The 1954 Century Imperial Sportsman – For Those Who Want To Be Different

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The Century Boat Company was always known for their original, creative and sometimes aggressive advertising. Century’s advertisement for the 1954 Imperial Sportsman started out by saying…

Century Imperial – For those who want to be differentIf you have an appreciation for things beyond the commonplace, you will love your Century Imperial from the first instant you see it… the most distinguished outboard you can buy. – That was certainly the case for Dr. Christopher E. Matt – Texx

In the 1984 book “The Story of the Century” by William G. Wittig, he wrote… The Profitable Eisenhower Years – Without any doubt, the most profitable years up to this time since the company was founded were from 1951-1960… better known as the President Eisenhower era. Everything seemed to fall in place for Century – new money from Overlakes (who took over Century in 1949), the designing of new models that would create a major impact with the industry, good economy, excellent sales and some very shining years. Shortly before all this started, in 1950, (Century) President F.L. Hewitt wanted Century to have a powerful and lasting slogan to go along with this popular product. Bill Stanley, account executive of Jacqua Advertising Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the agent handling the advertising for Century at that time, originated the term “The Thoroughbred of Boats” and this descriptive phrase continues to be used today.

1954 Century Imperial Brochure Photo Courtesy of the Century Boat Club

Here’s a great story from fellow Woody Boater Dr. Christopher Matt, recalling his childhood memories of classic boating from the 1950’s, and his quest to recapture those memories over a half century later.

“Nifty Four” Your Pleasure by Dr. Christopher E. Matt

“Why Nifty Four?” they would ask. Well, it all started as a child more than five decades past when as a family we would vacation in central Wisconsin on renown body of water known as the Waupaca Chain O’ Lakes. Consisting of twenty-three connected lakes that are spring-fed, the water always appeared crystal clear in nature producing an emerald and teal iridescent color. During the heydays of the 50’s, a variety of different manufactured wooden boats could not only be seen but heard, as they would navigate the lakes many times pulling water skiers. As a youth, an indelible impression was engrained within these fond memories.

Now fast forward to 2005, when a personal effort was revitalized to recapture those memories from long ago. Because the Chain O’Lakes as individual lakes are quite small, many of the wooden recreational boats seen on the lakes were short in length and usually outboard powered. Hence the quest to find an outboard powered wooden boat. Both Dunphy and Chris-Craft were popular models of the day often seen cruising the lakes, however the 13.5’ Century Imperial Sportsman with its dual cockpit and bleached mahogany deck was the personal model of choice that most closely reflected past family boating activities upon the Waupaca Chain O’Lakes.

After nearly exhausting all avenues of Century searching, a fine example unexpectedly surfaced with its original matched outboard during the late summer of 2009. The original paperwork for the engine and boat was still available, further reinforcing the belief that it would be a good candidate for total restoration, although a stumbling block present was that it was located several states away. It was decided to make the one way 12 hour journey on a Saturday to evaluate the condition of boat, motor and trailer.

Upon first observation, it was a well preserved example of a 1954 Century Imperial Sportsman complete with wooden windscreen, Attwood steering wheel and Century name plaque. Over the years some of the hardware was replaced while the infamous “quick fix” fiberglass bottom was applied which potentially hid years of wood rot. This 13.5’ mahogany boat sat upon a homemade tubular steel framed trailer with a 1932 Ford Model A axle. Upon wheel bearing dust cap removal, water leaked out with some residual evidence of grease present. The pitted and worn Ford Model A bearings were cleaned as best as possible and were repacked with the hope of making an uneventful 12 hour journey back home. The hub of the axle was checked numerous times during the drive home which fortunately revealed a warm, but not too hot bearing housing.

Restoration endeavors in the fall of 2009 first started by pulling the fiberglass off the bottom of the hull, which unfortunately revealed a significant amount of wood rot not only to the hull but also to the transom.

After the bottom and transom were rebuilt, the rest of the boat was stripped while the center deck strip was replaced. The deck was also bleached and then stained with the same color hue as used from Century.

Original Century applied hardware from the boat was rechromed while the correct stainless steel cutwater, fairleads, step pad frames, bow light and windshield brackets were obtained.

Because of the previous owner’s close attention to outboard storage over the years, only regular engine maintenance items needed to be replaced. Compression evaluation of the 1954 Evinrude Big Twin Electric yielded approximately 140 psi in each cylinder with a strong spark. The 25 horsepower engine was repainted Evinrude polychromatic blue followed by the application of water soluble lacquer decals.

It was decided that towing this boating combination would best be complimented via a vintage era Tee Nee trailer. Eventually one was found and restored with operational fender extension tear drop tail lights. A front hull chock, for easier bow guidance upon trailer loading, was replicated as seen in the Tee Nee trailer accessory pamphlet. Because the bow eyelet was removed in lieu of the fairlead, a custom trailer bow support was incorporated within the Tee Nee hidden winch tower. Coker white wall tires coupled with chrome baby moon hub caps finished the trailered look.

Stainless steel rub rails and transom edge guards were mounted while a custom built mahogany battery box hides the 6 volt battery. The original Attwood steering wheel was in remarkable condition allowing for an uncomplicated restoration. Navy blue cockpit combing and upholstery, complimented by a white strip accent, finished off the interior passenger compartment.

Engine performance evaluation was relatively pain free upon its newly restored maiden voyage. After adjusting the throttle linkage and rebuilt carburetor jets, the 56 year old Evinrude performed flawlessly.

Cruising the Chain O’ Lakes today in this fine craft has definitely recaptured those fond family memories which personally can be summarized via a popular term from the 50’s; namely a nifty experience. Hence the christened name of this 1954 classic, “Nifty Four”. – Dr. Christopher E. Matt

Thanks Christopher for sharing your remarkable story with Woody Boater. Just a few other details for the record…

– According to the Century Boat Club production numbers, in 1954 – 213 14′ Imperial Sportsmans were produced.

– Dr. Christopher Matt resides very close to the home of the Super Bowl XLV Champions, namely the Fox River Valley of WI.

– The entire restoration project was completed by Dr. Matt himself, with some help from a friend involved with the wooden restoration portion of the project who recently his sold his business and no longer is associated with it.

– “Nifty Four” was first presented at was the 33rd Antique Wooden Boat Show of Les Cheneaux Islands located near Hessel, MI in August of 2010. Dr. Matt commented… It was a fantastic gathering of classic wooden boats displayed there… Definitely worth the 6 hour drive. Later in September we loaded “Nifty Four” upon the SS Badger and crossed Lake Michigan arriving at Ludington, MI four hours later. This allowed for a short 30 minute drive north to our destination of Manistee, MI. The Century Boat gathering was a great show, especially when experiencing the waters where the Imperial Sportsman was first built.

– When asked about why his original photo presented the boat with a wooden windshield, Dr. Matt replied… My research revealed that in 1954, there were different versions of the Century Imperial Sportsman available, mostly differing via factory installed metal work. This 13.5′ Imperial model came with the factory installed mahogany wind screen as many did. It was decided to restore the Imperial Sportsman as close to full factory brochure appearance as possible by obtaining the correct Century applied hardware. The search involved finding an original fairlead, and stainless steel cutwater along with correct Century step plate frames and stainless steel transom guards. The most difficult search involved finding correct NOS windshield frames and one piece stainless steel rub rails.

And finally, Dr. Matt produced a very nice YouTube video of the retrieval, restoration and re-launch of “Nifty Four” which can be viewed by clicking here.


15 replies
  1. Jack Schneiberg
    Jack Schneiberg says:

    And, I have restored a ’51 just like this one. Mine has a Mark 55E and the wrap-a-round windshield. Many of the accessories found on these outboard models were installed by the dealers to customer specifications. Mine had the exact same fiberglass bottom and resulting rot damage to the transom. It was a total restoration. And, I saw Dr. Matt’s boat in Manistee last September. I hope to have mine there this coming September…….

  2. Andreas Jordahl Rhude
    Andreas Jordahl Rhude says:

    Nice rig! Most builders of outboard boats had very similar models to this Century. Thompson Bros. Boat Mfg. Co. had their Thomboy. I have one in original, unrestored condition. Larson of Little Falls had a deluxe runabout, Chetek had their AquaFlyer, and so on….

  3. Al Benton
    Al Benton says:

    Another “nifty” story, Texx. Thanks for sharing your story, Dr. Matt. She’s a true beauty.

    I have a question regarding the banners from yesterday and today. There’s no wake in front of the girls skiing yet their lines go straight out in front of them. How can that be? Where’s the boat that’s towing them?

  4. anonymus
    anonymus says:

    Why spend all that effort on a TONKA toy??? You could of done a real boat with just a little more effort

  5. Steve Stevenson
    Steve Stevenson says:

    Chris has been a friend of mine for some time and we share a lot of the same interests including pizza every Tuesday night in the shop. We both have a passion for boats, motors and cars…mostly old. Chris just finished restoring the car he drove in High School – a 1970 Boss 302 yellow Mustang.

  6. Texx
    Texx says:

    My passion for wooden boats also began in the early 1960’s, as a young boy growing up with a 1960 Dunphy Imperial plywood runabout. It was like part of the family. Like so many others, I too can relate to Dr. Matt’s story and can say without hesitation, that I would be proud to own a boat like his.

    What makes the antique & classic boating hobby so great is the diversity of the people and boats that make up the hobby.

    Dr. Matt should be commended for restoring his Century Imperial back to it’s original glory, and saving it from the burn pile to share with future generations – so they too can develop a greater appreciation of classic boating history in the Mid-West.

    That’s why Dr. Christopher Matt was named “Woody Boater of the Month.”

  7. Randy Rush- Captain Grumpy
    Randy Rush- Captain Grumpy says:

    What a nice looking boat! Dr. Matt you did a great job, I hope you enjoy it for years to come.

  8. michael gruenauer
    michael gruenauer says:

    great job
    my dad had 1949 version with a martin on the back
    i have one in my family room restored
    question has any one ever restored a davis boat
    after the sportsman we had a 14 ft davis with port side steering. believe it was plywood with natual decking circa 1958


    • Texx
      Texx says:

      Mike – Thanks for your comment.

      Information on Davis plywood boats is hard to come by, but thanks to the magic of the Internet I did find this site. If you scroll through the site there is some reference to Davis designed 14′ Plywood Kit Boats. There is also some other interesting water craft from the 1950’s on the site, like bicycle powered boats, etc.

  9. anonymus
    anonymus says:

    I guess that hat other anonymus has shorts that are too tight. As far as that boat goes I can only repeat NICE!!!!

  10. Mr. Strupp
    Mr. Strupp says:

    Dr. Matt has been a friend of mine since our college days. His expertise and skill spans the spectrum from pencil sharpener installation to restoration of antique boats, outboards, and snowmobiles I admire his passion.

    The “Nifty Four” is yet another example of the excellence in his craftsmanship.

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