The Thunderbird is one of the most unique and visually striking wooden boats there is. Designed by John L. Hacker, it was built in Michigan in 1939 by the Huskin’s Boat Works at a cost of $87,000. The 55-foot Thunderbird was first launched on Lake Tahoe in 1940. It features a stainless-steel upper cabin, and double-planked mahogany hull. George Whittell was fond of high-tech fast machines, and owned a DC-2 with a similar stainless-steel skin. He would also order no less than five custom-bodied Duesenberg automobiles. The most expensive, high-tech and powerful cars of their day. Power was provided by twin 550hp V-12 Kermath engines, making the Thunderbird capable of speeds up to 60 knots. Bill Harrah purchased the Thunderbird from Whittell in 1962. Harrah added a fly-bridge, and removed the Kermath engines, replacing them with two 12 cylinder Allison V-1710 engines. These are the same engines that were used for the P-38 fighter planes. De-tuned for marine application, they produce an incredible 1,100 hp each. Bill Harrah called the Thunderbird his “70 mph cocktail lounge”, and treated his famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to cruises on the lake.
I felt like a celebrity as I lounged on one of the deck chairs, sipped champagne, and watched the beautiful Lake Tahoe scenery slip by. The thunderous sound of the massive motors coming to life in the boat house had given way to a deep, soothing hum as the Thunderbird cut a swath across the calm morning water. I moved around the boat, making my way forward to chat with the Captain, Aaron Pearlman. I asked him how he liked his job “I love it. I can’t wait to go to work each day!” He has been with the Thunderbird crew for many years, but just recently was named Captain after the previous Captain retired. He spoke about how fortunate he was to be at the helm of such an amazing boat and a piece of living history. The Thunderbird is now owned by the non-profit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, and relies of donations from the public to maintain and operate the yacht.
Before long, we were pulling up to our designation, the Sierra Boat Company, site of the annual Concours d’Elegance wooden boat show. The dock was full of wooden boat fans. All the boats at the show are beautiful, but there is only one Thunderbird. With hundreds of people watching and taking photos, the Captain skillfully pulled in to the dock. My 30 minutes of fame was over, but the memories will last a lifetime.