Cruise Craft boats history

By: John Willis


Get to know the history behind Cruise Craft boats, one of the most famous boat brands in Australia.

Cruise Craft boats history
The Cruise Craft Hustler 570 Mk II. Introduced in 1981 as the Hustler Mk I, the last Hustler Mk II was built in January, 1990.

The Cruise Craft boats story begins in 1946 with the foundation of Nichols Bros Boat Builders by brothers Roy and Lenny Nichols. They had "£10, a pushbike, a box of tools and a truckload of enthusiasm!" explains Kevin Nichols, Roy’s son and second-generation patriarch of the modern-day incarnation of that early concern, Cruise Craft. The Nichols brothers established their business in Brisbane on the site that is now occupied by Wynnum Marine.

With very little money, Roy’s family had moved to nearby Hemmant after operating banana plantations before WWII. Roy made some money by selling sparrows, snakeskins and bananas, to get him and Lenny started.

That was the birth of one of Australia’s favourite boatbuilders, Nichols Bros, which from 1960 would morph into the Cruise Craft brand. Now, three generations later, the Nichols family’s boats have achieved an enviable reputation for quality.

 


Find out more of the history on the Cruise Craft boats timeline.


 

CRUISE CRAFT HISTORY

The Nichols family is one of few dynasties to have stood the test of time in a difficult industry. They stand alongside names like Haines, Spooner (Caribbean) and Steber, all of whom had their early beginnings in a similar era of post-war opportunity. Roy Nichols was originally trained as a boatbuilder by Crowley’s Boatyard, while a local tradesman by the name of George Love was a partner for a period, adding his knowledge of traditional construction techniques to the fast-growing fledgling company.

In those early days the company produced timber boats up to 32ft, mainly for the local market. Their designs were popular with both commercial and recreational boaties and their mainstays were little inboard boats for the local fishing fleet and traditional "Moreton Bay cruisers".

Wynnum, on the banks of the Wynnum Creek that feeds into Waterloo Bay, was a difficult site. There’s a low bridge just downstream that restricts overhead water access, and Kevin still laughs at the memory of the problems they faced when building boats in the old barn and slipway. "We often cut the support posts when the boats were too wide to get out of the barn," he says, adding: "Other times we had to hire a bulldozer to excavate gravel to get some depth under the low bridge, and the whole neighbourhood would jump into the new craft to sink it low enough to get clearance!"

 

GROWTH AND EXPANSION

British Anzani outboard July 1957

These were the days of invention and ingenuity, when quality was easily distinguished. It was also a period of growth and change in Wynnum. By 1950 the site had grown and Nichols Bros had added a retail shop — Wynnum Marine Hardware. The shop sold hand-made fishing rods, ammunition, house paint and a wide variety of other goods and services — it would even restring tennis rackets. This was also the time of the birth of fibreglass, and many boat manufacturers were investigating its suitability for boatbuilding.

Then, early 1950 saw Lenny’s departure from the business, leaving Kevin’s parents Roy and Jean at the reins.

In 1955, Roy’s youngest brother Lance joined the business. He had an engineering degree and had trained as a fitter and turner, so he brought with him an array of professional mechanical skills and knowledge. Nichols Bros then became distributors of Blaxland, Chapman, Clay, Hardman and Vire inboard engines, which it supplied to the local fishing fleet. The very first outboards became commercially available around this time, and Nichols Bros sold and serviced British Anzani engines (shown, taken from a 1957 advertisement) and also Seagull engines.

The late 1950s saw the rise of Johnson / Evinrude outboard motors, which were originally imported from America by Sydney’s Nock & Kirby. Outboards were obviously the future, and were particularly suited to the planing hulls that were gaining enormous popularity. Johnson was always the big competitor to Mercury outboards that were imported by Archie Spooner and his International Marine (Caribbean / Bertram) group. It was the eventual relationship with the Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), which manufactured Johnson / Evinrude outboards, that gave Nichols Bros the chance to expand through a strong dealer network. In 1960 Nichols Bros became one of the first fully authorised OMC Johnson dealers.

 

FIBREGLASS BOATS TAKE OFF

Cruise Craft 580D

The year 1960 was a time of enormous change. Early race boat exponents were proving fibreglass to be the product of the future. The advantages to production were obvious and the Nichols Bros were right on track. They discussed a name for their new venture, based upon ’glass boats, around the dinner table. Kevin recalls sitting at that table as a child, making little boats out of cardboard. The name "Cruise Craft" literally evolved over dessert.

In 1962, Kevin’s older brother Barry left school. He was an academic who, it was claimed, could make one plus one equal three. He went to work in the retail side of Wynnum Marine Hardware. Later, in 1965, Kevin left school to join the family business — he was just 15 years old and says he couldn’t add or subtract, but he could certainly drive a nail.

Cruise Craft had completely outgrown the Wynnum premises for manufacture by 1966 and so the company purchased a site on the Aquarium Passage, at Hemmant, not far from where the Gateway Bridge now spans the Brisbane River. The first production model Cruise Craft, the Rebel V16, was born not long after, and so the Cruise Craft modern success story began. The site has direct water access and two fully serviceable slipways, where all manner of craft are maintained. The site had only one basic shed back then. The current premises, still on the same site, has grown from these humble beginnings.

Kevin fondly remembers the commotion created when the first Cruise Craft fibreglass boat was shown alongside the traditional timber boats at the 1967 Brisbane Boat Show — the boating community reacted with shock and horror!

Cruise Craft Outsider 595

Whilst Nichols Bros enjoyed an enormous reputation for its timber boats, the Cruise Craft fibreglass boat range was the focus under Kevin’s watch. Nowadays his two sons Nathan and Justin, along with Barry’s son Darren, are the company principals. With their guidance Cruise Craft is continuing to evolve, while the company’s underlying philosophy of treating customers how they themselves would like to be treated remains unchanged.

 

TODAY

Cruise Craft awards wall

The Nichols / Cruise Craft family has been doing what it does best for over 65 years. It’s outlasted fires, it’s been cut off by floods and it’s weathered economic downturns, all while maintaining its honour, dignity and commitment to quality throughout.

These days, every Cruise Craft boat owner is considered part of an extended family. In this dog-eat-dog world, where integrity often falls by the wayside, that’s priceless. As Kevin says, "The customer might own the boat but Cruise Craft will always own the name!"

 


Originally published in TrailerBoat #281, April / May 2012. Why not subscribe today?.


 

Cruise Craft boats

Home: guide to Cruise Craft boats

 


Want the latest stories delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for the free TradeBoats e-newsletter.