Detroit’s John L. Hacker gained exceptional fame as a boat designer in the early twentieth century. Following a decades-long passion for excellence in design, Hacker created racing boats, cruisers and recreational runabouts, and became the founder of the Hacker Boat Company. More recently, one of his masterpiece designs, the elegant cruiser Thunderbird, was the subject of a 2007 United States commemorative stamp (pictured above).
The son of an ice dealer, Hacker spent his early working years as a clerk in his father’s icehouse. He studied naval architecture through a correspondence course. In 1903, he built his first fast boat, Au Revoir, for Willard Murray Smith of Detroit. Joining his father and Louis Mayea, a fellow boat builder, Hacker was one of the principals of the Detroit Launch & Power Company. Like many of his business adventures, this one soon fell apart, succeeded by a string of other firms and alliances. Nonetheless, he achieved national success and recognition with his early racers. These included the Kitty Hawk series of boats owned by H. L. Timken, the roller bearing manufacturer. Powered by lightweight, high-speed racing engines built by Joe Van Blerck, also of Detroit, the Hacker hydroplanes tore through the water.
Hacker Boat Company was formed in Detroit in 1920 but soon moved to Mt. Clemens. The company grew rapidly by building extremely fast runabouts, and it added more factory space in the late 1920s. At the same time, Hacker was designing cruisers to be built by other firms. He lost control of his company during the Great Depression, but the desire to design never left him.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, his Gold Cup race boats My Sweetie and Miss Pepsi – both built by Les Staudacher of Kawkawlin – raced against the new three-point hydroplanes. However, the era of the conventional hydroplane was on the wane.
John L. Hacker died in 1961, but his legacy lives on through the work of Hacker Boat Company in upstate New York. This company makes reproductions of some of Hacker’s finest work, using modern construction techniques and accessories.