By Chris Caswell
In Peroni’s backyard, DeNisco saw the very tired Formula 233, covered in mold and with a palm tree literally growing out of her. DeNisco remembered riding with Peroni on the boat decades earlier, when Peroni both raced it and used it as a pleasure boat. In classic barn-find style, DeNisco asked Peroni if he wanted to sell it and the two cut a deal: the “valuable consideration” for the sale was one dollar, but DeNisco had to promise to restore the boat.
And so Bob DeNisco, Sr., his sons Bob Jr. and Scott, and nephew John, launched a four-year project to revive the vintage racer. It was a small boat, but a major project that involved several companies. Bob Jr. recalls the restoration as “one step forward and two back” because they had to find missing parts or fabricate those pieces that couldn’t be found.
John DeNisco, whose Deno Marine builds sportfishers and flats boats, structurally restored the hull and deck, which had been reinforced with plywood before builders fully understood the effects of time and rot on a wood core.
The engine, which had been removed long before the DeNiscos acquired The Cigarette, was a wreck but it was also an incredible find. It was a Chevy 409 engine and more than a few Power & Motoryacht readers will remember The Beach Boys lyrics: “She’s real fine, my 409!” This particular 409 was one of just two marinized by Carl Kiekhaefer of Mercury Marine for racing and, when they stripped the valve covers, they found Kiekhaefer stamps underneath the paint.
But the engine pieces were in three shopping carts and when they delivered them to Innovation Marine of Sarasota, Florida, to rebuild, there was a long moment of silence. The legendary engine builder, led by Dave Stiff, hadn’t seen a 409 in 30 years.
The decision was made to make the powerplant bulletproof and, though the DeNiscos have the original sterndrive, they substituted a MerCruiser Bravo I drive for strength. Many of the engine parts were salvageable, including the original crankshaft and, with modern carburetion and headers, the engine punches out a reliable 425 horsepower on 87 octane pump gas. The finishing touch was finding some original Mercury decals for the engine.
At the same time, the boat was getting the full treatment from Rob Wilhoit at The Boathaus, which had to mold new parts, including hatches, and restore the teak trim. The original steering wheel was refurbished but Teleflex steering was substituted for safety. A new electrical harness was run, and the boat was thoroughly renewed including a PPG finish of the entire thing (including the bilges) that is flawless. The original fuel tank of The Cigarette had a domed shape that extended through the cockpit floor, so the driver and companion were literally bracing against the tank. While that might have been original, it would hardly pass Coast Guard inspection today, so a newer (and lower) tank was installed.
Exactly four years to the day after they moved the boat from her backyard resting place, the DeNiscos launched The Cigarette for a test run. The original boat, outfitted with a two-bladed prehistoric prop, ran in the mid-40-knot range in 1973. In fact, Peroni’s average speed for the Gateway Marathon was just 29 knots! Today, the restored Formula hits nearly 56.
The DeNiscos entered The Cigarette in the Don Aronow Memorial Miami to Bimini Race in 2008, running the boat with George Peroni’s other son, Mark, along with Charlie McCarthy, founder of the Historic Offshore Race Boat Association (HORBA). With friends and Aronow family in attendance, The Cigarette won the historic production class and, though she finished long after the bigger and faster boats, several famous racers from the past lingered in a driving rainstorm to watch The Cigarette finish as a measure of their respect.
I was privileged to get a ride on The Cigarette and, in a world where even mildly fast speed boats have deeply bolstered seats and sophisticated instrumentation, she’s a tribute to the tough men of ocean racing in the early years, who would return bloodied and beaten—and often with broken arms or legs—from the pounding.
Standing unsupported while hanging onto the skinny automotive steering wheel or clutching the grab rail, I can’t imagine them hammering all the way to Nassau, holding on by sheer willpower and navigating with a compass from a World War II bomber. When the DeNiscos were restoring The Cigarette, they found a small hole near the throttle where Aronow and Peroni had used a shock cord to hold the throttle wide open while they hung on for dear life.
The Cigarette is a remarkable boat in many ways and her superb restoration—and huge acceptance at Ocean Reef—provokes some thoughts about collecting older boats. There is no question that fiberglass boats have now entered the realm of collectibles, but how fast—and how far—that hobby will grow is still unknown.
In the automotive world, the earliest existing Ferrari is worth somewhere in the $6,000,000 range, while Ferraris with racing provenance sell for twice that amount. A Shelby Cobra once owned by Carroll Shelby was auctioned for $5.5 million six years ago. A 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, of which thousands were built, sold for $2.1 million six years ago.
So what is The Cigarette worth on the collector market? Who knows? She’s the first Formula, the first Formula race boat, and the first fiberglass boat raced by Don Aronow, who went on to change performance boating forever. In addition, she carried The Beatles, and she is impeccably restored with one of two 409 marine engines. This one boat fairly shrieks the words, “historical significance,” which are so important to serious collectors.
The very idea boggles my mind, but it also makes me want to start looking a lot closer at those used-boat ads because, and this is my prediction, The Cigarette is just the tip of a new collector craze in historic boats. You can stop hunting for that Gar Wood or Chris-Craft under a tarp in a barn. Start prowling Craig’s List for classic glass, because “glassics” are here to stay!
Don Aronow discovered that his real “formula” was to design a good boat, race it successfully, make it a production model, sell the company for a profit, and then do it all over again. After Formula, Aronow started Donzi, followed by Magnum Marine and then Cigarette Racing Team (that name again!), Squadron XII, and finally USA Racing Team.
So that creates at least five more highly collectible “Aronow firsts,” and that doesn’t even tap into the other famous race boats of the era: Bertrams, Scarabs, Carys, and more.
But here’s the good news about restoring boats: it’s fun. The DeNiscos may have a historic race boat with a price that can’t be calculated, but they still take her for regular joy rides.
People stop them occasionally and, according to Bob Jr., actually get huffy about the name. “How dare you call that a Cigarette”, they say accusingly. “It’s a Formula!”
“No,” reply the DeNiscos with a grin. “It’s The Cigarette.”
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