Messing about in boats
By Chuck Warren | Photography by Michael Buck

In the window of a 1920s gas station in Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood, a fully restored, wood motorboat sits surrounded by a colorful collection of vintage outboard engines. Visible from the street, the varnished deck of the 1952 Penn Yan Swift draws double-takes from passing drivers and lures in curious visitors at all hours.

The old gas station is the home of Michigan Boat and Engine, where 49-year-old Robert Shapton restores antique and classic boats to their original glory. Shapton also restores outboard engines from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, even hand-machining parts when necessary to return them to carefully detailed, running condition.

Half museum and half workshop, Shapton’s business was born from his dedication to classic wooden watercraft. His restoration projects easily could be called art since the end results are worthy of display. “It’s all about the leather, the wood and the glass — the way they come together,” Shapton said. In his workshop, they come together beautifully.

 

Visitors are often unexpected, but a recent customer knocked on the locked station door after recognizing a 1930s Mercury engine in the window. After purchasing it, the man’s wife stopped him from mounting it on their garage wall. The antique engine is on display in their living room instead.  

When asked what drives him, Shapton replied, “I’m a purist. Most people don’t want to dive in that deep.” Deep is a fitting term for his projects. Once asked to sell the 1945 Baycraft hydroplane that also occupies his showroom, Shapton rejected the generous offer. Instead, he completely disassembled the boat, copied it down to the last detail and built the buyer an exact replica.

Although Michigan is the birthplace of many boat builders, Shapton focuses on little-known, once-local gems, such as Wagemaker and Gar Wood boats. Wagemakers were manufactured in Grand Rapids until a fire shuttered the plant in 1960. See the current issue for the full story.