was ready to take to the river.

WATER PRESSURE
In the cruellest of ironies, the very water upon which Mistral was so reliant ultimately betrayed her. Her outer hull, which had been sheathed in fibreglass — a relatively new material at the time — quickly began to blister and delaminate due to water entering through the unsealed inner hull. And there the water remained, festering like poison beneath the surface, with no means of escape.

Mistral’s looks were ruined and with the honeymoon now well and truly over, she was locked away from sight for the next 40 years.

REBIRTH
By the time Michael and Stuart Ferrall came across her — languishing in the very same woolshed — she was in a miserable state of disrepair. Nevertheless, the two men committed themselves to taking her on as their own.

Initially, they had intended to patch her up quickly, until a growing realisation that the rarity and exquisite workmanship of this boat demanded that she be given the very best treatment they could afford her. A team of nautical craftsmen and consultants was assembled, each with their own expert part to play in a restoration that was going to be anything but skin deep.

Once the old fibreglass was stripped and she was completely gutted, Michael and Stuart turned their attentions to the problem of the waterlogged hull. It was critically important that it should be dried out very slowly, in an effort to avoid any cracking or distortion.

PRAISE THE LORD
Salvation came in the form of second-hand pew heaters sourced from a local church, and although it took many months to return the moisture content of her hull to an acceptable level, these feeble devices did the trick. Mistral’s resurrection, it seemed, was well underway.

Over many more months she was sanded, faired, planed, epoxy sealed and sheathed in modern Dynel cloth both inside and out. New beams of Tasmanian oak were laid to support her deck of Brazilian mahogany, meticulously inlaid with Huon pine.

Having been in business since 1892, it was decided that Launceston’s Glasgow Engineering could probably be trusted with the job of turning out Mistral’s high-quality bespoke stainless steel fittings. Their work was consistently first class.

The original 238ci V8 Chris-Craft engine, with only 70 hours clocked over its lifetime, was initially presumed to be perfectly serviceable — that was until its salt-ravaged innards imploded during one of Mistral’s mid- restoration sea trials. A new Chevrolet V8 of larger capacity was duly purchased and installed.

All-in-all it took eight years to complete the restoration, but the Ferralls — firm believers in the virtue of patience and doing the job properly — couldn’t be more pleased with the final result. As it happens, Mistral has the distinction of being the only known survivor of her type left in the world.

She truly is achingly beautiful. Her deep burgundy flanks elegantly tumble home to her transom. I politely declined Stuart’s invitation to take the helm. Those of you who are familiar with the film On Golden Pond will appreciate my crippling fear of inadvertently reducing Mistral to a splintered mess of matchsticks.

TAKING FLIGHT
After frightening some Swans (and the old dear feeding them) with the initial bark of her exhaust at start-up, Mistral happily got down to business as the throttle was opened, nestling her transom deeper into the Tamar as she hustled her way upriver.

Mistral’s top speed touches 45kts and she will cruise comfortably all day at around 20 to 25kts. She possesses an uncommon speed and agility that becomes less of a surprise once you learn she is a direct descendant of the Motor Torpedo Boats Chris-Craft built for the US Navy during World War II.

The inherent strength and design of her hull, together with respectable reserves of power ensures she can safely handle even choppy conditions with grace and pace.

SEXY COOL
Seductively cool and fabulously sexy, it’s small wonder these stunning motorboats were so highly coveted by the likes of JFK, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra.

Slowly motoring into Launceston’s Seaport Marina at day’s end, Mistral not only managed to turn bystanders’ heads — she almost snapped them off.

I somehow felt just a little bit special by the end of it all; Mistral’s glamour has a marvellous way of rubbing off on you. I was now Gregory Peck in Venice on my way to have a macchiato with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. I wonder what Lauren Bacall is doing?

LOOKING BACK
Admiring Mistral for one last time, as she burbled her way homeward, I was still so completely entranced by her that I stepped backwards off the pontoon. I found myself up to my crotch in Tamar mud, much to the howling delight of my two small children, whose idea of helping was flicking pebbles at the top of my head while chanting "Baldy, Baldy, Baldy!" Needless to say their list of horrible jobs to do around our house just got one hell of a lot longer.
If you like Mistral, she is for sale and interested parties can phone Stuart Ferrall on 0457 765 577.

CREW’S VIEW’S
Mistral is a superbly restored classic Chris-Craft runabout. Style galore coupled with virtually bombproof mechanicals makes her a practical alternative to many a modern-day plastic pleasureboat. Mistral is an ideal harbour cruiser or riverboat, her layout providing room for four adults in the forward cockpit and three in the aft compartment. A double bunk is also located beneath the foredeck. Equipment includes a 3.5hp outboard motor, three bilge pumps, depthsounder, two anchors with lines, AM/FM marine radio and a custom-built galvanised tandem trailer fitted with winch and stone protection screens.

(QuickSpecs)
CHRIS-CRAFT CUSTOM
Mistral

FOR SALE: $89,000
YEAR: 1955
MATERIAL: King Billy pine, Brazilian mahogany and Huon pine
TYPE: Open runabout
BUILDER: Ron McKinnon
LENGTH: 22ft
BEAM: 6ft9in
DRAFT: 10in
WEIGHT: 1.5 tons
PEOPLE: Seven.
ENGINE: Chevrolet 350ci V8 petrol inboard
GEARBOX: Paragon mechanical forward and reverse
PROP: Austral bronze three-blade

Photos:

1 to 4). Ron McKinnon building Mistral on his family's Longford farm back in the early 1950s. In those days, Chris-Craft sold DIY runabout kits; a crate arriving from the company and local wood, such as King Billy pine, used in construction.

5). Stuart Ferrall at the wheel of his custom 1955 Chris-Craft. He and his father
Michael spent eight years restoring Mistral to her former glory.

 


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