Bell Boy Boat Co.
By Al Currier
Construction of both commercial and pleasure boats has long been an important industry on Bellingham Bay. A significant pioneer in pleasure boat manufacturing was Bell Boy Boat Company, generally acknowledged to be the first producer of all-fiberglass boats in the nation. Fiberglass first became commercially available in the late 1930s, and saw only limited use during World War II. After the war, interest in fiberglass greatly increased. Owner Arch Talbot of the Bellingham Shipyards, intrigued with the potential of this new material in boat construction, committed his company to developing of fiberglass products. During the Korean War, the Shipyard had the opportunity to experiment with construction of fiberglass lifeboats or wherries for use on non-magnetic mine sweepers. The success of these lifeboats showed that fiberglass’ light weight and ability to be shaped when heated made it ideal for mass production of small boats.
Fiberglass could also be colored during the production process, eliminating the need for painting. Deciding to apply this new material to the expanding post-war market for pleasure craft, Talbot in 1952 founded the Bell Boy Boat Co. as a division of the Shipyard. Art Nordtvedt and Arvin Olsen of the Shipyard were instrumental for setting up the new company. Bell Boy began producing its fiberglass boats in a building on Squalicum Fill, now the location of Bellingham Cold Storage. Soon production moved into a concrete fireproof building, with an output of 20 boats per week. Some of the ingredients in fiberglass were highly flammable and many safety precautions had to be taken. No power tools were allowed to operate in the facility. Building a fiberglass boat began with preparing a wooden mold of the hull by spraying it with a releasing agent. This was followed by a coat of plastic coloring agent that would work its way into the outer layer of the hull. Next, layers of polyester resin and precut glass fiber cloth were placed into the mold. The cloth had to be quickly smoothed to eliminate wrinkles and air pockets before it dried. The process of applying these layers continued until the hull, one half at a time, reached the desired thickness. Following drying and hardening, the hull was removed from the mold, trimmed and sanded and sent to the assembly line. The line would install the specific features appropriate to each model, such as a deck, windshield, cabin, seats, flotation tanks, and other marine hardware. Boaters quickly made Bell Boy’s brightly colored boats highly popular. Consumers loved the boat’s light weight and freedom from corrosion, which meant no more scraping, paining or caulking. In addition to color, Bell Boy also pioneered features that later would become standard in pleasure boats, including rounded “barrel bows” (adapted from naval ships), built in spray knockers, and wrap around windshields. Bell Boy is also credited with introducing “cabin” cruiser configuration for pleasure boats. Prior to Bell Boy’s introduction in 1954 of a 16-foot boat with an enclosed, protective cabin, water craft this size had always been open to the weather. Bell Boy’s line of pleasure craft ranged from 8 foot dinghies to the 21 foot “Express”cabin cruiser. The boats were marketed for fishing, water skiing, and pleasure cruising.
Modeling its business on the automobile industry, Bell Boy tried to feature new models and new colors each year which were sold through authorized dealerships. Bellingham’s Bell Boy dealer was Yeager’s Sporting Goods on Northwest Avenue. Bell Boy experimented briefly with adapting hydroplane technology to pleasure boating. The 20 foot long “Bikini,” designed for Bell Boy by hydroplane expert Ted Jones of Seattle, cruised at 40 to 50 miles per hour and could reach speeds exceeding 100 mph. Unfortunately the speedy craft had persistent instability problems and was never marketed. Sales Manager Tom Glenn, Sr., and his crew displayed Bell Boy products at boat shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, creating great demand. Soon the company ranked as one of the top three fiberglass boat producers in the nation. In 1957, Bell Boy’s sales volume reached $3 million, through 200 dealers nation-wide. As many as 2,000 more potential dealers were waiting for their applications to be processed. Slow processing of dealer applications due to the small size of the company proved to be a constant problem for Bell Boy. To expand capacity, Bell Boy in 1957-58 moved its boat production into the former Bloedel-Donovan Box Factory building at the south end of Cornwall Avenue. Eventually more than 200 employees were producing 70 boats per week at this facility. Today the Port of Bellingham’s maintenance building occupies the plant’s location. In the fall of 1957, Bell Boy further expanded by adding a plant in Indiana and later one in New York. These facilities enabled savings on shipping charges and increased production capacity to 6,000 boats yearly. Production in Columbia City, Indiana was organized under the Bell Boy Corp. In the midst of success, Bell Boy found itself entangled in financial problems confronting its parent Bellingham Shipyards. Faced with the need of a large amount of money to complete a contract with the U.S. Navy, the Shipyards on June 30, 1957 agreed to eventually sell Bell Boy to generate these funds. Bell Boy continued to thrive in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1959, Bell Boy's licensee in New York, Lunn Laminates, Inc., ended production of Bell Boy boats in order to save manufacturing space for military contracts (Sept. 12, 1959, New York Times). A new management team took over at Bell Boy in 1960, with Laurence Smith replacing Talbot as President. Talbot’s ownership continued. Financial problems for the Shipyard persisted, finally forcing closure in 1963. Bell Boy was then purchased by Tacoma boat builder Sabercraft, which closed the Bellingham plant and discontinued the Bell Boy model line of pleasure craft. Due to rapid advances in fiberglass technology and rapid expansion in manufacturing, Bell Boy’s models had become outdated. Consumers wanted larger, faster and more lavish boats. Because of Bell Boy’s limited size and financial resources, it had never been able to fully exploit its leadership in the industry. Sabercraft kept only Bell Boy’s name and logo for use on its own designs. Bell Boy Boat Co., though short-lived, proved that fiberglass boat construction could be successful. Thanks to its visionary efforts, fiberglass boat building continues to be an important industry on Bellingham Bay.