Editor’s note: The Tahoe Concours d’Elegance and Wooden Boat Week in Tahoe City, Calif., boasts some 100 impeccably restored classics. Top prizes typically go to professional restorations, but it was Jack Bingham’s self-restored 1956 26-foot Chris-Craft Continental Sedan that took last year’s Overall Best of Show award, along with First in Class, Best Non-Professional Restoration, and Best Chris-Craft of Show. “The little guy can still win big at this elite show,” says Bingham, 72, a retired airline pilot from Rio Vista, Calif. This is Bingham’s account of the project.
By Jack E. Bingham
The Chris-Craft Continental series epitomizes the refinement of the wooden utility, or open boat, from milquetoast to champagne and caviar. The sedans ranged from 18 to 25 feet until 1956, when Chris-Craft stretched the “Conti” another foot to a then-impressive 26 feet. While the 26-footer was bigger than many cruisers of the day, it reached epic proportions with the addition of twin-engine power (KL, M or MCL inboards) and a sedan top.
Only 80 of the 26-footers were built, from 1955-59, and the boat earned the distinction of being the largest, most-expensive utility built by Chris-Craft. As far as I know, there are only seven remaining, three of them sedans. My wife, Lynda, and I are the proud owners of hull No. CL-26-027, a boat that’s very special to us.
Jac-N-Lynn was originally delivered April 17, 1956, to Lee Craft Boats in Flathead, Mont. Standard equipment included a 20-pound Navy anchor, 25 feet of manila line, 1 gallon of 30-weight oil, and two J-8 spark plugs. It also had twin MCL engines (175 hp each) that could push the boat to 40 mph, a full canvas cover, spotlight, sedan hardtop, ventilating windshields and side windows, and a windshield wiper. The boat stayed in Montana until she was purchased by a Lake Tahoe family in 1975 for use on the big, clear mountain lake. We acquired the Continental in 2005.
Jac-N-Lynn was my third restoration, following an 18-foot Chris-Craft Utility and a 22-foot Chris-Craft Sedan. I cut my teeth back in high school, when I built 14- and 16-foot Chris-Craft kit boats. For this project, I estimate I put 60 hours a week into it for 10 months. I’m retired, so I worked on her every day, all day. And I kept a log and photographed the progress from start to finish.
First, I removed all of the deck hardware and sent it out to be rechromed and polished. I then removed the top and had it re-covered with a vinyl convertible-top material. The wood and metal framing for the top was still in good shape.
Next, I removed the engines, which were not the originals but new rebuilt 175-hp 1956 MCLs. I removed the original 50-gallon steel fuel tank and sent that out for professional cleaning.
After removing the interior, I recruited a half-dozen guys from the yard where I was renting work space to hoist the boat off the trailer using a Travelift and methodically turn it upside down. I then set about removing all of the bottom planks. I was pleasantly surprised to find zero dry rot.
The inner and outer mahogany planking had shrunk through the years, so the boat didn’t float when we bought it. Chris-Crafts of that era were supposed to have their bottoms done over every six years, but this one had never been done. The bottom was the hardest part of the project. When it was done, I again recruited yard help to coat the bottom with fiberglass so I wouldn’t have to go through that process again.
I painted the bottom with the original copper bronze paint and — with a little help from my new friends — turned her right-side up and set about removing the hull sides, one at a time. People find it hard to believe, but I was able to save all but one of the original planks. One side plank had to be replaced because it was fractured, perhaps in a T-bone accident. That put Jac-N-Lynn well within Antique and Classic Boat Society specifications for a “preservation.” I then removed the transom, cleaned it up, and reinstalled it.
In contrast to the work necessary to get the hull exterior in Bristol condition, Jac-n-Lynn’s interior was immaculate. Minimal use and covered moorages were kind to the original upholstery. A good cleaning was all that was necessary to make her show-ready.
The decking came off last, and when it was cleaned up and put back, I stained the blonde wood first, then the red mahogany — two coats each. Between sanding and sealing, I kept adding coats of varnish until I had 14 coats of Pettit Z Spar and a nice “piano” finish.
The engines and fuel tank were reinstalled, followed by the prop shafts and props, then the mechanical hardware, such as the steering wheel. I repainted the generator and starters black. When we put her back in the water, I got lucky — everything worked.
In the end, I estimate about $25,000 in materials and labor went into the project. If I had paid someone else to do the entire job, it would have cost about $125,000 — about what I could now get for the boat if I were to sell her.
However, she’s not for sale. We’re going to enjoy her for a bit.
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This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.