Frank Butler: The Last Man Standing

Published on November 19th, 2020

Frank Butler

With the passing of Catalina Yachts founder Frank Butler at 92 years old, we went deep into the vault to share this feature by Herb McCormick in the June 2008 issue of Cruising World:


Traffic is moving briskly on California’s famed Ventura Highway, flowing due west from Los Angeles, and Frank Butler is moving right along with it. Butler is the president of Catalina Yachts, but he’s put that in the rearview mirror for the day and he’s heading out, bound for home. He’s behind the wheel of his black 2002 Ford Thunderbird -“A piece of crap, really,” he’ll later say – dodging and darting, shifting lanes, chasing down the miles toward the afternoon sun.

When he sees a quick opening, he makes for it, with dispatch, and the needle on the speedometer tilts accordingly – 65, 70, 75. There’s only one problem, really. About three cars back, leaning on the gas in a whining, woeful, compact rental, someone is desperately trying to maintain contact, visual and otherwise, with the blazing T-bird.

That someone would be me.

Suddenly, almost without warning, Butler bolts right, across a couple of lanes and up an exit ramp, and I dutifully follow, grateful for the stoplights and congestion of suburban streets. The Thunderbird soon banks into a nondescript industrial park, and Butler is already out its door when I wheel my pathetic little Chevy alongside.

“Come on,” he says, impatiently. “I want to show you something.”

We’re at a small manufacturing facility, and Butler is waving at the electric pontoon boats strewn about the yard and saying something about how he designed these boats and owns this factory, although these days, it’s not actually his operation. But all of this is clearly secondary to the mission at hand. This becomes abundantly evident when he flings open a garage door out back and there before us sit about a dozen vehicles nestled lovingly beneath soft, custom-fit covers.

They’re cars, all right. Really cool, vintage, exquisite cars: a terrific 1920 Dodge Phaeton; a cherry-red 1959 Ford Fairlane; a gorgeous 1957 Caddy convertible; not one but two slick, mid-1950s-era Thunderbirds. And these aren’t all of them, I’m told. There are a few more similar garages around greater L.A., with nearly 40 automobiles in the collection.

In a boatbuilding career now spanning nearly five decades, Butler guesses he’s manufactured some 75,000 vessels. During that time, he and his wife, Jean, also raised seven children. If you ask him about the former-as in, “Well, Frank, of all those boats, which is your favorite?”- he’s bound to make a reference to the latter: “Do you have kids? Me, too. Can you name your favorite? Me neither.” – Full report

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