55 classic wood boat, Thunderbird

55 foot wood classic Thunderbird after Bill Harrah added the SS Helm station

George Whittell had a life-long fascination with the latest technology of the day, particularly that which manifested itself in aircraft, automobiles and boats. He had built and owned the legendary Wood Classic 55′ speedboat, Thunderbird.

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 Whittel’s DC-2 aircraft, also named Thunderbird, the eccentric millionaire requested that the hull and cockpit of his new speedboat resemble the fuselage of his personal airplane. Fashioned of double-planked mahogany and brushed stainless steel the new acquisition 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.

Thunderbird first crossed the mountain lake’s sparkling blue waters on July 14th of that year. The aging playboy used it extensively that summer and the next, retrieving friends from nearby communities and showgirls from the Cal-Neva casino for lavish parties at his estate.

Suspended by slings in the boathouse for most of the last 10 years of Whittell’s life, the boat was rescued by casino magnate (and Whittell protégé) 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 refurbished. His workmen added a matching, brushed stainless steel flying bridge and replaced the original Kermath engines with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines of 1100 horsepower each. Harrah used his wood classic boat Thunderbird  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.

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