World’s coolest boats: Why the Chris-Craft Cobra is the Corvette of the seas

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 Chris-Craft Cobra…

The 1950s in the USA was a time of great optimism. World War II was over, the economy was booming and more people than ever before were able to buy new cars, consumer goods and boats. Manufacturers rode this tidal wave of prosperity like surfers, bringing out new and exciting products with which to wow their customers.

It was the era that famously begat the daring and stylish, if somewhat impractical, Chevrolet Corvette in 1953, a statement of power, style and success from a previously conservative mainstream manufacturer.

Chris-Craft, also keen to make a stylistic name for itself, watched with interest and decided it wanted a slice of that glamour. GRP (glass reinforced plastic) was just starting to make itself felt in the marine world, but this traditional wooden builder wasn’t about to start building boats out of it.

Instead, it used the flexibility of this new wonder material to crown its fabulous new boat with a gold fin; the Chris-Craft Cobra was born.

The concept was the brainchild of Don Mortrude, a Chris-Craft freelance industrial designer. A.W. Mackerer led a team within Chris-Craft to design the Cobra’s naval architecture. They already had a successful Mackerer hull so they based it around that.

Launched two years after the Corvette in 1955, the Chris-Craft Cobra was also all about style and glamour over practicality.

It was a statement, a calling card designed to grab the eye of anyone beholding it and that fabulous gold fin was just the start. It adorned a stunningly pretty hull made of fine varnished wood and built in two sizes, 18 feet and 21 feet.

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Both sported a ‘bull nose’ and a sheer line that swept aft to an impossibly low transom. With that famous fin sweeping so far forward, there was room for only a single row of seats, another nod to the style (and the impracticality) of the then brand new Corvette.

Seating was gold vinyl to match the fin, and the cockpit edges were padded like an aircraft but in an alligator-style fabric. A floor shifter selected forward, neutral or reverse in another nod to the automotive sports car world.


It’s no coincidence that the helm looks like the dashboard of a 1950s American sportscar. Photo: Alamy

A 340hp Chrysler V8 Hemi engine powered most of the 21ft boats, a few going out with the a 285hp Cadillac Crusader engine. The 18ft got a Hercules KBL 131hp
6-cylinder engine.

The Cobra was built for one year only, and just 55 of the 21ft version and 51 of the 18ft boat were actually built. Whilst it was far from Chris-Craft’s most popular model (some sources suggest that the company never actually made a profit from them), that rather misses the point.

The intention was to put Chris-Craft on the maritime map in the same way that the Corvette had for the automotive world. Mission accomplished.

Chris-Craft Cobra specifications

LOA: 18-21ft
Beam: 6ft 2in-6ft 10in
Power: 131hp Hercules KBL/ 285hp Cadillac Crusader / 340hp Chrysler Hemi V8 petrol
Top speed (approx): 30 knots
Price: $3,950 (when launched in 1955)