As you all have probably learned by now, I love discovering what historic, weird, wild, or wacky RVs are out there in the world. Recently, I stumbled upon a seemingly good idea that didn’t succeed. Have you ever looked at your boat and wished it could be an RV? Maybe you want your travel trailer to be a boat? In the 1970s, a small Indiana company wanted to give you both with the Combo Cruiser – a houseboat also designed to be a camper. And the factory that built it was staffed full of women.
The concept of a boat that’s also a camper actually dates back more than half of a century. In 1955, Englishman Ronald Sams made the Otter Amphibious Caravan, a camper that could be used on dry land or on water. In the 1960s, an English company produced the Caraboat, a vehicle built around the same idea. There’s also the Nomad, a fiberglass boat that did double duty as a pop-up camper of sorts. Here in America, we had something a little different with the early 1950s era Kom-Pak Sportsman, a camper with a small boat for its roof.
It’s hard to pinpoint who thought of this idea first. The 20th Century is chock-full of people trying their own things with recreational vehicles, and some of them have been lost to time. But what’s amazing is that enterprising individuals and companies never stopped trying to combine boats and campers. Even today you’ll find plenty of concepts, including a massive Class A motorhome that is simultaneously a yacht.
The Ship-A-Shore Combo Cruiser is another attempt at a travel trailer that’s also a boat. And this one brought some interesting ideas to the table. But relatively few of them were ever made.
History on these has been hard to find. I was able to locate a blurb about them in a September 1970 issue of Popular Mechanics, and that was about it. Amusingly, that issue also talked about a pop-up camper that turned into a pontoon boat.
That’s when I did some digging around sites set up by owners of the boats. A person identifying themselves as Mike DeMeyer, the son of Ship-A-Shore President Roger DeMeyer, frequently popped up in forums. In each post he told the story of the company, and in some he directed people to a magazine feature about the company. DeMeyer states in one comment on a Combo Cruiser owner’s site:
There was a feature story on the craft in Business Week in July of 1971. You can check the archives. I believe the title of the article was “Ship-a-Shore, Where Women Man the Boats”. The reason being that a full 80% of the employees were women, quite progressive for that era.
I have found not only that article, but brochures to back up his claims. DeMeyer was a little off. The article is actually titled Where Women Man The Ship and it was from the July 25 1970 issue of Business Week magazine. Here is the story of the absolutely adorable Ship-A-Shore Combo Cruiser.
DeMeyer says that his father, Roger DeMeyer, ran a food brokerage firm in the 1960s. Sensing troubled waters ahead, he sold the business and began looking for something else. As Business Week wrote, Roger teamed up with three neighbors and launched Ship-A-Shore Company in Mishawaka, Indiana. The team decided that they wanted to build a boat, but not just any boat.
Their boat would be built out of alternative materials and would serve a dual purpose as a camper for the land and water.
Business Week noted that the newly-formed company published an ad looking for employees. The magazine notes that at the time, the South Bend suburb enjoyed an unemployment rate of just 2.8 percent. For whatever reason, only four men answered the call. There were 280 other applications and all of them were from women. Rolling with it, Ship-A-Shore brought the four men onboard as well as 30 of the women. Later, the company would grow to 58 women and three men and continue to hire even more women.
The magazine notes that one of the men served a role that was legally-required. Indiana law didn’t allow women workers to lift more than 35 pounds, so one guy was there just to lift the Combo Cruiser’s engines. The other two were foremen, and the company had three forewomen as well. But, as Business Week notes, aside from lifting those engines, Ship-A-Shore’s assembly line was entirely female. Speaking to Business Week, Roger said:
“We’re so damned happy with women, we wouldn’t think of going to men.” “Women are more conscientious, and their workmanship is superb.”
So what were the assembly line workers of Ship-A-Shore putting together?
The Combo Cruiser was at its heart, a houseboat. It is built with the facilities that you’d expect in a houseboat or camper. An archived brochure talks of standard features like air-conditioning, a furnace, a radio with a bunch of speakers, a kitchen, plumbing, beds, and more. The cabin is 18-feet-long and you even got a sundeck for getting a tan on or off water.
But the Ship-A-Shore decided to depart from a typical houseboat in a number of ways. One was in the method of construction. While the typical boat of the era might have had fiberglass, wood, or metal construction, the Combo Cruiser was built out of two pieces of Uniroyal Royalex (yes, that’s the tire company that used to be called United States Rubber Company — maker of all sorts of rubber-related items).
Royalex is a composite consisting of a vinyl and ABS thermoplastic outer layer with an inner layer of ABS foam. The multi-layer composite is vacuum-formed and bonded through heat. The end result is not unlike a fiberglass camper, where you get just one large piece. Ship-A-Shore’s idea was two-fold: The material would not only save on weight, but be cheaper to manufacture than more traditional boat-building methods. A brochure for the Combo cruiser claims that Royalex is “practically indestructible” and wouldn’t shatter or crack. And of course, it can’t rust.
The brochure says that the benefits go even further. If someone bumps the Combo Cruiser into something, the hull won’t break like fiberglass. Instead, it’ll dent in, then you can remove the dent using heat.
And with a low weight, the boat-camper could be towed by a car, rather than a truck. Advertised dry weight was 3,500 pounds and the boat could apparently be loaded down to 9,000 pounds and still float. The boat came on a custom, low-riding trailer. Combined with the boat’s shallow 9-inch draft, it was supposed to be easy to launch and load, too. Ship-A-Shore said that so long as the boat’s rear was in the water, it could power itself off of or back onto the trailer.
Business Week notes that the two pieces (an upper and lower half) of Royalex were produced by Uniroyal, then shipped to Ship-A-Shore. The two halves would then be bonded together and the women built out the boats. Business Week wrote further about what the work environment was like. One woman would be driving screws into a countertop held down by another woman sitting on it. Johnny Cash blared in the shop and the pay actually sounds pretty decent. The workers made $2.75 an hour, which translates to about $21.55 in today’s money.
In water, the Combo Cruiser was propelled by a choice of engines with outputs ranging from an unnamed 90 HP to a Chrysler engine providing 130 HP and an OMC engine putting out 225 HP.
The Business Week article noted that the boat’s price was $10,800, or $84,650 in today’s money. I went digging for other houseboats for a price comparison and came up empty. It seems that new prices for boats this old aren’t often recorded. Still, this seemed like a good idea. It’s a boat that is light enough to be towed by many vehicles and small enough to do double-duty as a camper on the road. Ship-A-Shore was even considering upping the workforce and building a second, cheaper craft called the Speedster. So what happened?
I couldn’t find any articles detailing the company’s demise. In fact, it seemed to have just closed up shop and disappeared. The only explanation seems to come from Mike DeMeyer, and it goes back to how the boats were built.
In a story given to a Combo Cruiser owner, DeMeyer claimed that the issue came down to molding the Royalex. He said that the material often had defects where it would be way too thin in some areas and way too thick in others. And the top and bottom pieces often weren’t aligned. Tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of engineering efforts allegedly couldn’t fix the issue. Ship-A-Shore intended on mass production, but is said to have missed the boat because the Royalex molds rarely came out in spec. Business Week reported that the factory churned out just one boat a day.
DeMeyer attributes the failure of Ship-A-Shore to the company never figuring out how to get the Royalex molds to come out right. A death date isn’t given for the company, but the latest model year that I could find is 1973. As for Royalex, the material enjoyed a long production life being used for much smaller watercraft. You could find the material making up the construction of canoes all of the way until 2014 when it was phased out.
In the end, under 150 of these were ever made, making them a rare piece of American boating and RV history. Despite the rarity, I actually found one for sale. It needs work, but chances are you won’t see another one of these for a very long time.
The most amazing part about this to me is still that factory. The company got different workers than it expected. Yet, from the sounds of it, the company ended up embracing its factory of women.