Elco 42 Flat Top

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The list of Elco motoryacht owners reads like a 20th century “Who’s Who”: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, Adm. George Dewey, Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild. John Jacob Astor had two of them. From 1893 through 1949, the Electric Launch Co. was among the premier custom motoryacht builders in the world, and it had a clientele that reached to the heights of society.

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Along the way the Bayonne, N.J., company also planted the seeds of the family-oriented boating industry we know today. While maintaining its reputation among the super-rich, Elco by the 1920s was focusing on boats for an emerging middle class, and the 42 Flat Top was one of its most successful designs. “To many an eye, the prettiest Elco ever built was the 42-foot ‘deckhouse cruiser,’ ” Bill Swanson wrote in Nautical Quarterly 28 years ago. “The famous Elco ‘flat-top’ with a ‘Cleopatra’s couch’ mounted on the aft-cabin roof.”

The 42-foot, 9-inch yacht looks old-fashioned today, but the deckhouse cruiser was an evolutionary design that changed the face of boating. On early motoryachts, run by a captain and paid crew, the helmsman usually steered from an exposed position, and the owner could go below if the weather turned foul. Now the middle-class owner was driving the boat himself and had his family aboard, too. That meant design changes. Enter the windshield, previously used only on speedboats and hydroplanes. “The notion of a windshield in a slow-speed cruiser — well, only a sissy needed such protection,” Swanson writes. “But when you were running the boat, you were the one getting wet.”

Add a hardtop and side curtains, and you get the enclosed deckhouse — just what the family needed. Elco promoted this design element in the Flat Top and popular Cruisette models, gearing its advertising to family boating. The builder also is credited with pioneering standardized construction, building boats in lots of as many as 50 at a time. By the time Elco went out of business it had produced more than 6,000 boats for the recreational market. The company reopened in 1987 and offers a fleet of classic electric launches — as it did in the early days — as well as electric propulsion systems, but no motoryachts (www.elcomotoryachts.com).

August 2013 issue