Boat Trailers Can Be Fun Too!
by Andreas Jordahl Rhude

Boat trailers are a utilitarian device utilized to haul our precious cargo from one point to another. They are also used to store our boats when they are not in the water. There is little glamour in a boat trailer in comparison to our gleaming and expensive, floating mahogany "furniture." Many of the enthusiasts of this hobby do, however, take great pride in restoring an old trailer to original condition, just as if it were as important as the boat and motor sitting on top of it. They create an entire package deal; some go as far as also using a vintage automobile to pull their trailer-boat-motor rig. But believe it or not, trailers are a relatively recent advance in the boat and boating world.

According to a 1955 article in Yachting magazine, there were 93,000 boat trailers made in the USA in the year 1954. In 1939 there were only 1,000 made; 1947 3,790; 1948 5,000; 1949 8,285; 1950 18,390; 1951 20,860; 1952 39,220; and 1953 72,350. That's an increase of 93 fold over a fifteen-year period! In 1980 there were 176,100 new boat trailers sold in the United States. This jumped to 223,000 in 1988 and was down to 168,000 in 1999. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association there are an estimated 7, 313,700 boat trailers in the country at the present time.

What do these numbers tell us? First and foremost it lets us know that during the post war era, a recreation boom hit and boating was one area of great interest to Americans. It also tells us that most boats were not commonly moved overland from one location to another until the 1950s. Up to that time most boats were kept in the water nearby the user or the boat was small enough to be hauled easily on the roof of the auto, commonly referred to as a car topper.

"There is nothing more responsible for the boom in watercraft than the modern lightweight boat trailer. It has ended one-lake boating and has almost killed expensive and troublesome storage problems." (Sports Afield, March 1954:54).
With the advent of better roads including the interstate highway system (a boondoggle of the Eisenhower administration originally intended for quick and easy troop movements during the Cold War), better cars, and more leisure time, boaters wanted to get out beyond their home base. Boats were becoming more and more affordable and readily available to the average person. Small and medium sized boats that could be trailed behind an automobile were also being manufactured by the thousands by firms such as Lyman, Penn Yan, Larson, Glastron, Dunphy, Old Town, Thompson, and Century, among others.

Many circumstances came together to create a new, burgeoning industry; boat trailers. In 1955 Tee Nee Trailer Company of Youngstown, Ohio furnished around 90 percent of all trailer couplers used by the various trailer manufacturers in the country. This indicates that they dominated the market at the time. This was to change just a few years later when many more enterprises jumped on the bandwagon. Brands like Mastercraft, Gator, Shipmate, Holsclaw, and Long were a few. Even Chris-Craft built and sold boat trailers.

Dunphy Boat of Oshkosh, Wisconsin made their own trailers and sold them under the Speedway brand name. During the fifties Thompson Brothers Boat sold trailers too, but they were made for them by another firm (looks like a Tee Nee brand).
Not only were boat trailers becoming more commonplace, they were getting to be more reliable as well. A case in point is the diary of Mrs. M. Jean Gardner from 1958 as published in Outboard magazine. She relates the story of how she alone, a fifties housewife, trailed her boat (a wooden lapstrake Thompson) across the country from Cleveland, Ohio to Portland, Oregon. She hit the Ohio turnpike on June 8th after having car, boat, and trailer thoroughly checked by competent mechanics. On the 10th she wrote: "Every now and then…I realized that someone from home was following me at 60 miles per hour. This 'someone,' of course, was the boat. I didn't even know it was there unless I looked back, which proves my point that trailering a boat is no bother at all." Mrs. Gardner was a fastidious person, by the 11th "everything was beginning to look a little shopworn" so she had the car washed and found a bucket and rag and hand washed the boat and trailer in the motel parking lot!

She stopped along the way several times at boat dealers to have the trailer rig checked over. Everything was found to be ship-shape! Finally arriving in Oregon, the trailer, boat, and motor (and the captain of the ship) were all in good condition. To prove she was up to another challenge, Mrs. Gardner decided to launch the boat into the Columbia River on her own. Again, no troubles! This enterprising woman was sold on the idea of trailering a boat. And she sold her skeptical husband on the idea too!
This article in Outboard was intended to promote boat trailering as easy, affordable, and a means by which the average person could expand their boating activities. It came right in the midst of ever-increasing use of boats as a major leisure time activity.
Mastercraft's 1955 line featured trailers ranging in carrying capacity from a 250 pound boat up to an 8,000 pound vessel as large as 28 feet in length. Tee Nee painted their trailers a yellow colour until 1962 when they changed to a "new metallic charcoal gray finish." Tee Nee's 1962 catalog showed eleven models ranging in capacity from 400 up to 3,400 pound boats.

Restoration of old trailers is part of the antique and classic boating hobby. Old paint tones can be matched and appropriate decals to match the originals are being made. Go to almost any classic boat show and you will find a few pristine trailers carrying an old boat.

Some Trailer makers from days gone by:

  • Balko Trailers, Ladysmith, WI
  • Gator Trailers by Peterson Bros., Inc.,Jacksonville, FL (today Gator is a division of Spartan)
  • Hilltop Boat Trailer, Wauseon, OH
  • Holsclaw Bros., Inc., Evansville, IN
  • Little Dude Trailer Co., Fort Worth, TX
  • Long Trailer Co., Tarboro, NC
  • Mariner Marine Products, St. Paul, MN
  • Mastercraft Trailers, Middletown, CT
  • Pacemaker Trailer Co., Glenolden, PA
  • Selma Trailer & Mfg. Co., Selma, CA
  • Shipmate by Simek Mfg., Johnstown, NY
  • Tee Nee Trailer Co., Youngstown, OH

    Sources: National Marine Manufacturers Association web page; Yachting magazine January 1955; Outboard magazine December 1958; Sports Afield magazine March 1954; vintage and contemporary boat trailer catalogs






A Chapter of the Antique & Classic Boat Society