Story by Barry Kaufman + Photos by Lloyd Wainscott
On March 20, 1931, the Miss America IX became the first boat to hit triple-digit speed when it reached 102.256 mph on Florida’s Indian River. It was piloted by its legendary owner Gar Wood.
Looking at her now, with her brown-and-blue hull lacquered to a brilliant shine, the forest of exhaust pipes hinting at the immense horsepower below deck, she looks like she hasn’t slowed down a bit in the intervening 86-odd years. If anything, she looks like she may have gained a step.
The fact is, Miss America IX can still slice through the waves just as she did in her glory days, thanks to decades of effort on the part of Charles Mistele. But should you think of this iconic boat as a restoration project, Mistele will be quick to correct you.
“When you restore an antique boat or car, you can restore it many times,” he said. “But you can only preserve it once.”
Under the auspices of professional restorer Bill Morgan, Miss America IX has undergone significant historical reconstruction since Mistele first discovered what remained of her rotting away on the back of a flatbed truck in his native Michigan. The result is a boat that maintains the original’s sleek lines and old-school styling, with a slight technological boost.
“We had to replace the bottom 12 years ago,” said Mistele. “When you hit 100 mph in a boat with wood that was put on it in 1930, you’re taking your life in your hands.”
As each plank was pulled off, it was duplicated in fiberglass. The old Packard engines were replaced with Chevrolet 427s that were semi-anonymously donated by General Motors. In short, it’s the boat Gar Wood would have built, if he could have.
An appreciation for old-school craftsmanship has defined Mistele’s collection, which many regular Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance attendees know quite well. And it all started with a single car, purchased from his father Harold.
“My father was not a collector. He was a hoarder,” Mistele said with a laugh. The Mistele family’s Detroit roots run deep, beginning when Mistele’s great-great-grandfather went to Michigan to work in the automobile industry. The family had built Mistele Coal & Oil Co. powering the greater Detroit area for generations and allowing the older Mistele to amass a large collection of vintage and antique cars. “My mother thought he had 16. He had 26,” Mistele said.
At one point, an argument between Mistele’s parents led to an ultimatum: Dad had to sell two of the cars.
“When he called me ‘Charlie,’ I knew he’d been doing deep thinking. Mistele recalled. He’d say, ‘Charlie I’ve been thinking about your future. I think you need to diversify investments you have. . . I think you need a classic car.’”
Mistele obliged and bought a 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster, one of the few cars in private hands and one that has graced many magazine covers in its time. During its first trip to the Concours d’Elegance, the car captured the People’s Choice awards with more than half the votes.
The Speedster car shares space in a Bluffton garage with a 1955 MG TF that Mistele bought for his wife. With the sale of a 1928 443 Roadster, that will bring Mistele’s collection of cars down from a peak of five to two.
“I wasn’t as crazy as my father,” he said. “I like the cars from the classic era. . . . Designers had a free hand to design whatever in the world they wanted.”
Things Mistele loves
Who are your heroes? “My hero is my dad.”
Building his dream house: “That’s kind of a full-time job. My wife is an interior designer. I’ll be 75 in May, so this is kind of our last hurrah. And why not?”
Living in the Lowcountry: “When I drive across the bridge onto Hilton Head in the morning, and the sun is at a certain angle, the water, with the breeze on it, has little itty bitty waves. Every one of those has a sparkle of light on it and it’s like looking at diamonds dancing on the water.”
Helping dreams come true: Mistele found out one of the volunteers at the Sunnyland Antique Boat Festival had stage 4 cancer and was not expecting to be back the following year. The volunteer’s bucket list included a boat ride on Miss America IX. Mistele cut him a deal. “I said, 9 a.m. Friday, you be on dock, we’re going to go for a ride. Next year. I’m committing to be here next year. You commit to be here.” That volunteer did indeed meet Mistele next year for the ride of his life.