On their return to England, James Beard announced that his lately departed grandmother had left him a sum of money in her will providing it was spent on a boat. Although Curtis would have liked to buy a V-bottomed Avenger 21 and put two twin Johnson engines on it, Beard decided to see whether they could build a catamaran that was an improvement on the Switzer wing, in that it could stay on the water and turn corners. Chris Hodges was consulted as to the best way to make it strong enough not to break up at sea. Almost 22ft long, this offshore catamaran was built by J. Osborne at the Glory Yacht Services. It was finished off and rigged with twin Evinrude X 115 outboards totalling 300hp, at Swordfish Marine. Painted in metallic dark blue, it was called Volare II.
Chris Hodges explains. ‘The cats which had been unsuccessfully tried out previously had been built as three bits joined together. Instead, we had built a wing and on to its struts fixed the two sponsons as a single unit. It was pretty simple, the sort of thing you do with model aeroplanes.'
When Volare II, race number 07, turned up at her first contest, the Swanage 80 on May 18, 1969, everyone laughed. It was too big and too bulbous. It could never be faster than the then highly successful Class III Avenger boats, as designed by Don Shead. It had lower powered engines than anyone else, particularly the favourite, Martin Jensen in his Scavenger. But with Clive and James in the twin cockpits, Volare II surged into the lead, and after two of the three laps, in force 5 conditions, was boat lengths ahead, running like a tram on rails. They beat Scavenger by a mile, averaging 44kts. To add insult to injury, when Volare II was taken out of the water, one of her propellers was missing! In that first race they also found the weakness of their prototype. Both large steps, positioned amidships on each hull bottom, had split, due to the lack of water flow continuity in the bottom planking and the tie up between aft and forward plane. This was rectified for the following race by fitting stainless steel turbulence deflectors under each step. After that, Volare II enjoyed a very successful season and won nearly all she entered, at speeds in excess of 50kts.
That year at the Cowes-Torquay race, Clive Curtis acted as navigator to the legendary American millionaire, Don Aronow, chief of the extremely victorious US Cigarette racing stable. “As Volare II went alongside us, he made a few disparaging remarks. Defensively I replied ‘Listen Don, just you wait. One day I’ll take the cigarette stuff of yours and stuff it up your .....’”.
At the end of the year, Messrs Curtis, Beard and Hodges decided that several requests for them to build more catamarans had come in, they might just as well for a new company. Having considered patriotic name is like Jaguar, Tiger and Panther it was Mike Beard who came up with the name Cougar. Everybody liked it, and Cougar Marine was born. And with a new name, came the search for new and larger premises. As a temporary measure, they rented space originally used by the well established Thorneycroft boatyard on the Platts Eyot, a small island in the Thames, just upstream from Hampton Court. Chris Hodges recalls; ‘We arrived there with my tool box, six G clamps, a Black and Decker sander and electric drill-that’s all’.
Ironically the first keel to be laid there was for and an experimental cat, designated the C3A (Circuit three pointer Marque A). Hitherto almost forgotten until this article. The C3A was so light and fast that it had a tendency to take off and land more like a fighter plane than a successful race boat. It was therefore quietly shelved. Not so the three offshore cats; Black Panther, as ordered by Clive and James’ friend, Sean the Earl of Normanton, then engaged two James’ sister. Then there was the Hy-Mac 580 commissioned by Ken Cassir, and finally Badger VI, for Fiona countess of Arran. Each of these boats was to be powered by twin Mercury 1000hp engines.
In essence, they looked very much like present day catamarans; Influenced by the improvement in turning ability as achieved by the Italian and U.S. circuit cats. Beard and Hodges gave their three commission’s dead vertical tunnel walls. By the time these three boats had been rigged and painted, Cougar Marine had moved yet again, this time to an old railway coach-building factory at Hounslow. The old railway line still ran into the shop. As it was a three Storey building, Messrs Beard and Hodges so organised it that the aircraft ply, usually bruynzeel, could be cut up on the top floor, brought down to Hodges who would build the boat, which would then be lowered through a hole and on to the ground floor where Curtis would rig it, before it went out through the front door to customers. The effort paid off. Hy-Mac won six National Class III races that year and, including the Putney-Calais with James as navigator. But yet again, Hy-Mac together with Black Panther and Badger, renamed Alfie, taught Cougar even more about catamarans and the sort of poundings that take place, particularly in the tunnel area where the water became trapped and could not go anywhere but through the boat.
On Black Panther the front sponson started to give out because they had ventilated its frame too much. Then they discovered that the last 6 to 8 feet of the tunnel areas at the back were hammering through. Twice, a boat finished with great fountains of water coming straight through its tunnel, through its deck and up into the air; luckily not knocking out the main spar. Still in 1970, determined to come up with a circuit cat that would beat Molinari of Como, Cougar now produced probably one of the most revolutionary boats in the history of the sport, at least four years ahead of its time. This was Miss Cougar; she had exaggerated pickleforks, stepped sponsons with stern flaps, anti-strip chines, and even a foot operated hydraulic engine trimming system.
However, as James had once told Kevin Desmond, maybe Miss Cougar had too many inventions at once. Her centre of lift proved too far aft for the engine power she had on her stern. This resulted in her suddenly doing a 90 degree turn when the driver was going flat out. A very twitchy boat! So much so that she had rolled over at speed in the 1971 Paris Six hour race, badly injuring her driver, the Earl of Normanton.
It was perhaps fortunate for Cougar Marine at this stage in their rise to success that whilst James Beard and Chris Hodges never ceased to come up with revolutionary new ideas, Clive Curtis – some ten years their senior – always acted as anchor man and kept progress on a realistic business footing. It was also crucial that both James and Clive looked at their latest creation with the eyes of the experienced drivers they had become.
1972 was a busy year for had Cougar Marine. The single-engined Catapult, Boscat and Aristocat went campaigning in Class II offshore. Aristocat, pioneering a full tunnel hull with a high angle of attack on that tunnel, was built Ford Keith Dallas who was to race her the following year as High-Speed Blade sponsored by Wiggins Teape, a paper making company. Then two small circuit cats, 15 footers, were designed and built in a hurry to go to South Africa, where the air is a lot thinner and does not give so great a lift. To compensate, the running area was increased for what they decided to call their Altitude Boats. Although not particularly successful in South Africa, one of these, Wood Mariner, was brilliantly driven by James when he won the first staging ever of the Embassy Grand Prix at Bristol. James also finished a 400 mile race at Chasewater at an average speed of 78.3 miles per hour in the same boat.
Their next circuit development was the stepless C2E (Circuit, Two-pointer Marque E). She proved so successful that at the beginning of 1973, Cougar had an order book for 18, as well as a contract to build a 33 ft Class II offshore contender for the proposed 1974 Daily Telegraph Round Britain Race. It was to be named after its sponsor Wiggins Teape; would be powered by four outboard engines and its driver would be Keith Dallas. With such an order book Cougar felt it needed to move, yet again, to larger premises. Adrian Ewen telephone Clive one day and told him he had just been to see a boatyard ideally suited to Cougar’s needs. Clive recalls, ‘it was Netley-Abbey boatyard, a site where vessels had been built in one form or another for 500 years. Having once repaired my Merlin sailing dinghy there in my early days, I knew it was near Southampton and ideally placed for us to test on boats on the Solent. James and myself Jumped in a car and went down to see its present owner, Phil Goddard. He was using it to run the South Coast dealership for Borg Warner. We not only bought the yard, 7000 square feet under cover but acquired the dealership as well. The whole deal course £30,000 and we were installed there by July 1973.’
But 1973 was also the year of the World Fuel Crisis. Overnight Cougar ran out of customers. Sixteen of their 18 orders for the C2E were cancelled, leaving Hodges only two circuit boats and Wiggins Teape to get on with. James beard went off to agricultural college in Cirencester for a year in case he could support the venture by farming. Clive Curtis kept Cougar going by slowly building up the Borg Warner turnover to an eventual quarter of a million pound otherwise the venture would have ended. To add to their problems, just after Wiggins Teape had been constructed, Netley suffered the highest tide for 600 years and Cougar had nearly 2 feet of water through the workshop. The unpainted wooden hull and Wiggins Teape actually started to float off its chocks, prematurely launched and Raring to go. In design and construction, this latter boat was a major challenge in that she must carry a ton and a quarter of fuel to take her round Britain. Having decided that the best place to carry the fuel was in the wing, the problem was to make that wing strong enough to take the prolonged stress of pounding through the seas, particularly after several spars had been removed to make room for the tanks. There was also the problem of making four separate 150 hp Mercury engines work together reliably and consistently.
As it turned out, thanks both to Chris Hodges’ real skill as a boat builder and to Keith Dalas’s special feel for piloting a catamaran, Wiggins Teape cleaned up on Class II races, finishing second in the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes race of 1974. The following year Dalas had it re-sponsored as Penthouse-Inverhouse and came third overall in the Miami-Nassau race. Then it was re-sponsored again as Penthouse Rizla. Dalas recalls, ‘we changed it from a four-seater to a two-seater which reduced the front end weight of the boat. We took the wing extension off the back and we fitted four new engines each developing 230 hp. In that guise she became an extremely successful boat.’
At last people were beginning to believe in the offshore and Cougar catamaran. In 1975 James experimented with the C2K, its hull incorporating the first camelback cowling. There was also the marathon boat, C2H - better known as the Embassy Cougar. Frustratingly James was testing the boat on the Solent when it ran into the wash of the Isle of Wight ferry and was severely damaged. Had this not have happened, the Embassy Cougar might well have excelled in Bristol, and the Netley yard once again been besieged with C2H orders.
Towards the end of 1976, Chris Hodges resigned from Cougar Marine. More recently, his design ideas had begun to differ with those held by James. Not only did Chris have his own ideas about boat building, but also he and his wife were not altogether happy with their working and living conditions. No-one had contributed so much in evolving the sound construction of increasingly large and fast and Cougars, but it was Chris’s decision and the other two abided by it.
So far Cougar had built cats for both Class II and III. If only they could get one contract for a Class I boat! That chance came in 1977, Ken Cassir, Clive’s old friend, had not been having much success with a Cigarette 36 at the World Offshore Championships in South America. He suddenly had the idea of commissioning James beard to design a class I offshore cat. Cassir recalls, ‘James wanted to put the engines in the wing. I asked him if he could put them in the sponsons. Yellowdrama III was built and was duly taken down to Poole to race. It was a hit of a failure; the steering was not strong enough to take the stresses of twin McLaren Chevrolet engines. But we persevered and put in new steering. But even then we had various engine problems in the races leading up to the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes. Indeed Yellowdrama III never actually finished a race.’ On the day before the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes race, one of the engines had blown up. Working through the night John Hodder and Clive Curtis rebuilt the engine, but as Cassir said, ‘I didn’t really take it too seriously because we didn’t think we would last very long. We then left our lifejackets back in Netley and had to borrow a couple. But James nursed those engines and somehow we lasted down to Torquay, the sixth boat to get there. We had nothing to lose on the return, we started overtaking the rest of the boats one by one. At Portland Bill we were one of the four leading boats – with Unowat, Limit Up and Alitalia Due. If we could keep our engines going, we could win the race, because the calm sunny conditions favoured the faster top speed of our design. We allowed John Irving, navigating excellently for Alitalia Due to find the North Head buoy for us then overtook her going past Hurst Point. Towards the end of the race a helicopter timed us doing 95 mph. Cougar had at last proved that even in Class I, catamarans could be V bottoms. Clive Curtis was so pleased with the victory that he jumped into the water.
The following April of 1978 in the far from ideal conditions, Cassir drove Yellowdrama III to a new Class I offshore record of 92.16 mph, so underlying Cougar’s successful formula. The Class I record has been held by Cougar cats ever since. By now Americans had begun to take notice as well. After much persuasion, Ken Cassir was finally persuaded to sell Yellowdrama III to one of them - millionaire Rocky Aoki, owner of the Benihana chain of restaurants. Aoki paid some $70,000 U.S. dollars – over twice that paid by Cassir to have the boat built. She was then campaigned as Benihana.
Further orders for Class I power boats came in, from both wealthy British drivers like commodity broker Mike Doxford, as well as from Americans lost like Joel Halpern. Clive Curtis recalls, ‘we even had to turn some orders away. Each boat would take three months to build, enabling us to build four of those big ones per year. Our order book was full up for two years. But we were also trying to fit in one or two other projects such as a production catamaran sports boat, this became the CAT 900 of which we have since sold 40 boats. We were looking for something that was like a Boston Whaler, but better in performance. By giving it a narrow tunnel, we found to our surprise that the CAT 900 had both good weightlifting and weight carrying capacity. Whilst it was not too successful in the pleasure market, in the guise of the Interceptor, for carrying assault troops or even fire fighting machinery, it proved very effective. In 1979, one Cougar customer, Mrs. Betty Cook, was extremely satisfied to win the World Championship at Venice in her cat Kaama.
By now Cougar was beginning to find that the problem with 100 mph wooden catamarans was that if they had an accident or fracture, the whole hull would literally shatter and disintegrate. They therefore took a leaf out of their old friend and rival, power boat designer Don Shead. His Vee-bottom race boats proved time and time again, that the flexibility of a aluminium hull gave a greater safety factor. Cougar therefore bought a controlling interest in Altech Marine of Arundel. This company built their first aluminium Cougar cat in 1980 for an American customer, Joel Halpern. She was named Beep-Beep. Five years later, although not piloted by Halpern, Beep-Beep won the World Championship. From now on aluminium would always be offered as an option.
One customer who had his new Cougar built in aluminium was Ted Toleman, 42 year old head of the Toleman Group. From 1979, Toleman who already ran a Formula One Grand Prix racing-car stable, had repeatedly asked Clive and James if they would sell him a controlling interest in Cougar. Having an inbuilt fear of working for big organisations Clive had at first refused. But then his wife of and James had outvoted him. They named their price - it was paid!
Thus the Toleman Group got a 60 per cent holding of Cougar Marine. It coincided with Michel Meynard driving his 38ft wooden Cougar to win the 1980 World Offshore Championship in Australia. Toleman also clinched the British and European championships in his Cougar, Peter Stuyvesant.
Almost immediately, one of the benefits from the Toleman take-over came in January 1981 with Cougar purchasing a second boatyard in Miami. At first their intention had been merely to acquire a warehouse where they could service American Cougar cats. In the end, they purchased the yard on 188st street where Don Aronow had formerly built his successful V-bottomed at Donzi race boats. Again seeking wider horizons, Cougar Holdings Limited, also acquired further building facilities when they bought a 50 per cent share in Asia Craft in the Philippines. The first catamaran built at this yard was the revolutionary Arneson-Borg Warner Drive, making full use of the surface piercing propeller configuration developed by American Howard Arneson.
Tragically of all this expansion coincided with James Beard being diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, an incurable disease. Typical of his restless energy, despite going through debilitating and demoralising chemotherapy treatment, James started to raise funds for the Royal Marsden Hospital in Surrey. Today a new wing of six isolation units is in operation thanks to his considerable efforts. He himself made constant visits to the hospital for blood and marrow transplants. He even agreed to feature in a heart rending TV documentary programme ‘In Their Hands’.
Despite all this, James beard never believed that leukaemia was going to get him. Ironically, it didn’t. One day early 1982 he said to Clive, ‘I’m going to run out of puff one day you and you know that don’t you?.’ On April 13th that year, unable to cope with the rejection of the bone marrow transplant he went into a coma. James Beard died in Brompton Hospital in London aged only 38 and at the peak of his career. Powerboating’s entire Hall of Fame attended his funeral.
One of the projects with which James had charged Clive took complete just before his demise was to make their 58 ft aluminium Cougar, Dark Moon, run successfully. Never before had they tried diesel engines, especially the 1250 hp coming from each of the American V12 Detroit diesels installed. Although there were other aeration problems on the surface piercing propellers, once the underwater sections around the back step had been redesigned, Dark Moon was able to clock a formidable speed of 47.75 knots. Extraordinary to think that the entire length of the 1969 Volare II could have been fitted into the beam of this Cougar juggernaut.
Not that progress had slowed down with a slightly smaller Cougars. Taken for example, an aluminium 46 footer V-bottomed called Mercruiser Special US-1, built specially for George Morales to drive at the 1983 Key West World Offshore Championships (a glass fibre or Kevlar and carbon composite version of this boat soon came to be offered as a production day boat, the US 1-46). And in rivalry to this ‘Super Boat’, a 50ft, eight ton riveted aluminium/ composite Cougar cat by the name of Popeye’s Pepsi Challenger, powered by four Mercruisers totalling 2800hp and driven by American Al Copeland – this second ’Super Boat’ clocked a new offshore speed record of 131 mph on April 5, 1984.
Alongside these continued racing successes, Clive Curtis now began to work in conjunction with J Peter Sutcliffe, a new Cougar recruit, to ease the company into defence contracts. This is exactly what Scott-Paine had done at the British Powerboat Company in nearby Hythe some 50 years before. The 46ft Cougar monohull was offered as the Ultra Fast Patrol Boat 1 (UFPB 1). While the 50ft was scaled up to 56ft and offered it as the UFPB 2, to be powered by four German MTU diesels of 740hp each.
In sharp contrast, Cougar’s Miami yard was also ‘dining out’ on the 10ft Cougar Cub. Clive Curtis’s his son, Steve, and two friends had wanted to build a small fun boat. Cougar Incorporated’s president Brownie saw no harm in this and some Cuban workmen were seconded to build an exactly scaled down version of the larger cat design – a fatal approach because the result usually proves unstable.
Nevertheless, painted in immaculate racing colours, it looked very attractive, so was placed on the Cougar stand that the Miami Boat Show. To everyone’s surprise, some 20 orders were placed for this baby version. Behind the scenes, another nine prototypes then had to be hurriedly built before a cat of only 10ft able to take anything from 7 to 25hp could be made to plane and turn.
But once they got it right sales literally took off. And at the already mentioned World Offshore Championships in Key West at the end of 1983, 15 privately owned Cubs turned up and began stock racing. During 1984 and 1985 over 1000 Cougar Cubs were built and sold on both sides of the Atlantic. Cougar of Miami, whose workforce had risen to sixty, were at one stage turning out 30 Cubs a week.
In even sharper contrast to these mass produced playthings was a 65ft millionaire’s plaything by the name of the Virgin Atlantic Challenger. Altech Marine built her twin aluminium hulls through the winter of 1984 and 85. She was installed with V12 NTU German diesels each developing 1960hp at 2100 RPM. Anyone in the slightest bit interested in Powerboating well knows the outcome of that brave venture. After completing 2973 nautical miles across the Atlantic at an average speed of 41.5 knots the Challenger hit submerged debris and sank less than 200 miles from the UK Coast him.
Not that racing was neglected during the 1985 season either. On July 30th they select five ‘Super Boats’ left Miami on the 1257 mile haul to New York to see who would win the Chapman Challenge Trophy. The winner was a Cougar – Maggie’s Mercruiser Special powered by 2400hp of detuned Mercruiser petrol engines. She was driven by George Morales for a total of 19 hours at an average speed of 64.4mph, so claiming ‘the winner takes all’ $500,000 purse. One of Morales throttle men was Steve Curtis.
The sweetest taste of success was unfortunately soured by the fatal accident at the World Offshore Powerboat Championships at Key West. Clive Curtis explains, ‘we realised in the early days that cats were going to go at 100 mph and that’s and at that speed if you have an accident, it doesn’t matter if it folds around you. At least you’re a safe inside it. We’ve now gone past that and are into another nasty stage - 110 plus mph where the cat can flip or change in attitude and nose dive with the wind blowing the hull down into and under the water. I estimate that in his fatal accident, the late Dick Fulham took 10-G, which put his body weight up to 3000lbs which is why he folded 2 frames forward and all the deck down flat in his cat.’
1986 promises an even more fascinating picture in the 20 year old saga we have so far related. Cougar Inc at Miami has been sold off. Cougar Marine in Netley has been sold off. And Cougar’s new centre of operations is the former historic yard of Fairey Marine also on the Hamble, with 174,000 sq ft under cover. Over 20 times the space occupied at Netley.
A co-production agreement has been signed with the People’s Republic of China to build commercial cats in that country. Among those boats being built in the UK is Crusader, the 12m British challenger yacht for the America’s Cup - about which Clive Curtis at 53 years old, chuckles that he is merely returning to the lost love of his youth - building and sailing boats.
Then there is Pegasus, a catamaran cabin cruiser being built for regular American customer of Cougars, Michell Meynard and built using the very latest technologies in carbon and composite’s. Then there are other more conventional Cougar catamarans, like the latest one built for Popeye racing team; very likely to lift the Offshore Powerboat Record to about 152 to 170 mph.
Clive Curtis puts it this way. Out of the last thirty five main offshore powerboat races in the United States, we have won 33 of them. That’s not bad record - one which I am sure James Beard, had he lived, would have been very proud of.