My family has owned a Ford dealership since before the first World War, but when I was a kid, I loved boats most. Even after I took over the dealership and spent 40 years in the automotive business, I completed a number of boat restorations and builds. Years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a 1935 book from the Popular Mechanics Press called The Boat Book, Everything of Interest to the Amateur Boatman.

Inside were plans to build what was known in the 1930s as a Gentlemen's Racer—a modified recreation boat in the spirit of old hot rods. I loved the plans, and after a few years of only imagining the build, I laid out a roll of paper on the dealership’s showroom floor and drew the whole boat, full-size and full-scale, with a protractor, square, and compass. No computer whatsoever.

"the boat book" 1931 edition by popular mechanics press
"The Boat Book: Everything of Interest to the Amateur Boatman" 1931 Edition by Popular Mechanics Press
Worth Point
jim eicher and the people who helped him build the boat
My family, at home for Christmas, was recruited to help me rotate the boat, so that I could prepare the bottom of the boat for painting.
Courtesy Jim Eicher

Modernizing the Engine

The original design being from the 1930s, I had to make a few changes. The book outfitted the boat with a Ford Model A engine, but I had my eye on a 250cid straight-six Ford, the same engine you’d find in an early Mustang, Torino, or Granada.

All due respect to my Ford heritage, a Model A motor is heavy, temperamental, and not particularly safe in a boat—the carburetor on the Old A's tended to leak fuel. My inline-six solved those issues and delivered triple the horsepower, 120 horses compared to the Model A’s 40. However, it still fit well within the rpm range in which the boat would be operating, and it struck a nice balance between nostalgia and reliability.

I also modified the original engine installation plans and lengthened the craft by 19 inches to move the engine farther aft. This gave the boat better balance and handling dynamics.

gentleman's racer boat built by jim eicher with a ford motor
Pulling out the old 250cid engine prior to overhaul and marinization.
Courtesy Jim Eicher

The engine is basically stock, with the exception of a larger carb from a Ford 300cid truck engine. The new engine’s been marinized: It has an open-loop cooling system that pulls water from the lake. There's a pre-cooler for the transmission and a raw-water pump that circulates water through the engine, the water-jacketed exhaust manifold, then out to the lake again.

I also constructed a custom oil pan in order to move the oil sump to the back of the engine—that was necessary with my modifications, which had the engine operating at a 14-degree angle.

A V8 is the typical engine for a custom build, so using the inline-six made things trickier, but the old 250 six matched up perfectly to a Borg Warner Velvet Drive marine transmission. The Velvet Drive is often paired with a 351-Ford engine, which is common in many ski boats.

motor in the boat that jim eicher built
The completed engine being installed in the boat. I did this prior to finishing the deck for easier access to connect wiring, cooling system components, and the exhaust system.
Courtesy Jim Eicher

On the dash, the tachometer, water temp, oil pressure, fuel, and battery gauges are all era-correct Stuart Warners—but I did a few things "incorrect." There's a dead man's switch under the dash and a modern blower system to ventilate the bilge, plus a few other safety items, such as a modern marine fuel tank and a triple-layer epoxy-encapsulated hull for extra strength and durability.

Shaping the Boat

The different engine caused a few ripple effects in how I had to alter the Popular Mechanics design. Because I was extending the length of the boat, it was important to keep the curve of the deck consistent and seamless. I wanted to accentuate the tumblehome — the inward curve of the sides towards the aft—so I called my son and we developed an equation to make sure the geometries worked out.

You can’t just run a straight line from frame to frame, because the side curves more toward the back, and the deck narrows at an ever-increasing rate the more aft you go. I added another frame at the back to support the extra length, so the boat ended up considerably stronger than the original plans.

We used the outside dimensions Popular Mechanics published, but where the original plans called for 1.5-inch white pine frames, I used 2.5-inch oak for additional strength. I had taken down an oak tree from my woods a few years previously. I had the timber aged and dried, and I selected the best planks for the frames.

Once the frames were together, I built the keel and epoxied and bolted the seven main frames and the transom to the keel. Then I ran the battens on the outside of the frames, as called for in the 1935 plans. All the frames are white oak, and the exterior is mahogany.

jim eicher's homemade gentleman's racer boat with a ford engine
One of earliest photos of construction: Drafting one of the seven frames.
Courtesy Jim Eicher
the boat that jim eicher built
Forming the 1 1/2-inch thick white oak keel that became the backbone of the boat.
Courtesy Jim Eicher
jim eicher's boat build
With framing completed, I was now ready to start applying the mahogany outer layer.
Courtesy Jim Eicher

The toughest build area was the wood forming the bow. You can bend a piece of wood no problem, but where you have a lot of flair (like with the curves on the bow of a boat) you have to roll the plank in two different directions simultaneously. I threw a few pieces of mahogany away, thanks to trial and error.

The proper way to shape the wood would have been to use a steam room. But I ended up soaking the wood in my pond, and made a jig where I could bend the wood little by little until I achieved the shape I wanted. Then, I just let it dry in the sun.

It took me four and a half years of evenings and weekends to frame; build the keel; complete the hull; install the engine, transmission, and driveline; apply a urethane clearcoat; upholster the interior; and install the stainless steel trim. I eventually named it Flash, the same name given to the boat in the old Popular Mechanics book.

Updating a Classic

The book’s materials list was a bit dated. An obvious example: The instructions called for a canvas cover and “plenty of lead paint.” I wanted to stay true to the original design, but not that true. I covered the boat with marine-grade mahogany, with each piece coated in epoxy and screwed to the boat. For the finish, I used a conventional wooden stain, with an automotive-grade urethane clear coat for the top surface.

Popular Mechanics purists from the ‘30s would probably roll over in their graves upon hearing that, but acrylic urethane is harder and superior to varnish. If I had used the organic materials called for in the book, the life expectancy of the boat would have been pretty limited.

jim eicher's homemade gentleman's racer boat with a ford engine
The small aft cockpit was typical of the Gentlemen’s Racers. Note: water-cooled exhaust passing through cockpit at floor level, the method used in the 1930s to avoid cutting into the main frames, which would lessen the strength.
Courtesy Jim Eicher
jim eicher's gentleman's racer boat with a ford motor he built himself
18" pitch three-blade propeller on a 1-inch stainless steel shaft, passing through the keel at 14 degrees.
Courtesy Jim Eicher

The old Gentlemen’s Racer class required two seats: the driver and navigator's seat aft and a "seat" in the forward deck. Many boats had a hatch to cover the forward seat, but even with the covered seat, it was still technically a recreation boat, in the same way a hot-rod is still technically a passenger car.

Some of my dealership connections came in handy for aesthetics and accessories. An upholstery shop in Salina, Ohio sewed the vinyl upholstery for the boat. The plans called for leather, but the ride of this boat produces a lot of spray, so the interior was guaranteed to be wet. The windshield and brackets were made by a speciality shop, and an Amish cabinet shop local to my home in Indiana did some of the complex wood-cutting. Other local Amish companies crafted the stainless steel hardware on the deck and sides, and installed the gold leaf lettering.

With all the modifications, I had to calculate the displacement of the boat to verify balance and water-line height. Water weighs 60 pounds per cubic foot. By calculating the cubic footage of the hull, I was able to establish how deep the boat would sit in the water. When the boat was finally launched, it floated within a half-inch of what my mathematical calculations had predicted.

Testing Its Performance

For the standards of the day, this would have been a really fast boat. It can be dead in the water and reach full plane in just under two seconds. It’ll never be a fast boat by modern standards because of the old-school hydrodynamics and engineering—new boats have designs that lift the boat out of the water at speed, and this one just can’t achieve any of that lift.

Cut-out in the deck, allowing the front of the valve cover and carburetor to protrude.
Courtesy Jim Eicher
This photo shows the back of the Borg Warner transmission, driveshaft coupling, and stuffing box. These components are accessible by removing a floor hatch.
Courtesy Jim Eicher

With the 18-inch pitch on the propeller—allowing for 15 percent propeller slippage—and the engine turning 3200 rpms, the math says the boat should have a top speed of around 46 mph. But over 40, you would have your hands full. Due to the fresh engine, I haven't pushed it hard to the top end yet.

On this boat, the bow is basically vertical. If you stuff it into a wave, you're going to put water over the deck. This design isn't wrong, but boat builders have learned a thing or two in the past 75 years. The Boat Book describes that exact ride experience as an inherent part of the design. As far as driving and handling, Flash is quite well-mannered. Granted, performance and handling aren't on par with a contemporary sport boat, but a 1930s sedan won't handle or perform comparable to a modern automobile, either.

Cruising at 28 to 30 mph, this boat is as sweet as can be. Flash creates a huge curtain of spray on both sides. When I take the boat out, other boats come alongside and follow us. Cameras come out and people take pictures of it running. Between the gold trim and the finished mahogany, it’s an attention-getter.

jim eicher's gentleman's racer boat
The boat is finally completed after four and a half years and ready for launching.
Courtesy Jim Eicher
jim eicher's gentleman's racer boat with a ford motor he built himself
The Flash gold leaf script is a duplication of the script in the 1935 Popular Mechanics Boat Book.
Courtesy Jim Eicher

I numbered the boat with G-36: G for the Gentlemen's Racer classification, and 36 for the rough vintage. The gold leaf Flash is an exact copy of the script pictured in the book. Finally, I put A.J. Moser—my great-grandfather who founded our family dealership in 1886—on the side, but it’s a nod to my father, too, quite a craftsman himself.

He made things all his life. He told me: “Jim, work with your hands. You can do things if you try, and it’s good for your mind.” I love history, and maybe my great-grandchildren will be able to dig out this column in 85 years and show off the boat to POP readers again.

- As told to Jordan Golson