by Bob Wonders
With American boat manufacturers currently unveiling their ’09 model year range, the thought occurred that for Sea Ray it represents 50-years of recreational boating.
C.N. Connie Ray in 1959
What better excuse than to contact the man called ‘Connie’, Cornelius Nathaniel Ray.
Perhaps the name does not ring a bell?
How about C.N.Ray? Ok, ‘Connie’ Ray? Well, what about C.Ray = Sea Ray?
That’s him, the man who in 1959 established Sea Ray Boats, quite understandably recognised nowadays as an American icon.
Today, of course, Sea Ray is a vital component of the giant Brunswick Corporation, parent company of such illustrious marine industry names as Mercury, MerCruiser, Mariner, Bayliner and Maxum, to name a few.
‘Connie’ Ray sold the company he had developed in 1986, for a figure somewhere around USD$350,000,000
He stayed aboard for a further four-years, finally ‘swallowing the anchor’ and retiring in 1990.
Last week, I was able to contact ’Connie’, now happily retired, aged 83, and living quietly on his ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, just a few kilometres north of Los Angeles.
As he recalled for me, it was 1959 when he purchased what he termed ‘business assets’ from one Ray Carr.
Carr’s business comprised a small fibreglass manufacturing plant producing golf cart bodies, coffins and a small boat range in a suburban building on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan.
'I was not the best of golfers so I had no interest in continuing with golf carts, or, needless to say, coffins,' ‘Connie’ joked.
'For a few months we stayed in that facility working on some boat designs.
'Shortly after we moved to a deserted potato warehouse in Lake Orion, Michigan, but we outgrew that facility fairly quickly and moved again to a larger building in the same area.
'I guess you could say that Sea Ray was among the first boat manufacturers in the US to be building boats from fibreglass.
'Business was going well and in 1962 we built our own plant in Oxford, Michigan, which over time became Sea Ray’s largest plant.'
‘Connie’ Ray and his team obviously picked the market, for Sea Ray went from success to success, its boats being widely recognised as an ‘upmarket’ or ‘prestige’ brand.
When 1986 rolled around and the Brunswick Corporation became the new owner of Sea Ray Boats, the company boasted about 4800 employees producing 28,000 boats annually from manufacturing plants in Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, Arizona and, for the European dealer network, Ireland.
Sale of the company allowed ‘Connie’ Ray to focus on other interests in his life.
Trained as an aviator, he served with the US Air Force at the close of World War II and had a long aviation involvement from propeller-driven aircraft to the jet age.
‘Connie’ was no mean hand at the controls of a jet and flew regularly in the largest aircraft he owned, a French-built Falcon 50.
A talented man in many directions, ‘Connie’ also had an extreme fondness for thoroughbred horses and in 1983 acquired ‘Evergreen Farms’, in Kentucky, a noted thoroughbred breeding facility.
‘Connie’ was to enjoy as much success with his horses as he did with his boats.
His horses won a number of renowned Breeder Cups, one of them, ‘Lit de Justice’ also triumphing in the Eclipse Award, a prestigious honour sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the National Turf Writers Association.
‘Connie’ raced 14 other stakes winners, among his victories such well-known events as Arlington Million, San Juan Capistrano Handicap, the Eddie Read Handicap and the Shoemaker Breeder’s Cup.
Despite his skill as a pilot and his touch as a thoroughbred breeder and racer, ‘Connie’ Ray has stamped his name indelibly on the recreational boating industry.
He can truly be termed ‘a living legend.’
I did ask ‘Connie’ how he came to be known as, well, ‘Connie.’
'I was named after my grandfather, who was known as ‘Connie’ and even ‘Corny’, although for most of my business life I was known as C.N.Ray.' he explained.
Prominent American author, Jeffrey Rodengen, a who specialises in producing superb books on United States companies, is shortly due to release another tome, ‘Commanding the Waterways; The Legend of Sea Ray.’
He has previously written such interesting books as ‘Iron Fist’, the story of Carl Kiekhaefer, the Legend of Chris-Craft and the Legend of Evinrude.
I’d say his latest is going to be a good read, Sea Ray owner or not.