From Classic Boat Library
We're greeting you here with an actual account of some history here. Below is something provided by Mike R. Cole, the son of Richard C. Cole. It's Richards own words at the age of 93. He passed away at the age of 94.
---ABOUT THE BOAT BUSINESS From the Office of RICHARD C. COLE -1 9701 WHISPERING PINES RD.. MIAMI, FLORIDA 33157 OFFICE: 255-3863 HOME: 235-2897
In a way Thunderbird boats started off as horses. John Albert (Woody) Woodson was interested in fiberglass long before it was generally used in the manufacture of boats. He was also acquainted with a gentleman who manufactured equipment for amusement parks. The 'Animals' that the kids rode upon as the 'roundabout' rotated were expensive and difficult to obtain so Woody suggested if the 'animals' were all horses all they had to do was make a mold off one of the horses after which they could make horses with the greatest of ease. It worked and the gentleman was so pleased that he told Woody that if he wanted to make boats he could use some of his premises.
Woody did so and made a mold off a round bilge affair called a "Barker-Todd". The molding etc. was quite successful but the boat was of such doubtful design that Woody didn't even try to sell any of them.
So. I designed a simple little 14 footer and we built the plug and made a mold and this little boat turned out fine and Woody was selling them as fast as he could make them.(Which was only about one a day).
So Woody was full of enthusiasm and we went through the same motions to make a 16 footer. Now, what with the wooden boat building and the little 14 footer assembly, it became obvious that more space was needed.
So Woody rented quite a large plant at 25th. St Hialeah. and we proceeded step by step to build up quite a fleet of conventional type boats. He called his company Plastic Fabrications.
There was one universal problem with small planing boats. Broaching. Sea sleds were immune from broaching but were almost impossible to turn safely. Nevertheless Woody wanted to see about this for himself, and somehow cut one of the small boats in half and joined them together gunwale to gunwale. It taught us nothing except we had created the most awful looking thing that ever went to sea.
Clearly an experiment that WOULD have worked would be to join two sea sleds together side by side so that the joined gunwale became the keel and the outer gunwales would be raised by a slight dihedral angle.
But we had no sea sled.
All right said Woody. Design one in the form of a decant salable boat and we'll build it.. So, we did and the Cathedral hull was borne. Woody built two versions on the same hull one called the 'Miami' (a little cruiser) and the other was called 'Scout'. (an open runabout). These boats were very hard riding in a head sea but solved the broaching problem to near perfection.
As it turned out this was about the peak of Plastic Fabrications. Unfortunately Woody became involved in domestic problems and from that moment the business went slowly down hill. No new models were made and Woody steadfastly refused to have any assistance from Banks or business men.
Enter Merrick Lewis who bought the remains. Merrick was the president of The Alliance Machine co. of Alliance Ohio, reputed to be the world's largest manufacturer of cranes. But Merrick had a problem. What do you do with a boat manufacturer when you've got it?
Enter Dick Genth. Dick knew nothing about boats but he told Merrick he thought he could sell them. 'Have a shot at it', said Merrick. Genth was no ordinary salesman. He went straight to a library and looked up all he could about boats and then went straight to Marine dealers, sounding rather like an expert.
Merrick Lewis was dumbfounded. Could that son of a gun sell boats? Holy smoke
Merrick was no one to dither around. Finance being no problem, Merrick located a really fine plant just off Biscayne Blvd. and named the outfit Thunderbird Products Corp. Go look it over he told Genth because you are now the sales manager...
Genth looked it over just at the time all the stuff from Woody's was being moved in. 'DO you know where all this stuff goes? 'Dick asked Merrick. 'Hell no' says Merrick. Well Genth said he had been trying to talk to some of the workers inherited from Woody but most of them were Cuban refugees and spoke little English but one refugee from Hungary spoke English quite well and seemed very anxious that the shop arrangements should not be messed up. 'Hot dog' says Merrick 'just make him the foreman and let him do what he likes; oh, I'm sorry about the sales manager job. You'll have to be the President and there is just one thing left. We should piss off and have a drink'
From this highly unusual beginning one would think disaster would loom, but it didn't. The shop got organized very well indeed and boats were being produced within a few days. Dick Genth acted like he had been a company President all his life and immediately started hiring salesmen,- all good ones including Stu Jackson (Sales Manager) Mike Collins (Who later became President of Donzi) Ben Rainville, Art Layne and many more as time went on.
Thunderbird prospered (to put it mildly) and soon was believed to be the largest producer of boats in the country; and the place even looked impressive. The company's own fleet of delivery trucks, loading channels with cranes. Fancy but sensible offices and even a pool in the entrance hall with a bridge over it and fish in it!
At what could be considered the peak of Thunderbird's expansion some strange managerial thinking took place. RACE BOATS. Winning boat races would1 good publicity. So various hulls were acquired from various sources and expensive engines were bought and handed over to 'specialists' for 'tune up' and then installed in a special section of the shop
Unfortunately no one at Thunderbird had any experience of larger inboard boats let alone race boats. So. Generally these efforts were a disaster. They consistently refused to win races and seldom finished the course.
Finally Thunderbird had quite a collection of these efforts but no publicity. What to do? Why of course, fix up the boats and then invite anyone who looks like a big shot to show up at firm's expense, loan him a boat and enter him in the next race. Then there should be some publicity about the big shots and maybe one of them will actually finish a race.
The 'big shots' were an interesting bunch. They came from many different countries but by far the best of the 'catch' was England's Earl of Lucan. He ran his boat quite well for as long as it would go (in the Key West race) but folks were amazed to notice he had no sense of humor. Trying to drive Thunderbird's idea of a race boat would of course sadden anybody but hardly eliminate a sense of humor. Strange. Everyone assumed that was the way an Earl was supposed to be.
He created some publicity all right, but not quite what Thunderbird had in mind. Shortly after returning to England the Earl bashed the head of his children's nanny with an iron pipe and killed her. Said he thought it was his wife. Immediately after this effort he drove to Newhaven and has not been heard from since.
The end of the Merrick - Dick Genth era at Thunderbird came suddenly and not nearly as casually as the beginning. The story is that two old ladies actually owned Alliance Machine Co. and discovered that large sums of money was being sent to Thunderbird to pay for race boats and 'big shots' etc the cost of which was long beyond the earnings of Thunderbird. Merrick Lewis was recalled to Alliance and Thunderbird abruptly offered for sale.
An outfit called Fuqua bought Thunderbird and promptly acted in a manner that made Thunderbird's race boat - big shot efforts look like a well run Sunday school treat. Down came the new president A FOOTBALL COACH! Was not even interested in boats but was determined to be a BIG SHOT. Put one of those clockwork timers you see in nearly every kitchen on the desk to limit the time people were allowed to talk to him. Didn't work very well as nobody would talk to him unless he put it away.
Meanwhile it seemed to Fuqua that Thunderbird was not such a hot buy. Could be that a football coach was not the right president for a boat outfit. So they recalled him and sent down a young fellow who saw at once where money was being wasted. Paying Royalties. So they simply didn't pay them, and of course, legal action was taken. Fugua was not about to be bullied by a simple boat designer so down came a team of high priced patent lawyers from New York City. These gentlemen studied the case and finally told Fuqua that patents were not involved and they should get a regular lawyer. And meanwhile here was the bill for wasting their time.
Getting high priced lawyers from New York didn't seem such a good ides so a local one was hired. This fellow saw that Fuqua would loose and simply negotiated to make the damages as light as possible.
Fuqua concluded that boat businesses were nothing but a pain in the backside and they should get rid of Thunderbird right away so once again Thunderbird was for sale.
This time a very well run family boat outfit from Indiana was the purchaser and poor old Thunderbird at last was run peacefully and well.
After the break up Woody built boats in Miami under his own name (Woodson Boats). However Woody always was a great admirer of Henry Ford who disliked banks. So Woody also shunned banks and would borrow money from individuals when necessary. (At a hell of an interest.)
He also had affixed idea that boats should be built on an island. So he moved to Barbados and opened a shop there. He had not built many boats when he became aware of lung cancer.
As his health deteriorated so did the business and finally Woody died broke and almost alone. An old black lady stayed with him as he passed away.
Some of the men who had worked for him built a box and put Woody in it along with two cylinder blocks of discarded Jeeps. They gave the box to some fishermen and asked them to sink it at sea.
History from the Formula Boats website:
Thunderbird was founded by Woody Woodson in 1956 in the Miami, Florida, area, and Richard C. Cole was the original designer. Decisively proving its staying power and stability, an eighteen-foot Thunderbird made the first successful sterndrive crossing from Miami to Nassau in 1959.
In 1958 Vic Porter began building and selling small fiberglass runabouts, enjoying success largely in the Midwest and Northeast. This boat line was developed early in marine fiberglass technology, and with Porter as president, was marketed under the Duo, Incorporated name. Because of its timely product and increasing popularity, Starcraft, a larger regional boat manufacturer, purchased Duo in 1966. For a time, Porter stayed on as president of Duo.
Don Aronow founded Formula in 1962 in Miami, Florida. The original 233 deep-V hull design was built at his direction and later earned notable victories on the national offshore racing circuit. Formula was the first of Aronow’s boat companies. While many of today’s Formulas have matured well beyond the speed-only image, the prestige originating with past racing victories is still quite evident in the highly successful FAS3TECH series. In 1961 Thunderbird was acquired by Alliance Machine and Foundry and they followed up by purchasing Formula in 1964. Both Formula and Thunderbird models were then produced in North Miami. An Atlanta-based conglomerate, Fuqua Industries, acquired Thunderbird /Formula in 1969.
Vic Porter once again exercised his entrepreneurial spirit in 1970 and, along with five business associates, founded the Signa Corporation. This venture resulted in a quality line of trihull boats manufactured in Decatur and marketed throughout the Midwest and East. With Porter as president, Signa’s growing success attracted the attention of Fuqua Industries. Fuqua’s offer to buy Signa was accepted in 1973 and, based on his expertise in the boating industry, Porter was named president of Fuqua’s entire small-boat division. At that time there was also a manufacturing facility in Paso Robles, California.
In mid-1976 Vic Porter purchased Thunderbird/ Formula from Fuqua. The second generation of Porters joined in the management team as they finished their college work and gained experience in the business. The trihull design was discontinued in 1979, and company emphasis centered on the offshore deep-V hull configuration of the Formula models.
Formulas were manufactured in California through 1981. In March of 1988, Thunderbird also departed South Florida and consolidated corporate and production headquarters in a brand new, state-of-the-art facility in Decatur, Indiana. Formula continued to grow and evolve in the 345,000 square-foot plant, and, in September 2000, production capacity was expanded with a 143,500 square-foot addition. And again in 2006, Formula expanded with an 85,000 square-foot addition.
Vic Porter, chairman of Thunderbird, continues to be actively involved in the business. With the Porter family focusing on quality in every aspect, it is certain that Thunderbird will continue to maintain Formula’s long-established reputation as a premier powerboat worldwide.
When owned by Fuqua Industries, Thunderbird Products Corp. was organized under the Pacemaker Corp., a division of Fuqua.
J.A. Woodson actively competed in boat racing including the Miami-Nassau race, entering the inaugural 1956 race with a Thunderbird Apache, finishing 6th and last despite suffering damage to his boat (The Bahama Speed Weeks, Terry O'Neil). In 1959, he planned to enter an 18' Thunderbird with twin Mercury 75 HP motors (April 15, 1959 St. Petersburg Times). He planned to return in 1960 with a Turbocraft-powered jet boat (April 12, 1960 Washington Post).
For additional history on Richard C. Cole, see the excellent article by his son, Michael R. Cole, at History with Heart: http://historywithheart.com/yellowjacketrichardcole.html