World’s coolest boats: Why Thunderbird is the ultimate classic motor yacht

Each month we pick out an iconic boat that can lay claim to the title of world’s coolest boat. This month, we take a closer look at the classic motor yacht Thunderbird…

Thunderbird is what happens when you combine an obsession with aircraft, the heady days of the 1930s and a LOT of money.

George Whittell was an eccentric San Francisco tycoon who, in the mid-20th century, owned about a third of the land in the Tahoe basin and 27 miles of the lake’s shoreline.

He built a beautiful lakeside home called Thunderbird Lodge; kept a pet lion called Bill and a pet elephant called Mango; owned a variety of aircraft including a DC-2, outfitted for his private use; six of the rarest Duesenberg motorcars; a 145ft superyacht and this legendary 55ft sportsyacht, Thunderbird.

Commissioned by Whittell specifically for Lake Tahoe to go with the estate he was building there, Thunderbird was designed by the famous naval architect John L. Hacker, built by Huskins Boat Works in Bay City, Michigan and delivered in the summer of 1940.

Whittell wanted the boat to resemble his DC-2 aircraft, which is why the hull is double-planked mahogany but the superstructure is brushed stainless steel.

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And the aircraft links don’t end there, Thunderbird was originally powered by twin 550hp Kermath V12 aircraft engines that pushed the boat to 32 knots.

It was kept in a 100ft-long boathouse connected to the house via a 600ft long tunnel blasted out of solid granite.

Whittell used the boat on the lake frequently for the two years that followed but when the USA entered World War Two in January 1942, Whittell hid the boat in its boathouse, fearful of it, or its engines, being requisitioned for the war effort.


The newly restored Thunderbird still lives in its original boathouse on Lake Tahoe

Age, ill health and an ever-more reclusive nature meant that the boat was little used after the war, Whittell eventually selling it to casino magnate William F. Harrah in 1962.

Harrah had it transported to his Automobile Collection restoration workshop in Reno where the original Kermath engines (which when removed had only 83 hours on them) were replaced with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines, each developing 1,100hp.

Harrah used it to entertain his casino high-rollers and show-headliners, such as Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli.

Today the boat is restored and back at Thunderbird Lake Tahoe, now run by a charity called Foundation 36. It offers private excursions a few times a year in return for charitable donations.

Thunderbird specifications

Year: 1940
LOA: 55ft
Beam: 11ft 10in
Power: 2 x 550hp
Speed: 32 knots
Price when launched: £87,000