The Thunderbird is a 55 foot mahogany cruiser with brushed stainless steel superstructure, designed by John L. Hacker and built by Huskin Boat Works in 1939 for eccentric real estate tycoon, George Whittell, Jr.
Whittell had a life-long fascination with the latest technology, particularly that which manifested itself in aircraft, automobiles and boats. Among the many creations he owned were a DC-2 outfitted for his private use, a Grumman Duck seaplane, six of the most uncommon Dusenberg motorcars, a 145' pleasure yacht and the legendary 55' speedboat, Thunderbird.
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Commissioned specifically for Lake Tahoe while Whittell was building his fabulous estate there, the Thunderbird was designed by famed naval architect John L. Hacker and built by Huskins Boat Works in Bay City, Michigan. Enamored of the lines of his DC-2 aircraft, also named Thunderbird, the eccentric millionaire requested that the hull and cockpit of his new speedboat resemble the fuselage of his airplane. Fashioned of double-planked mahogany and brushed stainless steel the yacht would enable Whittell to get about Lake Tahoe with unmatched speed and style. Outfitted originally with twin V-12, 550 hp Kermath engines, the vessel was capable of 60 knots.
Completed at a cost of $87,000 (over $1.3 million in today's dollars), Whittell took delivery of the Thunderbird in 1940, and it first crossed the mountain lake's sparkling blue waters on July 14th of that year.
Following the entry of the U.S. into World War II, however, Whittell became afraid that his beloved yacht or its engines might be conscripted into military service, and he hid it away in Lodge's boathouse.
After Whittell broke his hip late in life and refused surgery to repair the fracture, he ended up confined to a wheelchair and unable or unwilling to use the Thunderbird. Suspended by slings in the boathouse for most of the last 10 years of his life, the boat was rescued by casino magnate (and Whittell protege) William F. Harrah, who purchased it from Whittell in 1962.
Harrah had it transported to his Automobile Collection restoration shop in Reno where it was reverentially refurbished. His workmen added a matching, brushed stainless steel flying bridge and replaced the original Kermath engines with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines, each developing 1100 horsepower.
Harrah used it as his private yacht for the entertainment of his casino high-rollers and showroom headliners, such as Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby, to name a few. The boat was returned to Reno every winter where the mahogany hull was meticulously sanded down to bare wood and refinished with ten coats of varnish!
Ownership of the yacht was transfered to Foundation 36, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting Nevada's natural, cultural, and historic treasures. The yacht will now remain berthed in its original boathouse at the Thunderbird Lodge and can be viewed during tours of the estate.
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Another pretty good web page by Grant MacLaren.